Targeting of the Slovak press through civil defamation lawsuits is causing widespread concern among journalists that they cannot do their jobs without fear of reprisal, the International Press Institute warns in a report published today. The report details other concerns, including a right-of-reply law and verbal attacks on the media made by leading politicians.
In one of the most worrying cases, a Bratislava Regional Court ruled in November 2008 that the privately owned Radio Viva must pay more than EUR 30,000 in libel damages to a Slovak judge in connection with a 2004 report on fraud charges brought against him. The decision was handed down despite the broadcaster's report being based on information from the Ministry of Interior.
IPI's press freedom audit in Slovakia, carried out in March, found that the Radio Viva case was not an isolated one. The same judge is suing at least 10 news organizations for reporting on the same Ministry of Culture information and seeks damages of more than EUR 4.3 million.
The Radio Viva ruling has had an impact on other radio broadcasters in the country, said IPI Director David Dadge. The ruling is perceived to have been handed down despite the station operating well within the bounds of fair and balanced journalism. Faith that the judicial system is equipped to deal with such situations has also been drastically undermined.
In its report, IPI also expressed concern about the right-of-reply clauses in the Press Act of 2008. These obligate newspapers to publish readers' replies to any article they feel has affected their reputation. IPI, joined by its affiliate, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), and Slovak journalists, strongly condemned the draft provisions in 2008 and contend that such rules could cost newspapers valuable publication time and space, and infringe on editorial independence.
The report also notes that politicians have used public forums to attack the media. Prime Minister Robert Fico on different occasions has called journalists idiots and compared them to slimy snakes.
I would like to see the report … as the beginning of an open debate on the challenges before the Slovak media, especially since we face constant attacks on our work from the government and the prime minister, said Pavol Mudry, chairman of the IPI Slovakia Executive Board.
The IPI report outlines a number of recommendations to improve the media environment in Slovakia. These include:
· Encourage dialogue between the media and the judiciary to improve understanding about media matters.
· Remove criminal penalties for defamation from the penal code.
· Amend the press law to remove the right-of-reply provisions.
· Strengthen self-regulatory media bodies, such as the Slovak Press Council, which is currently underutilised.
Dadge said that as a member of the European Union, Slovakia has a responsibility to bring its media regulations in line with international standards. The government must take action to ensure that the media are allowed to do their jobs independent of political interference, and that laws are not used to harass and abuse journalists, he said.
IPI's Slovak audit mission was the first in what will be a series of similar assessments to be carried out in countries in central and Eastern Europe.
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