Democracy Deficit: Is the Slovak government against journalists?

Slovakia has the fastest growing economy in central Europe, and according to Freedom House that economic growth is overshadowing democratic growth. The 'Nations in Transit' report says the Slovak media haven't changed in their democratic approach but there are disturbing trends which could lead to the press being less free. It says the media are under pressure from the current government, elected a year ago.

Most journalists are not popular with Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico. His own party organized an event to promote Social Democracy a couple of weeks ago where the prime minister said: "You know what? I don't give a damn about journalists."

The next day, the premier went on Slovak television and said:

"There are a growing number of absolutely untrue and biased attacks from the media against this government. However, it doesn't seem to affect public opinion. It's abnormal, what the media are able to produce. Most of the media have become a political opposition of this government, and that's absolutely unbearable."

The prime minister's comments have created an atmosphere of tension between the media and the government. The US based human rights group Freedom House recently published a report which says, Slovakia's democratic standards are declining. Grigorij Meseznikov worked on the report for Slovakia. He says, in 2006, there were some examples of politicians trying to interfere in public media.

"After the last parliamentary elections, we can register disturbing trends - efforts of politicians, especially representatives of the ruling coalition, to influence the situation in public media: this famous phone call from the spokesperson of the government, and directly from the prime minister, to journalists covering events in political life. So we are witnessing how some representatives of the government -including the prime minister- are blaming the media for unfair treatment. The criticisms of government representatives to media in the last weeks have substantially increased."

Miroslav Kern works as a political journalist for the Bratislava based Sme Daily. The previous government of Mikulas Dzurinda was far from perfect, according to Kern. He says the atmosphere between journalists and politicians worsened under Fico's government in the past year.

"The relationship between the government and the media is worse than before. Of course, Dzurinda's government didn't have an ideal relationship with the media either. But he wasn't using strong language very often, while Fico puts all the media in one basket. Fico cannot expect media to be supportive for his government when he behaves like that. So even if there are some positive aspects of his government, the media focus on the negative ones."

The Culture Ministry is preparing a new media law, to be presented in July. The law will emphasize the "right to respond" - and for many journalists that resonates like an authorization request from a communist regime. Meseznikov says the Slovak media law is more than 40 years old, and it needs to be changed, but the 'right to respond' is controversial.

"I expect that this government, taking into consideration it's very complicated relationship with the media, will try to include into this draft some provisions which will be restrictive. The main intent of people working now on this new version of the law on media is to restrict media."

Insight Central Europe contacted the prime minister's media advisor and the culture ministry to comment on the criticisms contained in the Freedom House report. They declined to be interviewed until after the new media law is completed in July.