GLOBAL JOURNALIST MAGAZINE
Nov. 22, 2009
By Michael J. Jordan
I got my first whiff of the problem two years ago. That’s when I started teaching journalism at the University of Saints Cyril and Methodius in historic Trnava, Slovakia.
Eva Pelyova was among the most enthusiastic of my students, one of the few willing to speak up in our journalism discussions, to at least practice her English. These 30 bright students each had a reporting project with a seemingly simple task: explain why exactly any situation is the way it is.
Eva was gung-ho for her project, exploring the lousy traffic situation in Trnava, her hometown. Forty minutes outside the sedate capital, Bratislava, Trnava is renowned for its golden honey wine, 13th century town wall, and ample church steeples—so many, in fact, Trnava is dubbed “the Slovak Rome.”
Yet since communism’s collapse in 1989, soaring car-ownership and trucks belonging to the new Peugeot factory on the edge of town combine to clog the city’s single-lane streets.
Yet Eva’s first draft revealed a pattern that would repeat again and again in Trnava and likewise among my students at Masaryk University across the border in Brno, Czech Republic. Gritting my teeth, I found that although Central European students like Eva do a fine job of describing what the situation is, they press no further. Why exactly is traffic so bad? Why exactly didn’t city officials anticipate the problem? Why exactly didn’t they respond sooner? What will officials do now … and why?
“Why?” represents a real psychological hurdle.
That my students are hamstrung by this issue came as a revelation to me as someone who has reported from the region most of the past 15 years for the Christian Science Monitor and others. One would think the generation born amid the epic dissolution of Communist Czechoslovakia might be a blank slate of sorts, untainted by an authoritarian past in which any challenge was ruthlessly repressed.
One would be wrong.
And here’s why it matters: this year, as we commemorate 20 years since the Iron Curtain was lifted from Central and Eastern Europe, this struggle to ask the most fundamental of journalistic questions speaks volumes about the current quality of democratic culture here. What a Polish dissident once told me back in the 1990s certainly rings true today: “If it took 40 years to create this mentality, why shouldn’t it take 40 years to undo it?”
In the West, the roots of democracy have grown deep and are in many ways unshakable, precisely because many in the media demand transparency from elected and appointed officials, holding them accountable for their words and deeds. Central and Eastern Europe, though, has little to no democratic traditions. So the roots are shallow—and more easily uprooted.
Sure, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic today boast all the trappings of democracy, and groups like Freedom House rank each as “Free” in annual surveys. Yet there’s cause for concern. Slovakia’s press rating has slipped over the past two years with Freedom House noting that its “media are largely free but remain vulnerable to political interference.”
Indeed, democratic Slovakia, which joined the European Union in 2004, last year passed a curious law known as the “right of reply”: If a media report criticizes a public figure, no matter how justified, that “touched” person has a right to reply with precisely the same visibility as the original report. If it was on the front page, the riposte must appear there as well.
The law’s intent is clear: intimidate reporters to not investigate sticky subjects, deter the tough questions, squelch debate. Ostensibly injured parties have already taken action, most recently this spring against the country’s leading daily, SME.
“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,” David Dadge, director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, protested earlier this year.
It’s difficult to pinpoint anything uniquely “Slovak” or “Czech” about such behavior. Instead, I look at two clear facts common to Central and Eastern Europe—and to the entire ex-Soviet orbit.
The first is that young people here, though reared during “democracy,” are still a product of their parents and grandparents: generations conditioned to keep their heads down, not question anything.
There was one and only one truth—the Communist Party’s. If the factory boss, school director or city official—all of them Party members—said do something, it was unthinkable to challenge with “But why?”
You wouldn’t even dare criticize them behind their backs, say, in the local pub. You never knew who might inform on you, whether the waiter who just served a beer, a neighbor, a colleague, a friend. Marked as a malcontent, you could wind up in jail or worse. It could even affect your children’s future; it could keep them out of a university.
It’s understandable, then, how uncomfortable they might be to approach authority today.
The situation is far worse in the Balkans, bits of Eastern Europe like Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, and especially farther east, in ex-Soviet Central Asia, the Caucasus and in Russia itself. Journalists who probe too deeply are often thrown into prison, sometimes even wind up dead.
The journalism often scratches the surface only, says Ky Krauthamer, senior editor of the Prague-based Transitions Online, a non-profit, region-wide magazine working with young local correspondents across the ex-Communist world for the past two decades.
“Some reporters have this belief that simply by listing a ministry’s actions, or only quoting what an official said, they’ve done their job,” Krauthamer says. “Sometimes you can just tell that they’ve reached the end of their comfort zone and don’t want to push any farther.”
However, today more and more students are ready to speak up. Libuse Valentova, Prague professor of Romanian literature, says that amid the old pedagogical habits of rote memorization, she can even learn something from her students.
“They don’t have fear,” Valentova says. “They have a self-confidence and ambition that our generation lacked.”
I see only flashes of it. I try to engage my students in class discussion about, say, press freedom or interview techniques. Time after time, it’s the proverbial pulling of teeth. It’s not that they’re shy or bored. But as they often admit to me, they just aren’t used to teachers who ask for their opinion—and ask them to defend why they think what they think.
I recently asked one student, Katarina Micatkova, about the reticence to challenge anyone in a position of power as we drank mugs of kofola, a Czechoslovak-era cross between cola and root beer.
Katarína hails from northwest Slovakia, the same farming village where her mother grew up as one of 12 children. When Katarína recently had a gripe with a local store about pricing, she decided to object through a new customer-service hotline. When she saw no response, she told her mom that she’d try again. But her mother was afraid, saying, “No, don’t. Everyone will see you as a chronic complainer!”
This way of thinking is easily transmitted in the school.
“It was quite automatic for me to obey my teachers and not question them,” Katarína says. It’s rare for a teacher to relish marking up papers, she says, as I do, line by line. In my humble opinion, this helps explain why I believe that these interviewing skills are bolstering the foundation of democracy itself.
Student Tomas Dzurenda admits that the problem cuts both ways. He and his partner pursued two projects: first a personality profile of a local taxi driver who left his family behind to make more money as a cabbie in England, then an exploration of how entrepreneurship had evolved from two decades ago when the state controlled all business.
“I don’t know why we have this habit, but many people don’t want to give their opinion, or they’re not specific,” he says. “When you ask why the system is this way, they’ll say, ‘Because it is.’ Or if you ask questions really deeply, ‘Why are you asking me so much?’”
I wonder if he’s blaming the subject a bit too much. So I press Tomas on how often he gets to that point. “Yeah,” he admits, “I also felt uncomfortable asking questions that were too personal.”
Nevertheless, there are signs of hope.
Like Pelyova, who bounced back, leaned on local officials and extracted meaningful responses. Now 26 and doing public relations for an information technology firm, she says that experience has stuck with her.
“I’d never had the opportunity to talk to people like that, asking them a million times, ‘Yes, but why?’” she says. “It forces me to look at situations differently, to look at them more deeply.”
Michael J. Jordan has reported from 25 countries over the past 15 years. He is a visiting journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University in Hong Kong, the University of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, Slovakia, and Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.