[The following appeared May 1 in The Mantle.]
BRATISLAVA – Peter is a young Slovak journalist, just 21, and splits his time between writing for the financial-advice pages of a leading economic paper and finishing his university degree.
When I was a greenhorn reporter like him – in the inland deserts of Southern California – I, too, could be intimidated by an imperious, tough-talking official. So I wasn’t surprised to hear of Peter’s recent struggle to extract information from a spokesman for the Slovak social-insurance agency whom he says is “famous for answering by saying nothing.” But the flak happens to be close to the ruling party in government, as is the agency boss.
When Peter’s article appeared, the spokesman hit him with five pages full of complaints. Only a few cited minor factual errors, says Peter; the rest read like he was simply irritated with the article itself.
“Don’t worry,” Peter’s editor told him. “I’ll handle it.”
That’s apparently not enough for the young reporter, who didn’t want to be further identified, or his paper either, since the matter is yet to be resolved.
“I want to learn how to speak with people like this, to be sure of what my rights are,” says Peter.
That’s why he was among the dozens of journalists who attended the “Journalists in Conflict” conference this week in Bratislava – to mark World Press Freedom Day. Not war-zone conflict, but the sorts of conflict reporters run into with sources, employers, the audience, or their own self-interest.
The forum, though, opened a window onto the myriad issues affecting Slovakia and its post-Communist neighbors, from worsening economic pressures, to the various forms of political coercion.
These issues are still relatively fresh terrain for Slovakia and the media of Central and Eastern Europe. Until 1989, these were one-party dictatorships, where propaganda and censorship ensured that the masses got only one side of the story: the Communist Party’s. Outright censorship evolved into self-censorship, where servile media no longer even needed someone in the newsroom, wielding a red pen.
A panelist from next-door Hungary, Judit Acsay, told me what it was like when she broke in.
“There wasn’t direct censorship, but editors communicated this so creatively you didn’t know you were being manipulated,” says Acsay, vice president of the National Association of Hungarian Journalists. “There were lines everywhere you couldn’t cross – like avoiding landmines in a battlefield.”
No doubt, the transition to democracy ushered in some fiercely independent voices among the new breed of private, profit-seeking media. Yet certain new “landmines” have emerged.
For example, the economic crisis rocked advertising revenues in 2009, with a 21-percent dive in ad-spending across the region, according to London-based media analyst Marius Dragomir.
This is “prompting foreign investors to pack up and leave, while the coffers of the public service media are likely to dwindle even further, forcing some of them out of the game,” Dragomir writes.
As elsewhere, budgets are slashed, journalists fired, and costly, time-consuming investigations swapped for fluffy, entertainment-heavy news reports.
Meanwhile, several foreign media empires expanding their reach and consolidate media region-wide. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, two huge financial groups are snapping up money-losing, independent media operations – not to turn them around, says Dragomir, but as “public-relations expenses.”
“It is hard to imagine such powerful, many-armed investors resisting the temptation to manipulate content in the media they control,” he says. “Moreover, with media increasingly entering the hands of such financial groups, the space for diversity of opinion and critical voices is shrinking rapidly.”
Then there’s political pressure.
Across the region, state-funded public television and radio remain a play-thing of whichever party is in power. It’s a reflex of the authoritarian past, though these countries are newly minted members of the European Union. When a new government is voted in, soon ousted is the political appointee at state TV and radio. And so begins the fawning, disproportionate coverage.
This matters because traditionally, while literacy ran high in the capital, everyone in the countryside settled for access to TV and radio. This holds true today, too, as many consider the purchase of a daily newspaper too pricey an investment.
Acsay, the Budapest journalist, describes an interviewer on Hungarian state television, who during the recent political campaign asked a leading politician of Fidesz – the main opposition that was set to return to power, which it did on April 11 – “Would you mind if I asked you about …?”
“Yes,” was the curt reply. The interviewer, on live television, dropped the topic and moved on.
“The journalist doesn’t know if they’ll be kicked out the next day,” says Acsay.
In Slovakia, state television has had no less than 14 directors since 1989.
At the same time, Prime Minister Robert Fico continues with his “media war,” launched soon after he won office in 2006. Not unlike the Bush Administration’s strategic assault on the “liberal media,” Fico has branded Slovak media as a hack, biased “opposition,” conspiring against him like mafia.
The U.S. State Department also singled out his 2008 press law in its 2009 Human Rights Report. Known as the “Right to Reply,” the law allows anyone to respond to a media report that “impinges on the honor, dignity, or privacy of a natural person, or the name or good reputation of a legal entity” – even if the report is factually correct – in the precise same space where the original report appeared.
Another chilling effect is the proliferation of civil-defamation lawsuits. Offended officials and politicians have taken to slapping journalists with them, and judges have complied with hefty fines.
“The courts are evidently more interested in preserving a politician’s personal reputation than in what should be the overriding public interest in knowing the truth,” Slovak media-monitor Rasto Kuzel wrote this week.
These ongoing swipes at the media undermine whatever confidence society was developing in its newly democratic media. As Kuzel observes, though, the public also lacks a certain “literacy” to clearly recognize the difference between sensational and serious reporting. This helps explain why the uncovering of corruption – some of it allegedly linked to Fico’s circles – provokes little public reaction.
Elections are in June, and Fico is expected to prevail.
“Clearly, Fico’s vilification of the media has paid dividends,” Kuzel writes, “but the situation is also a reflection of the sorry state of media literacy in Slovakia.”
It’s these conflicts that Slovak journalists and their colleagues confront today, and which were discussed at the two-day conference hosted by the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists.
“Journalism is such a profession that you’re always in a potential conflict – or heading toward one,” Peter Kerlik, a syndicate board member, told me. “Usually we get together and speak about beautiful girls, football or beer. This is an opportunity to talk about the conflicts they face – and the best way to solve them.”