Friday, April 25, 2008

Free speech, or not

The press in eastern Europe

Less free speech

From The Economist print edition

Tough laws and interfering politicians are shrinking media freedom

PICK up a Slovak newspaper, and you will find it a quick, if depressing, read. The main dailies have in recent weeks been appearing with blank, black-framed front pages, in protest at a new media law that will give anyone mentioned in an article sweeping rights to an equally prominent rebuttal. International media watchdogs have sharply attacked the law. They are worried by declining media freedom across eastern Europe.

Slovakia's new law comes into force on June 1st. If somebody referred to in a newspaper story complains, the onus will be on the editor to print their response unless he can persuade a court to rule otherwise. A rebuttal may not be accompanied by additional editorial comment. A refusal to print one can lead to big fines. Right-of-reply rules are common in several European countries, but Slovakia's law is the most punitive and, potentially, arbitrary.

The government, a populist-nationalist coalition, insists that the law will make the media more responsible. “It does not jeopardise freedom of the press. It merely upgrades the interest of the public above the interest of the publishers,” says Marek Madaric, the culture minister. The Slovak media are not above reproach. A forthcoming report by the Open Society Institute, a group financed by George Soros, talks of “plagiarism, refusal to make corrections and hidden conflicts of interest.”

Yet there is reason to worry about how Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, may use the law. He has a prickly relationship with the media, which have harried his government for inertia and alleged corruption. He declines to give interviews and sometimes even to take questions from critical journalists, and he has called some daily newspapers “prostitutes”. Some journalists recall the dark days of the 1990s, when the authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar (who is now Mr Fico's junior coalition partner) jeopardised the country's accession to the European Union and NATO. (To be fair, Mr Fico's predecessor, Mikulas Dzurinda, who was lionised abroad for his reforms, clashed with the press, and was once accused of bugging media opponents.)

Slovakia's new law is the most conspicuous in the region. But arbitrary legal constraints on press freedom are worrisome elsewhere, too. In Bulgaria defamation of public figures (a broad category that can include prominent businessmen) is a crime that can be punished with a fine. Journalists can also be sued for infringing somebody's “honour and dignity”. As many as 60 cases went to court in 2006, and a further 100 in 2007.

In Romania the constitutional court last year restored a tough defamation law that criminalises “insult”, though the effect on press freedom pales beside the ownership of most of the mainstream media by three politically active tycoons, plus political interference in public broadcasting. America's ambassador to Bucharest, Nicholas Taubman, has suggested that “legislators should strengthen their own accountability...rather than try to hamper the efforts of a free media to exercise its legitimate role in Romania, either through criminalising journalistic efforts or otherwise intimidating independent media.”

All this is bad news in a region that used to take pride in its reborn freedom. And bad laws are only part of the picture. In the annual report of Freedom House, a New York-based lobby group, to be published on April 29th, the ex-communist countries show the biggest relative decline in media freedom in the world, chiefly because of a perceived politicisation of public broadcasting. The drop is larger than in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Thus Latvia's score slips from 19 to 22, after the government appeared to lean on public television to cover Russia more politely. Slovakia's falls from 20 to 22, Slovenia's from 21 to 23, and Poland's from 22 to 24. Mr Soros's media-watchers echo Freedom House's judgment. “Politicians think these public broadcasters should be ‘theirs’,” says Marius Dragomir, who is publishing a clutch of detailed reports on public-service broadcasting in the region. With EU accession safely negotiated, politicians now feel able to exploit the fruits of power more freely. Politicised public broadcasting is a useful tool to manipulate the voters, especially when commercial television is run by friendly tycoons.

Such trends are troubling. But everything is relative. Recently a Russian newspaper, Moskovsky Korrespondent, published a widespread rumour about the supposed relationship of President Vladimir Putin with a comely gymnast, Alina Kabaeva. After Mr Putin lambasted the tabloid, which is a sister publication to Novaya Gazeta, an opposition paper, it was promptly shut down by its publisher. Such an event would be unimaginable in the new EU members from central and eastern Europe. For now, at least.

(This was written with the help of my excellent freelance colleagues in Bratislava (Katerina Mikulova), Bulgaria (Irina Novikova) and Bucharest (Valentina Pop)

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