Slovaks voted for a moderate, center-right coalition of reformist parties in September parliamentary elections, continuing the country's course toward NATO and European Union membership. However, during 2002, the government's limited tolerance of criticism, sluggish reform of the state media, and tentative progress toward decriminalizing libel laws reflected a lack of political will in developing a truly independent media in Slovakia.
In 2002, the Constitutional Court and Parliament suspended paragraphs 102 and 103 of the Criminal Code, which pertain to defamation of public officials and the republic in general. However, legislators upheld the constitutionality of Paragraph 156, which deals with libeling public officials for their professional performance. The suspension of the two paragraphs voided a lawsuit filed by President Rudolf Schuster in June 2001 against Alex Kratky, a reporter for the Bratislava daily Novy Cas, the country's largest-circulation newspaper. Kratky had written a satirical article about the president in May 2001 and faced two years in prison.
In a separate case, on May 21, a regional court in Zilna upheld a ruling issued by a lower court ordering Novy Cas to pay 5 million crowns (US$105,400) in damages to politician Jan Slota for a 1999 article that incorrectly claimed he had been seen intoxicated and urinating on the terrace of a restaurant in the capital, Bratislava. Novy Cas has yet to pay the fine and is considering appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Public officials and politicians regularly admonished the media for their reporting, particularly ahead of the September elections. On February 12, Miroslav Dzurinda, a senior state railway official and brother of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, complained that media coverage of an ethical conflict related to his own work was actually intended to discredit his brother and threatened to sue newspapers in retaliation for their reporting on the issue. On April 18, President Schuster scolded journalists for providing too much coverage of ultranationalist politician and former prime minister Vladimir Meciar, saying, "It would be good for you to leave him alone."
On September 13, a week before the parliamentary elections, Meciar grabbed, threatened, and tried to punch Luboslav Choluj, a reporter from the independent television station JOJ, after he had asked Meciar how the politician could afford to pay for expensive renovations of a private villa. Two days later, Meciar walked out of a live televised debate when the host asked him whether a businessman had lent him the money for the renovations.
Political influence on private media outlets remains a problem, particularly with TV Markiza, the country's most popular television station. Prior to the parliamentary elections, TV Markiza provided biased coverage in favor of its majority owner, Pavol Rusko, who heads the Alliance for New Citizens (ANO) party. Following the poll, the ruling coalition appointed ANO partisans to run the Culture Ministry--which is responsible for regulating state and private media--raising the specter of a serious conflict of interest for Rusko.
The state-run Slovak Television (STV) struggled with financial mismanagement and allegations that political considerations influence editorial decisions there. On June 2, STV journalists Beata Oravcova and Michal Dyttert resigned to protest an order from STV management to include Rusko in their weekly debate program. On August 19, during the session before the elections, Parliament fired STV director Milan Materak for granting STV managers "excessive" severance packages but failed to select a successor.
On April 1, the government transformed the bloated, state-run TASR news agency into an official government bureau, placing journalists in the awkward position of becoming civil servants who must pledge loyalty to the state. In June, revelations of financial abuses at TASR led the government to replace director Ivan Ceredejev with Peter Nedavaska, a 24-year veteran of the news agency.
In an effort to promote journalistic ethics, on April 10, the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists and the Association of Publishers of Print Media established the Press Council to examine complaints against the media. Meanwhile, on April 15, the country's first Roma news agency, Roma Press Agency (www.rpa.sk), was established as a civic association in the eastern city of Kosice to provide more objective coverage of Slovakia's isolated and impoverished Roma community.
Luboslav Choluj, JoJ Television
Choluj, a reporter with the privately owned JoJ Television, was attacked by Slovakia's former prime minister Vladimir Meciar, who was campaigning for general elections scheduled for late September. The journalist had repeatedly asked Meciar to explain how he had paid for a $1 million renovation of his luxury villa even though the politician claimed to own nothing more than a beat-up car and a three-bedroom apartment when he left office in 1998. According to Choluj, Meciar--who is a former amateur boxer--told the journalist, "If you ask me the same question again, I am going to give you a punch that you won't forget."