As things stand, politicians only have an automatic right of reply when “false or mendacious” claims have been published about them. But the bill now before the Slovak parliament would grant them this right whenever they felt that their honour or reputation had been harmed, regardless of the accuracy of the facts.
The amendment has been proposed by the ruling Smer-SD party, which wants to provide politicians with an effective tool for defending themselves against what it calls “media terror.”
“You are an enormous danger to the Slovak Republic’s democratic development,” former Prime Minister Robert Fico, the Smer-SD party’s boss, told journalists on 21 March, going so far as to threaten to sue Beata Balogová, the editor of the serious daily SME.
Declaring “a war” on journalists, Fico announced the creation of a Smer-SD legal team tasked with monitoring the media. Forced to resign as prime minister after investigative reporter Ján Kuciak’s murder a year ago, Fico has long been in the habit of attacking the media and is notorious for referring to reporters as “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas.”
Under the proposed amendment that parliament is due to begin debating in May, media outlets that refuse to publish a politician’s response could be ordered to pay damages of up to 5,000 euros.
“When media outlets publish allegations about politicians, it is legitimate for the politicians to have a right of reply, in order to defend themselves,” said Pauline Adès-Mevel, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.
“But allowing politicians to systematically demand a right of reply whenever they feel slighted, even when the facts are proven and verified, opens the way to abuses. Because this right could be abused, we urge Slovakia’s parliamentarians to revise the bill so that it does not obstruct the freedom to inform at time when the media are revealing information about Ján Kuciak’s murder that could affect certain politicians.”
After the shock caused by Kuciak’s murder, some moderation was expected from the political class in their treatment of the news media and journalists. But nothing has been done in the past year to improve the environment for the media and strengthen protection for press freedom in Slovakia, currently ranked 27th out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index.