Slovakia must be more ambitious in its support for media independence, RSF says
Ten months after receiving a Slovak governmental delegation led by then Prime Minister Igor Matovic (who is now deputy prime minister), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has a mixed assessment of the measures proposed by the government to support journalism and trustworthy reporting.
In response to RSF’s call at the meeting in February to “move from promises to action,” the Slovak government has embarked on a major overhaul of media legislation and has proposed several bills relating to the dissemination of news and information. Some of the measures are encouraging but others could endanger press freedom and media independence.
Those aimed at combatting fake news, which is very widespread in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic, are receiving a great deal of criticism. A proposed criminal code amendment, subject to an inter-ministerial consultation until 21 December, would criminalise the production or dissemination of “false information liable to create serious anxiety among at least part of the public (...), threaten lives or public health or influence the public when making decisions on important questions of general interest.”
While some of the elements in this crime’s definition, such as “creating anxiety” and “influencing the public,” are especially vague, the penalty would be extremely severe – a sentence of between one and five years in prison, and even as much as eight years if the crime is committed in a crisis situation or in connection with a foreign entity.
Condemned by part of the journalistic community and of the ruling coalition, the proposed law could open the way to arbitrary prosecutions of professional journalists and encourage self-censorship, thereby endangering press freedom. It could also be used by authoritarian political parties to gag journalists and resembles the laws adopted in Hungary and Greece that RSF has condemned as draconian.
Instead of making fake news punishable by imprisonment, RSF urges Slovakia to be guided by the recommendations of the Forum on Information and Democracy, an entity created to make concrete proposals for the International Partnership on Information and Democracy, an intergovernmental accord initiated by RSF – and endorsed by Slovakia on 9 December – that aims to promote and implement democratic principles in the global online information and communication domain.
“Slovakia should not miss a historic opportunity to set an example with regard to press freedom at a time when this fundamental freedom is under a threat, greater than ever, from its Hungarian and Polish neighbours,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “As part of its responsibility for the entire Visegrad region and in accordance with its international obligations, the Slovak government should be more ambitious in its support for reliable news and information and media independence.”
RSF also regrets the Slovak culture ministry’s decision to drop a planned overhaul of RTVS, the public radio and TV broadcaster. Under its current leadership, around 30 journalists have been pushed out of RTVS since 2017 and it continues to be particularly vulnerable to outside influence, to the detriment of its editorial independence. In response, the culture ministry last summer proposed changing the method of electing RTVS’s director-general with the aim of making its management more independent and more resistant to political pressure.
During the consultation launched in July 2021, RSF and two Slovak NGOs, Transparency International Slovakia and MEMO98, endorsed this reform and proposed other measures to strengthen RTVS’s editorial and financial independence. However, the ministry did not follow up on this joint position or on appeals by the three NGOs in November. Culture minister Natalia Milanova recently said the reform was being blocked by part of the ruling coalition that wanted to maintain the Slovak parliament’s ability to elect the director-general. The new election will therefore take place next spring under unchanged conditions.
Despite these concerns, other reforms undertaken by the Slovak government have been welcomed by professional journalists and could improve protection for reporters and support for reliable news and information. Under a proposed publications law, the right to protect the confidentiality of sources, currently only guaranteed for broadcast and print media journalists, would be extended to online media journalists. The bill will be submitted to the Slovak parliament in the coming weeks. It would also require media outlets to declare any investor or donor who invests more than 1,200 euros in any year.
Moreover, in a country where disinformation is proliferating thanks to websites that are not very transparent about their funding and owners, all media would be obliged to declare their real “final beneficiaries” in a public register allowing verification. Finally, the proposed criminal code amendments reduce the prison sentence for defamation from eight years to one year. RSF is calling for the complete abolition of prison sentences for defamation.
Announced by the Slovak delegation during its meeting with RSF in February 2021, these measures would be welcome at a time when justice for the 2018 murder of Jan Kuciak, an investigative reporter for the Aktuality.sk news website, is long overdue, and when his colleagues continue to be subjected to abusive legal proceedings (SLAPPs) and to hate campaigns on disinformation sites.
Slovakia is ranked 35th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.