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Eastern European press pursues freedom

Sunday, January 27, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:56 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, is the moderator for the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: An interesting occurrence since the end of the Communist era in Eastern Europe has been the development of a free press in the former Warsaw Pact countries. In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there is also a free, or partly free, press. But recently there have been complaints that dedication to freedom of expression has been slipping in some countries. The New York Times had a story from Slovenia, once a part of Yugoslavia (editor’s note: a former socialist country but not a Warsaw Pact member), saying the prime minister, Janez Janša, is accused of trying to impose censorship there. That’s ironic since Janša is a former journalist and was the leader of Slovenia’s pro-democracy movement in the 1980s. He even served a prison sentence for his anti-government activities. Now he stands accused by 571 former colleagues of trying to impose censorship. They signed a petition against him that went to the Slovenian Parliament and to European leaders. Also interesting, this month Slovenia took over the presidency of the European Union, an organization that represents 500 million Europeans. There are two million Slovenes. The Slovenian newspaper Delo has had problems with Janša. Two of its correspondents were recalled — one from Vienna, Austria, and one from Zagreb, Croatia — because the government didn’t like their coverage. The government also has been trying to arrange a government-friendly ownership for the paper. What is going on with press freedom in Slovenia?

Mitja Meršol, columnist, Delo newspaper, Ljubljana, Slovenia: When the new centralized government came into power with Prime Minister Janša, we experienced a deal between the government and the major shareholder of Delo newspaper. The deal was that the government would get influence in the paper by allowing the paper’s owner, a beer brewery, to quietly and conveniently buy a large share in a Slovenian company that was partly state-owned. The prime minister had a say in nominating his people to the top positions within the paper — managerial and editorial. Consequently, the paper’s editorial sphere was acting to please the government. Some correspondents were recalled because they weren’t writing to the taste of the foreign ministry, and there was a biweekly column written by a foreign minister, which is very unusual for any newspaper. We protested against all of that. Since then, the brewery has come to own nearly 100 percent of the newspaper. Then, it got into a clash with the government and changed the manager and the editor. Now, they’re doing this as real owners, so there is no more government influence. There is just the owner, the brewery, that is running the paper.

Loory: What are the concerns about press freedom in the rest of Eastern Europe?

David Dadge, director, International Press Institute, Vienna, Austria: The International Press Institute carried out a fact-finding mission in Slovenia and is calling for an independent commission to examine the different elements. We’re not accusing the government of acting, but we’re saying the media should be independent and separate from government institutions. It can’t be a wrapped-up gift for successive governments to influence, and it can’t espouse the government’s views. We’ve also issued a statement about the right of reply in Slovakia. The right of reply can be used or abused by politicians to put their own names in the newspapers and disrupt the editorial independence and the business aspects of newspapers. A concern in Poland is that criminal defamation law is being applied. Virtually every country has that law, although it’s not applied as much as it has been in Poland. The IPI calls for the removal of criminal defamation. Physical attacks on journalists have disappeared, but when governments apply pressure, they do it far more subtly; it’s the ownership having media interests; it’s a phone call to an editor-in-chief; it’s control through state news agencies; and it’s failure to cleanse broadcasting services of political influence. That’s the full range of problems.

Loory: How serious are the problems in Slovakia?

Pavol Múdry, director, News Agency SITA, Bratislava, Slovakia: Some government attacks against the media are sophisticated. We fear the legal basis for some Communist techniques they use. For instance, our prime minister, Robert Fico, accused the media of being his real government opposition, not the parliament. The media has nothing against the right to answer, but the problem is there are no criteria. There are only fines issued by the minister of culture if you don’t publish the answer and that can be dangerous for the media’s economy. We are free in our journalistic activities, but we feel this potential threat in the situation now.

Loory: Libel is a criminal matter in Poland. What impact does that have on journalists?

Piotr Stasinski, deputy editor-in-chief, Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw, Poland: Journalists would say as a matter of principle there shouldn’t be any criminalization of libel or defamation, especially of public figures. There are some sentences by courts against journalists who defame public figures or other persons. That shouldn’t be the case ever. We’re being told that in many European countries there are no sentences on the part of the courts, but there are residual criminal codes. We’re still pushing the government to cancel the possibility of criminalizing defamation.

Loory: Is the press under serious pressure from the Bulgarian government?

Stanimir Vaglenov, editor, 24 Chasa newspaper, Sofia, Bulgaria: The situation in Bulgaria is better than five or 10 years ago. As an investigative reporter, I was sued three times between 1996 and 2002. The cases were strong battles, and it was an awful time. The situation may be better now because Bulgaria is a member of the EU. The criminal situation in Bulgaria isn’t as bad as before, but for journalists, it’s very important to be careful and to be flexible. Journalists can write everything they want, but if you write something, you could be put to death. The criminals in Bulgaria are still too strong, and the politicians are too strong or dangerous for the media. We don’t have a well-developed free media that is strong enough to battle with politicians and criminals.

Loory: Journalism has become a life-threatening profession in many countries. Is it a serious problem in Europe?

Dadge: It isn’t as serious as it is in regions like Mexico, the Philippines or Afghanistan, where there are daily dangers. Press freedom in Eastern Europe is closely connected to the election cycles in these countries. Journalists can fairly well practice their profession when the elections aren’t on, but when the election cycle starts ramping up, there are real problems and attempts by governments to exert pressure and influence. When the opposition party is weak, the media naturally fills that vacuum and has to report on the government. That is a part of democracy and actually creates the problems for the journalists also.

Mersol: In this part of Europe, we don’t have the kinds of cases that would physically threaten journalists, but there are more refined mechanisms to influence journalists with far more impact ... from the side of politicians.

Loory: It was nice to discuss problems that can have peaceful solutions, especially in a part of the world that went through serious problems just a few years ago. Now they are solvable. Let’s hope that continues to be the case.


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