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, …….