Accountability systems

In addition of the Council (Board) for Broadcasting and Retransmission (RVR, which deals with electronic/digital media and some online media, see below), since 2002 there is the Press Council of Slovakia (TRSR). It was established as a joint venture by the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists and the Association of Periodical Print Publishers in 2001. During 15 years of its existence it dealt with some 300 complaints in about 75 sessions. However, TRSR suffered at least two internal breakdowns during this period when it did not function properly for about a year in both cases - at a very early stage and in year 2015.

As a rule, TRSR is open to any complaint, either from a legal or natural person. A complaint can deal either with journalism ethics, or with barriers related to putting limits on freedom of the press or access of journalists to information. Moreover, the TRSR can initiate official complaints on its own initiative. TRSR has been considering to get involved into ethical issues related to online newspapers. The most frequent issues that TRSR deals with are impartiality, balance, objectivity, honesty, truthfulness and rigorous fact-checking. TRSR often deals with inconsistencies between, on the one hand, the titles of articles and their contents. Complaints on freedom to information access for journalists/media are less frequent. These are, however, much more publicly discussed issues (even before TRSR gets involved). For example, the Office of the Government and the Prime Minister Robert Fico refused to answer questions raised by journalists first from newspaper Sme and later from Denník N (when many journalists moved to newly established Denník N). The reasons were incorrect data repeatedly published about the prime minister as well as repeated unwillingness to publish corrections of incorrect data (however, this is dealt by a special law which specifies conditions when it is necessary and when it is not necessary to publish a correction). TRSR discussed both cases (Sme and Denník N), after receiving an official complaint in April 2015. TRSR has ruled that this decision was in breach of free access to information. TRSR issued statement to the Office of the Government breached freedom of the press (Decision 05/2015).

It should be mentioned here that this case is also before the European Court of Human Rights. Previously, it was submitted to the Constitutional Court of Slovakia. There the government based its defence in this case on two shaky arguments. First, there is a formalistic argument. The government says that this decision was not made in written form, it is not mentioned in the Minutes of the Cabinet and it was not even on the agenda of the Cabinet. Second, there is a political argument that this decision did not have any impact on the level of freedom of speech and press in Slovakia.

The Office of the Government selectively answers questions of established journalists too (Pancák, 2016). Finally, in late November 2016, the Slovak prime minister labelled some journalists as 'dirty prostitutes'. The exact quote is as follows: "Some of you are dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes, and I stand by my words. You don't inform, you fight with the government."

We have mentioned earlier a major ethical/professional scandal among some of the media revealed by a local businessman. Clearly, the businessman did have his own agenda – he had been investigated by police and publicly criticised by Daniel Lipšic, former Minister of Interior, together with Gábor Grendel, then press secretary at the Ministry of Internal Affairs (and an MP during the scandal).

When this illegal tapping was done, selected transcripts of SMS and email correspondence between Gábor Grendel, press secretary, and later a politician (and a former TV journalist), and some well-known journalists in the past years, were published. In most cases, it was just a semi-official correspondence as usual. However, communication with two journalists stood out initially as ethically problematic. First, it was communication between Gábor Grendel and Lukáš Diko, editor of news in PSM. Second, it was communication between Gábor Grendel and Jana Krescanko Dibáková, a key political journalist from commercial TV JOJ. As calculated by Šípoš (2016), Dibáková had produced more than 50 reports about Grendel or Daniel Lipšic, the chairman of his political party NOVA since 2010, when Grendel changed sides and became a politician. However, Dibáková denied these accusations as misleading (see interview with Sudor, 2016).

In the case of Diko, the problem was in communication style (it was a bit vulgar, considering his leading position in PSM). The problem seemed also to be that he allowed others to communicate with him in a too pushy style. In addition, not only the style of his communication was problematic. The problem seemed to be his position within editorial hierarchy – he could easily influence content of broadcast of the main news of PSM television. However, clear evidence of direct influence on his editorial decision-making was not proven – on the contrary. For example, Milan Žitný, a security analyst (and himself a former journalist) stated that in spite of phone or SMS calls to block his appearances on PSM television, this actually did not happen. Neither the final official reports of both investigating committees did not find and breach of neutrality of the PSM news reporting.

Another interesting issue related to this scandal was the actual reaction of various media to the behaviour of their colleagues. Former media watchdog Gabriel Šípoš (2016) criticised that the most professionally ethical correct approach to the scandal was noticed only at the PSM. Lukáš Diko, the editor-in-chief of the News Department, took voluntarily “holiday“ (see Diko, 2016) and two committees were established to deal with this issue (one established by the management, another one by the internal supervisory Council of RTVS). Other concerned media did not publicly provide official or unambiguous reactions to this scandal. It should be mentioned that also the Culture and Media Committee of the Parliament dealt with this issue and asked the Press Council to intervene (Jarjabek, 2016).

However, another media watchdog, Miroslava Kernová (2016c), as well as two editors-in-chief (Beata Balogová from Sme, Matúš Kostolný from Denník N and Zuzana Petková, deputy editor from business-economy weekly Trend, considered this case as not really worthy of serious debate. Petková considered it illegitimate to deal with illegal wire tappings. Petková (who was personally mentioned in the files) also mentioned that she checked data provided by Grendel with another source too (and also at off-the-record meeting), i.e. she did not rely on what one source claimed to be true. Kostolný believed that the journalists (mentioned in the files) actually did not say anything wrong in their tapped communication. Moreover, in his view, Slovakia is a country too small. In other words, it is inevitable that there are too close contacts among a limited number of professionals. However, he highlighted a need to establish more clear ethical rules for close contacts of journalists with politicians as well as a problem with a low number of senior editors in editorial offices who could more carefully supervise the work of journalists (especially with a focus on checking vested influences). Balogová accepted the discussion on this issue as a legitimate one, but only as a long-term issue.

In the view of Kernová, what matters are real facts (real work performance) and trustworthy sources. Regarding the latter, in her view, this was not a trustworthy source. Kernová pointed to her earlier (2014) argument on the issue of making public controversial anonymous illegal tappings of communications. She compiled some discussion on this issue in her article. However, of all the issues to be considered in such cases ”is there a public interest or just public curiosity behind this issue? Is this fundamentally new information which was impossible to get in other way? Who is the source behind this, does he have any vested interests in making this information public? Is this conversation truthful? Is this a potential tool of manipulation of public opinion? Do we know all the context?” she seemed to take just two of them as the most important ones: Why this particular information has been published and whether this was true or not. In other words, Kernová, as well as both key editors-in-chief (of agenda-setting newspapers) or deputy editor-in-chief mentioned above, did not really consider whether there was public interest (or just public curiosity) behind this issue and whether there was (or not) a fundamentally new information which was impossible to get in other way. Moreover, there was direct and indirect feedback from many concerned journalists that showed that SMS and email messages were, in fact, truthful, although illegal wire tappings. In other words, it appears that there are some controversial professional/ethical issues that editors and some media watchdogs do not take seriously enough. Moreover, both legal and illegal wiretapping is quite often used tool for discreditation in Slovakia and other new EU member states. In fact, the first illegally tapped communication of Grendel was made public already in 2014. Interestingly, although this was followed by a police investigation, no big public scandal or discussion erupted that time. Moreover, 2016 data indirectly confirmed that the 2014 data were – at least in Grendel’s case – authentic (although a blogger may have had a fake identity). This is in contrast with an even earlier, major scandal in 2011, when another group of journalists was tapped, including their communication with another politician, this time from the left ideological spectrum.