Slovakia

Slovakia_flag-5

By Jackson Hvizdos

Introduction

The Slovak Republic, a small Eastern European nation, is beginning to grow into its newfound independence after a back-and-forth struggle for nationhood during the 20th century. The current parliamentary republic, formed in 1993 after a long period of communist rule under the Czechoslovakian state, is notable for its commitment to freedom of speech and press. Reporters Without Borders, an organization for freedom of information, compiles a World Press Freedom Index every year. Slovakia ranked among the top 10 countries worldwide every year from 2004 to 2008, including first place in 2004. A controversial media law passed in 2008 dragged Slovakia all the way down to 44th place in 2009, but since the law’s amendment, Slovakia has climbed back up to 14th as of 2015 – not a bad showing out of 180 countries.1

Historical Background

The Old Slavs, the people who eventually became the Slovaks, first settled the area in the 5th century A.D. Slovakia’s first sovereign government came to be when a Frankish merchant called Samo unified the area for a time in the 7th century to resist the warlike Avars. After Samo’s death, however, his small empire dissolved.2 For the next thirteen centuries or so, Slovakia was part of several larger empires and states including Great Moravia, the Hungarian state, the Ottoman Empire, and finally the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the end of World War 1, Slovakia was combined with the Czech lands to form Czechoslovakia, in spite of a strong Slovak nationalist movement.3

This, the first incarnation of Czechoslovakia, was one of the only democracies in Europe through the 1920s and 30s. Despite the rise of fascism and communism in the rest of Europe, Czechoslovakia maintained a commitment to democracy – free press, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion were all constitutionally protected4 – until Hitler occupied the Czech region in 1938. Hitler’s annexation of half the state set off a series of events culminating in the Slovak Republic’s declaration of independence in 1939. The Slovak Republic, led by Josef Tiso, was not a true republic; it was a one-party fascist state, heavily involved in the deportation of Jews. Political discourse, naturally, was heavily controlled. Tiso’s regime was unpopular among many Slovaks from the beginning, and as the economy weakened and Nazi Germany began to crumble, opposition heightened. Anti-fascist sentiments crystallized in the Slovak Uprising of 1944. The Uprising ended in German occupation of Slovakia, but retained significance by enabling Slovakia to enter the antebellum period as an Allied nation freed from German occupation rather than a defeated Axis nation.5

Unfortunately, the Slovaks were once again lumped together with the Czechs by Western powers out of touch with Eastern European ethnic and national sentiments, and the reformed Czechoslovakia ended up on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. The state was initially supposed to operate as a democracy, but the Communist Party seized power in a 1948 coup, and for the next two decades Czechoslovakia was a satellite state of the USSR. Media was tightly controlled, and freedoms of expression and religion were nonexistent.

The Communist grip was broken for a period in 1968, known as the Prague Spring, when new First Secretary Alexander Dubček attempted to decentralize and democratize the government and economy. Restrictions on media, speech, religion and travel were lifted. The Soviet Union wanted none of this, and consequently sent hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Pact troops to crush the reforms. Shockingly, an entirely nonmilitary resistance managed to hold on for eight months by doing things such as painting over street signs and renaming villages to confuse opponents. The USSR only managed to overcome the resistance by coercing/agreeing with Dubček and other leaders to repeal all the reforms and become a Soviet puppet state.6

This state of affairs continued for another two decades until the Gentle Revolution of 1989, known outside Slovakia as the Velvet Revolution. Set off by the police’s heavy-handed quashing of student demonstrations, the Gentle Revolution was a peaceful transfer of power. Roughly parallel, yet separate, events took place in the Czech and Slovak regions. Dissident groups of both Czechs and Slovaks formed; Slovak movements placed an emphasis on freedom of religion, while Czech dissidents focused more on democracy. A series of strikes and protests pressured the weakening Communist government into resignation. Dubček was elected chairman of the federal assembly, and Václav Havel was elected president of the new parliamentary republic,. Over the next three years, Czechoslovakia began a gradual reformation of economy and society.

During this period, long-standing tensions between Czechs and Slovaks grew more and more evident. Slovaks felt marginalized and exploited by Czechs, who had always had a far greater influence on how the Czechoslovakian state was run. The “Velvet Divorce” of 1992, the division into the Czech and Slovak Republics that we know today, is often seen as a peaceful, clean separation, an acceleration of the inevitable. There is some truth to this, but seeing the Velvet Divorce as a totally amicable split is inaccurate.7

The Slovak Republic adopted a multi-party, parliamentarily democratic form of government. A constitution outlining the form of government, promoting democratic ideals, and protecting personal freedom was adopted. The economy began to grow, slowly at first and then faster, accelerating into the 21st century.8

Freedoms of Speech and Press

Slovakia’s constitution shows a strong commitment to the freedoms of speech and press. Article 22 prohibits infringement upon private correspondence. Article 24 guarantees freedom of religion. Article 26 guarantees freedom of speech, prohibits a licensing system for the press, and broadly bans censorship. Articles 28 and 29 guarantee the rights to free assembly and association, respectively. All these freedoms are outlined in simple language with few qualifications, demonstrating commitment to free expression and information without reservation.9 This language surely contributed to Slovakia’s consistently high rank on the World Press Freedom Index during the mid-2000s.

However, the outlook for freedom of speech and press in Slovakia is not completely positive. Broadcast media, for instance, is somewhat dependent on state funding, and there have been reports of political pressure being exerted on public media outlets. Private media outlets, meanwhile, suffer from issues related to transparency of ownership or lack thereof, along with libel lawsuits leveled against them by public officials. In addition, certain content-based restrictions on speech are in place; Holocaust denial and defamation of other nationalities are both punishable by as much as three years in prison.10

The most significant series of events related to freedom of press has been left on an ambiguous note. In 2008, an extremely controversial press law was passed11 granting the ministry of culture direct control over media coverage of a specific set of hot-button issues. In addition, the law compelled newspapers to publish responses from anyone who felt he or she had been defamed.12 This law clogged the judicial system with myriad defamation lawsuits, often claiming exorbitant damages.13 In 2011, the law was amended, eliminating the content-based restrictions14 but merely modifying the right-of-reply aspect.15

Comparison to the United States

In theory, Slovakia and the United States guarantee an almost identical set of freedoms through their constitutions. Slovakia’s free speech and free press clauses are a decent transcription of how the United States’ judicial system has interpreted the much less specifically worded First Amendment. However, there is a substantial gap between the two countries with regards to implementation.

Despite the Slovak constitution’s guarantee of free speech, certain content-based restrictions remain in place. As stated above, Holocaust denial and defamation are punishable with jail time. The specific prohibition of Holocaust denial is clearly because the Holocaust is such a significant part of the area’s history. Slovakia was actively involved in deporting Jews to labor camps. It is understandable that the government has a substantial interest in preventing anyone from erasing such awful mistakes from memory – after all, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. And yet, it remains a content-based restriction. The United States has a roughly comparable history with racism and slavery, yet that country’s Supreme Court has protected even racist speech in cases such as Brandenburg v. Ohio.16 Slovakia’s willingness to punish speech such as Holocaust denial is hardly unusual in Europe; nevertheless, it showcases one of Slovakia’s fundamental differences of principle from the United States. The latter country is committed to the idea that if speech is genuinely unacceptable and untrue, it will always be overcome by true speech without government intervention. Judge Learned Hand once wrote of this idea, “To many, this is, and always will be, folly, but we have staked upon it our all.”18 Slovakia is not ready, at least not yet, to adopt such a concept.

Perhaps more concerning are Slovakia’s easily exploited defamation laws. The United States is very careful about punishing journalists for libel, especially libel of government officials. Slovakia seems to be trying to err on the opposite side of the defamation line, protecting government officials rather than journalists. Despite the repeal of the controversial 2008 law mentioned above, defamation lawsuits have persisted and often succeeded – especially from politicians. Prime Minister Robert Fico has used Slovakia’s libel laws to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from media outlets. Supreme Court Chairman Štefan Harabin has done the same.19 The United States approaches libel law with many concerns in mind, but one is perhaps most important: If speech is restricted in one instance, will it frighten the press into self-censorship in the future?20 Slovakia appears to approach the question from a different angle, one which emphasizes public order and respect for politicians. Such a principle is easy to abuse.

Conclusion

Slovakia has emerged from the shadow of communism with mostly flying colors, but the outlook for free speech and free press is not entirely clear. Despite being clearly less restrictive of those freedoms than most of the world, Slovakia has multiple important issues to work out before information and expression can be considered entirely free. Content-based restrictions on speech still remain, as well as problems with media law and ownership. While Slovakia’s constitution does an excellent job of protecting these freedoms, real-world implementation has yet to catch up. Slovakia stands at a bit of a crossroads with regards to freedom of expression; one can hope that the nation, newly independent after an endless struggle for autonomy, chooses to honor the goals it set for itself at its formation.

Bibliography

  1. http://index.rsf.org/#!/index-details/SVK
  2. Toma, Peter A. and Dušan Kováč. “Slovakia: From Samo to Dzurinda.” 2001. Hoover Institution Press.
  3. Kirschbaum, Stanislav J. “A History Of Slovakia: The Struggle For Survival.” 2005. Palgrave MacMillan. 2nd
  4. The Constitution of the Czechoslovak Republic. 1920. Section V, 113.1, §117-124.
  5. Henderson, Karen. “Slovakia: The Escape From Invisibility.” 2002. Routledge.
  6. Kirschbaum, Stanislav J. “Historical Dictionary of Slovakia.” 2007. Scarecrow Press. 2nd
  7. Heimann, Mary. “Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed.” 2009. Yale University Press.
  8. Mahoney, William M. “The History of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.” 2011. Greenwood.
  9. The Constitution of the Slovak Republic. 1992.
  10. http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/eur/154450.htm
  11. http://en.rsf.org/slovakia-seven-leading-dailies-appear-with-11-04-2008,26537.html
  12. http://en.rsf.org/slovakia-prime-minister-ready-to-talk-with-05-02-2008,25254.html
  13. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2012/slovakia#.VStnMRPF89M
  14. http://www.osce.org/fom/49573
  15. http://www.thedaily.sk/slovak-press-act-amended-as-eu-calls-for-press-freedom/
  16. Supreme Court of the United States. Clarence Brandenburg v. State of Ohio. 395 U.S. 444. 9 June 1969.
  17. Supreme Court of the United States. United States
v.
Xavier Alvarez. 132 S.Ct. 2537. 28 June 2012.
  18. United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. United States v. Associated Press et al. 52 F.Supp. 362. 6 October 1943.
  19. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2014/slovakia#.VSyRhRPF89M
  20. Supreme Court of the United States. New York Times Co. v. L.B. Sullivan. 376 U.S. 254. 9 March 1964.

 

Last updated April 30th, 2015

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