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By Tom Gibson, EU representative, advocacy manager, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

As Brussels regroups after elections, it must uphold the rule of law, Tom Gibson writes.

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As the news shook Europe on 15 May that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot, a sense of uncertainty and foreboding fell in Bratislava.

As the story started to emerge, it was clear how critical a robust and diverse local media is to access the facts amid times of crises. However, at such a pivotal moment for Slovakia, independent reporters are now being scapegoated by the authorities in a downward spiral of press freedom.

I was in Bratislava on this day with my colleague, Attila Mong, a Hungarian journalist and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Europe representative, to look into the ascendant threat of attacks on the press in Slovakia, following the recent election of a coalition government displaying a hostile attitude towards the media.

Slovakia’s new coalition government is now seeking to bring the media better under its control, seemingly using Hungary as inspiration to chart the same course as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did in 2010.

Orbán’s path to authoritarianism codified a playbook on media capture: gain political control of the public broadcaster, then the national media regulator.

Get your allies to buy up private media, obtain a monopoly and control state advertising. Once you own the media landscape, it becomes your mouthpiece. The remaining independent journalists are transformed into a marginalised group with a fraction of the resources and reach.

Attila lived through the Orbán takeover of the national media from 2010 — including the pushing through of national legislation to bring the public broadcaster into line — and had witnessed firsthand the failure of Brussels to intervene. “The real question now is whether the EU has learned how to hack the playbook,” mused Attila to me.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) described the 2022 elections in Hungary as “undermined by [an] absence of level playing field.” In short, elections were free but not fair.

It continued: “Ahead of the elections, biased and unbalanced news coverage permeated the public and many private media outlets, mostly to the benefit of the ruling party.” This is now the risk Slovakia faces and the EU must act before it is too late.

Blaming journalists for hatred?

Every week, the space for free and independent journalism in Slovakia is under threat.

The parliament has just passed legislation to set up a new public service broadcaster with easier avenues for political influence of the management structure, as well as the dismissal of the current broadcaster’s Director, Ľuboš Machaj.

Further legislation with respect to media and access to information has also been put forward at lightning speed with the aim of moving swiftly to control the press.

Trust in traditional and independent media has waned. In its place is social media-driven disinformation, with reports of pro-Russian influence and the proliferation of conspiracy theories, which is helping to create alternative information feeds for Slovaks.

The authorities’ response to the shooting of Prime Minister Fico was menacing, with some officials immediately blaming journalists for spreading hatred.

Another parliamentary resolution also included questionable wording around the role of journalists to report the facts and not spread hate.

In his first public address following the shooting, Prime Minister Fico openly attacked the “anti-government” Soros-financed media, asking it not to trivialise the shooting. Fear and uncertainty now characterise the mood of many in the Slovak journalist community.

A slow-moving menace

At present, we are seeing incremental attempts to restrict or denigrate independent media in Slovakia.

Journalists and editors from Markiza television channel have reported being pressured by foreign owners in cahoots with the government, to the extent many may leave. Verbal attacks on journalists by politicians had been on the rise.

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These attacks had inspired waves of online abuse from Slovaks themselves. A poisonous, threatening discourse has entered the Slovak press freedom arena.

This decline in media freedoms has happened at an unfavourable time in terms of EU scrutiny. European elections have just happened, and EU officials are focused on future appointments, alliances, and the new political landscape.

Slovakia is drifting, and Brussels could be about to lose another EU member state on the rule of law.

Brussels was ineffective in responding to Hungary’s media takeover as Orbán crafted his own national information sphere. The European Commission must be as creative and diligent as possible not to allow the same in Slovakia — even during this election period.

Future scrutiny from the European Parliament will also be vital. Member states should likewise be applying pressure on Bratislava.

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Money talks, and Brussels cannot afford to wait

Since 2019, Brussels has been working to strengthen its ability to defend press freedom in member states. The European Media Freedom Act, the EU’s recent law to protect media pluralism and independence, is not strictly in application at the moment but could, in principle, be invoked in relation to the public broadcaster.

As part of the EU’s Digital Services Act, the European Commission should be applying pressure on Facebook to assess its role in providing an online space where journalists are verbally attacked and where potentially harmful, even illegal, online speech circulates.

Money also talks. Any opportunities to communicate that EU funds are conditional on upholding the rule of law affecting the EU budget would put pressure on Slovakia.

As we know from Hungary’s blocking of EU funds for Ukraine, the functioning of the EU is in part dependent on the checks and balances that an independent press can provide to populist governments in member states.

Brussels cannot afford to wait.

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Tom Gibson is the EU representative and advocacy manager at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a global organisation dedicated to defending the right of journalists to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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