Press freedoms are hot issue in Eastern Europe

December 26, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE -- Egon Lansky considers himself to be a true patriot, so he's prepared to risk two years in prison by saying something terrible about his country.

"I'm a journalist, and I've even been a government spokesman, but this is not something I like," Mr. Lansky said of the recently approved Czech criminal code, which includes a two-year penalty for "defamation" of the government, Parliament or president.

To test the vaguely worded law, which Mr. Lansky and many others see as a serious infringement on freedom of the press, Mr. Lansky plans to write deliberately defamatory statements about the Czech government.

"I will write a few well-thought-over words," said Mr. Lansky, a former Czechoslovak ambassador to the Council of Europe now working as a political consultant and occasional columnist. "The legislators and government of today don't understand that in a free society, loyalty is not to the government. Loyalty is to the free society."

Throughout Eastern Europe, freedom of the press is similarly threatened. While censors no longer thumb through articles crossing out objectionable passages, government behavior in the region relects at the very least a lack of understanding about freedom of the press, especially in the electronic media.

Sampling of laws

In Slovakia, journalists are required to give a "truthful picture of the country" and promote national unity; in Ukraine, a government decree allows for deportation of any foreigner critical of the country; Romania's Parliament is considering a law that would provide up to five years in prison for defaming the government or police.

Furthermore, very few independent television or radio stations exist in the region, and most governments see state-run broadcasting outlets as their own province. Network directors who step out of line are quickly replaced with more malleable managers. A standing joke in some countries is that if you need to contact the head of a broadcasting network, it's best to fax -- if you write, it's likely the person will have been fired before the letter arrives.

All told, at least eight broadcasting chiefs in Eastern Europe have resigned or been removed this year because of conflicts with their governments. Five different Bulgarians have headed their country's state television network in the last four years, and in Hungary, dozens of writers, film makers and actors have demanded that their work not be broadcast after an independent editor was sacked last month.

Only last week, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin fired the head of state television, Vyacheslav Bragin, baling him for the poor showing of reform candidates in the recent parliamentary elections.

Broadcast woes

"A key point in this whole region is the television and secondly radio," said Gabor Bencsik, secretary general of the Hungarian Journalists Association. "In all of these countries, the power, the government, the ruling parties are doing all they can to control broadcasting."

The written press, meanwhile, is relatively vigorous and unfettered, most observers agree. Current concerns over infringement of press freedom stem more from what governments could do than from what they actually are doing.

In Poland, for example, a law requiring broadcasters to reflect "Christian values" in their programming has not been tested in court. The Czech law on defamation -- the same type of statute that saw then-dissident and current Czech President Vaclav Havel imprisoned for four years in the 1970s and '80s -- has yet to be invoked. And although printing and distribution remain in government hands in most countries, there have been few reports of deliberate abuse of that influence.

Mr. Havel signed the law, but he called for a court test of the defamation provision.

"The government has much potential power which it hasn't used in the written press," said Gyorgyi Kocsis, a commentator with HVG, a Hungarian political and economic weekly.

"Many of the printing houses are still government owned . . . and more than 90 percent of magazines and newspapers are distributed by the post office -- it's a monopoly," she said. "By putting pressure on this monopoly, [the government] can make it very difficult for the publishers. So far it can't be proven that they have exercised this pressure, but it's a potential threat."

Distribution problems do, however, play to the advantage of the authorities in many countries. Eastern Europe's capitals and major cities support dozens of dailies and weeklies, many of them independent or openly anti-government -- allowing intellectuals to let off steam and giving governments something to point to when accused of limiting press freedoms.

In Romania, for example, there are no restrictions on the lively printed media, says Liviu Man, editor of a political weekly titled simply, No. But poor distribution in the provinces ensures that many voters have virtually no access to the metropolitan papers, so government-dominated television remains an effective means of political control.

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