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Slovakia: Silencing -- Momentarily -- A Radio Voice

By Don Hill/Slovak Service

Bratislava, 17 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Radio Twist -- a five year old radio voice in Slovakia that attracts loyal listeners with irreverent broadcast programming including news reports consistently critical of the government -- lost its signal for 25 hours early this week.

Independent news organizations, opposition politicians, and at least one press freedom watchdog group expressed skepticism at the government's claim that the outage was due to a simple commercial dispute over utility debts.

Twist said that the U.S.-based Committee To Protect Journalists has sent Slovak authorities an open letter, protesting the shutdown. A Twist spokesman said the committee protested what it called a "double standard." The letter said that broadcasts of "the most popular independent radio in the capital" were interrupted due to a small debt. It said bigger debtors remain on the air. Twist said that William Orme, director of the committee, signed the letter. Every year, Orme's committee publishes a list of the ten worst enemies of the press among the world's politicians. In 1995, Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar made the list.

At a regular government news conference Tuesday, Meciar's spokeswoman, Magda Pospisilova, said the government was not involved in the shutdown. As she put it: "It is purely a commercial problem between the Slovak telecommunications company and private radios." Slovak Telecom is, however, state owned and operated.

The Association of Independent Radio Stations in Slovakia also condemned what it called a political move against a news medium. The association said in a press release that Slovak Telecom violated principles of the rule of law and decent business relations. It added, in the statement's words. "This had nothing to do with the market economy."

The telecommunications company sent Twist a FAX immediately after shutting off its telecom services. The FAX said Slovak Telecom was canceling its contract with Twist because of payment arrears equivalent to about 38,000 U.S. dollars. The government has acknowledged documents showing that other, less hostile, mass media owe much larger sums and haven't been punished. Last week in a television interview, Meciar accused Twist and the Bratislava independent daily Novy Cas of what he called "media madness." He said there was a need for, as he put it "new laws preventing them from earning money" by their critical behavior.

The Slovak constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the press but numerous critics say the promise is consistently violated. The U.S. Department of State made public its 1996 international Human Rights Report last January. It said that in Slovakia, in the report's words: "the politicization of state-owned broadcast media remains a significant problem." It said, also, that private broadcast stations are threatened by cost increases imposed by the state-owned telecommunications company.

In, addition, the report said the following: "Many individuals reported an atmosphere of intimidation that made them reluctant to criticize the government openly without fear of some form of reprisal."