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Slovakia: Quadrupled Tax On Print Media Raises Concerns

Bratislava, 3 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar proposes to increase the nation's value-added tax (VAT) for most newspapers and magazines from 6 percent to 23 percent. A spokesman for the Slovak parliament said last week that the legislature will take up the issue November 11.

The proposal is generating denunciations from news organizations and opposition politicians who charge that it is a thinly veiled scheme to control publications critical of the government.

The VAT would be leveled on periodicals whose advertising and, in the words of the bill, "erotic and pornographic" content exceeds 10 percent of total content. As originally proposed, the VAT barrier was set at a far less restrictive 50 percent. In free-market economies, for-profit publications often devote 40 percent or more of their space to paid advertising.

The chairman of the Slovak Journalists' Syndicate, Jan Fuele, says that because pornography is subject to interpretation, the government will be free to count within the 10-percent limit any material of which it disapproves.

In a commentary last week in the daily "Pravda" (truth), he puts it this way: "Clearly, ministers believe that spreading information and spreading pornography are the same thing, and are challenging the democratic press in the guise of fighting pornography."

Fuele writes also that one in three Slovaks already doesn't read newspapers because newspapers are too expensive.

The Association of Publishers of Periodicals in Slovakia protested the VAT increase, saying it would precipitate a prohbitive rise in the purchase prices.

The association issued a statement last week saying that the increased VAT would cause a decline in circulation, diminished pluralism of views, curtailed freedom of speech and the right to information, and a worsened reputation of Slovakia abroad. Slovakia's hopes to integrate with such Western institutions as the EU and NATO would be damaged further, the statement said.

Both the EU and NATO have criticized Slovakia for its treatment of minorities, failure to adopt free market policies, and exercise of control over broadcast and print news organizations.

Jan Carnogursky, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats, recounted to journalists last week the fate of a 1990 proposal for an increased VAT on periodicals. Carnogursky said the proposal was put forward by Czechoslovak Finance Minister (now Czech Premier) Vaclav Klaus. Carnogursky said the Slovak cabinet rejected the proposal, its leader arguing that it would threaten press pluralism. That cabinet leader was Vladimir Meciar.

The Czechoslovak states divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in January 1993.

Slovak Premier Meciar says now that the quadrupled VAT wouldn't damage most newspapers. In a televised debate last week, he said it wouldn't affect the newspapers, only, "advertising above a defined ceiling."

The pro-government daily "Slovenska Republika" carried a commentary last week blaming a critical press and opposition politicians for Slovakia's lack of success with NATO and the EU. The commentary disputes a European Parliament report criticizing Slovakia for instability of its institutions and democratic shortcomings.

The commentary says: "Without doubt the opposition, which wields power through several public institutions, is partly responsible for opinions expressed in the report."