ONE of the surest signs of a healthy democratic process is a free and uncoerced press. If so, Slovakia, the slowly seceding eastern half of Czechoslovakia, may already be in trouble.
Much of the responsibility for this belongs to recently elected Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, who acquired notoriety in the West as the man who opposed Vaclav Havel's Czech presidency. In the month since he took office, Mr. Meciar has contemptuously tried to control the Slovak press.
The repression began after Meciar's party, Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), won big in the June parliamentary elections. HZDS advocates slower free-market reforms and looser ties with the Czech lands. The leading Czech party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), believes the opposite. Vaclav Klaus, head of ODS, is charging toward a free market. On July 17, the Slovak parliament declared sovereignty - a step short of independence - and Mr. Havel resigned as federal president.
The HZDS has been cracking down ever harder on the information coming into and going out of Slovakia. Two weeks ago the government canceled an already-approved sale of Danubiaprint, a huge publicly owned printing press, to a private investor. The press puts out 13 daily papers. The justification, issued by HZDS, is that "a state monopoly is better than a private monopoly."
Oliver Brunovsky, editor in chief of the Slovak business weekly Trend, says future repression will be more subtle. Too many people are watching, he says. Subtle pressure comes in the form of favoritism for favorable coverage - better deadlines for one paper, or better rates for another.
Meciar's recent actions have been in the works for months. Two days before the June election he stopped a reporter from the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnesin mid-question: "I will not answer until you correct the lies you wrote about me." This caused a walkout by a dozen journalists, followed by a signed letter of protest.
After the HZDS electoral victory, Meciar held a by-invitation-only press conference. Many Czech journalists and all the foreign press were barred. A party spokesman called the conference a private meeting. Meciar has also kept the times and locations of press conferences secret.
Critics are scared into silence. Radio Journal, the Slovak radio news operation, is the republic's largest station and a Meciar stronghold. The station's most recent director, Ivan Mjartan, is now a HZDS member of parliament and deputy minister of culture. Another Radio Journal commentator is Meciar's spokesman.
The two largest dailies are Pravda, the former Communist Party paper, and Praca, the trade union daily. Both are left-leaning and support HZDS. The strongest opposition voice is Slovensky dennik, a Christian Democrat paper that is in financial trouble. Another opposition paper, Verejnost', recently folded.
Journalists in Bratislava have had to tread carefully for months, as Meciar's popularity grew. The flow of information between the Slovak and Czech republics has slowed to a trickle. In late June, Slovak television (STV) cut off all its contributions to the federal television channel (F1), saying it would now treat its Czech counterpart like any foreign customer. Representatives of STV, which had contributed about 30 percent of F1's news material, said the move was because of technical difficulties. But many think it is a response to HZDS's calls to abolish federal media.
Relations between the Prague-based F1 and its Slovak contributors have been strained. STV claims that its stories sent to Prague are spliced and editorially altered. F1 counters it cannot depend on pro-Meciar STV reporters to tell the truth.
Meciar and Mr. Klaus have now agreed to break down the federal media - radio, wire service, and television - to the republic level, further cutting the information flow between Czechs and Slovaks.
Meciar's hold on Slovakia is strong. The declaration of sovereignty, pushed through the Slovak parliament by Meciar's efforts, inspired tearful crowds and celebratory bonfires on the hills around Bratislava. For many Slovaks, Meciar is a hero who will give back to them what the Czechs have been taking for years: wealth, security, pride.
A Slovak who runs his own computer business explained: "You ask someone, `Are you happy with Meciar's economic policy?' `No.' `Are you happy with his separatist policy?' `No.' `Who would you vote for if the election were tomorrow?' `Meciar.' "
Robert Rom, deputy editor in chief at Slovensky dennik, said he and his staff have received anonymous letters and death threats for months because of their criticism of Meciar. Some have packed their bags for Prague.
Most frightening is the absence of outrage over these moves in the Czech or Slovak press. When Meciar failed to appear before reporters after an early round of negotiations, Czech journalists said nothing; only foreign journalists demanded, loudly, to know where he was.
In Prague, a rude or pushy question at a press conference draws disapproving looks from other journalists - and this in a town that has a strong tradition of dissident journalism. In Bratislava the problem is even worse.
Since the elections, the streets of Bratislava have buzzed with foreign journalists. But when they drift away - and they will when the Czech split becomes a boring business of legal drafts and parliamentary votes - Slovakia may elude further criticism. By then, Meciar may control everything said about him in Slovakia.