Slovakia: democracy just bearing up

You may have seen some of the coverage of the attack on Slovakia’s four-time and current Prime Minister Robert Fico. The attacker was apprehended and has not been formally named but is identified in Slovak media as a 71-year-old unsuccessful and disgruntled amateur writer who spread anti-Roma prejudices in his pamphlets. The blatant attack put Slovakia briefly in the global spotlight and came six years after Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered, reportedly on the orders of oligarch Marián Kočner.

No country could sensibly have wanted this attention. Slovakia still meets the threshold for democracy in global comparative measurements. Yet the attack, coupled with recent governmental assaults on independent institutions including public broadcasters, makes Slovakia appear dysfunctional and inspired by neighbouring Hungary. That country is ruled by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in an increasingly authoritarian manner.

This sense of “something rotten” goes much deeper into the past than the 2024 assault, and the 2018 murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová was a critical juncture. Fico governed back then, too, for the third time, and his rule facilitated the impunity of Kočner and the like. While not known as a friend of independent institutions, Fico managed to persuade some democratic parties to form a coalition with him.

The 2018 murder sparked massive protests and Fico resigned – only to hand his seat to one of his deputies. That politician, Peter Pellegrini, is now Slovakia’s President-elect, to be inaugurated in June.

The 2020 elections were supposed to translate anger towards the previous political elite into a pro-reform government. A new government emerged, but led by an inexperienced populist, who was faced straight away by the immense challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A post-pandemic cabinet emboldened qualified investigators to unearth crimes of corruption. In fact, this is why Kočner is already in jail, as his orchestration of the Kuciak murder is still being litigated. The first-instance court acquitted Kočner twice for the murder-related charges, despite the first acquittal being quashed on appeal.

The “untying of hands” of the investigators made some Slovak elites, Fico among them, worried. Fico himself narrowly avoided investigative detention although one of his closest aides spent a month inside.

Hence, when frustration from the mismanagement of the pandemic combined with unscrupulous use of disinformation catapulted Fico to become PM for the fourth time, his government identified those same anti-corruption bodies as a key target. If democracy was to fall with them, why not?

With the police and special prosecution service gutted, the media has become the obvious next target. Fico has not hidden the fact that Kuciak’s journalistic successors, as well as intellectuals speaking truth to power, irritated him.

Some Slovak independent media have resisted this slide from democracy and a good deal of resistance remains, including from journalists themselves even in major commercial media which the government has had a hard time to subdue directly. Media owners are less enthusiastic about the risks of losing profit though, and signs of their willingness to compromise good relations with the government have been scarce so far.

There are other institutions that can help democracy, too. The Constitutional Court, an influential interpreter of the Slovak constitution, remains largely untouched by the government and difficult to be subordinated by the executive.

Slovakia’s constitution enshrined democracy at the front of its wording when it was enacted more than 30 years ago. That principle is still there, as are the rule of law and a relatively broad rights catalogue. As such, the Constitutional Court has much to work with to address, for example, challenges to legislation curbing independent public broadcasting.

These forms of resistance may even generate new leaders and ideas. Yet, there is little social energy left to go beyond just bearing up under the strain.

On New Year’s Eve 1990, weeks after the Velvet Revolution, dissident and last Czechoslovak President Václav Havel argued that “our country is not flourishing”. He meant to prepare the public for the difficulties of the transition from authoritarian state socialism.

These words apply equally for today’s Slovakia. The government is going to have a hard time to completely silence the opposition even with the additional support gained from the attack on Fico. The EU institutions may weigh in as well, especially if they learned some lessons from having observed the Hungarian regime change with minimal questioning.

But the energy to resist is taken from addressing long-term local and global issues – the climate emergency, demographic changes, a braindrain of Slovakian talent, underperformance in research and much more.

Arguably, Slovakia has lacked an elected government with a vision for more than a decade. NGOs, the media, or the public at large cannot replace vision-building completely. That leaves Slovak academia, where most Slovak political leaders were educated. Comparative disadvantages abound here: the oldest surviving university is just over a century old, and the country did not get an intellectual injection akin to, for example, the founding of the Central European University in Hungary. But these hurdles do not excuse its insufficient contribution towards a societal vision.

In Hungary, Orbán succeeded in effectively forcing most of the CEU out of Budapest and subordinating most public universities. In Slovakia, it is unclear whether the followers of Orbán would need to bother with academic resistance in the first place. And long-term democratic resistance is difficult to sustain without a positive societal vision.

Five years on from 2019, the individual who fired five bullets at Fico lamented that definitions and notions no longer apply. He should have stuck to his writing and talking. After this desperate act, a critical mass of Slovak journalists is trying their best to prevent even more definitions and notions being captured by non-democrats, an increasingly uphill struggle.

Alone, they will not succeed but others can help – both in daily vigilance to the government’s new measures, and by refocusing to a long-term vision for life in and of Slovakia beyond mere bearing up.

Contents: Border forces: how barriers to free thought got tough

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”With contributions from Kerry Hudson, Chen Xiwo, Elif Shafak, Meera Selva, Steven Borowiec, Brian Patten and Dean Atta”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Border Forces cover

Border forces – how barriers to free thought got tough

The autumn 2019 Index on Censorship magazine looks at how borders are getting tougher, journalists are being stopped, visas refused and border officials are snooping into our social media profiles and personal messages. Nations are looking to surveil our thoughts before allowing us to come into their countries and so limiting freedom of expression and the free flow of ideas.

In this issue Steven Borowiec reports from South Korea about how the law means that you can be prosecuted for contacting your relatives in the north without permission; Meera Selva looks at how internet shutdowns are being used round the world to prevent people communicating, most recently in Kashmir; Mark Frary gives tips for LGBT people on how to protect themselves when crossing borders into countries where they might face discrimination.  Charlotte Bailey and Jan Fox look at how it is getting tougher in the UK and USA for artists, writers and academics to get visas; and Kaya Genç digs into Turkey’s censorship of the internet. In the rest of the magazine, writers Emilie Pine, Elif Shafak and Kerry Hudson, and theatre director Nicholas Hytner reflect on past famous Index contributors, Václav Havel, Nadine Gordimer, Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller. We have an extract of the script of the 1977 film Le Camion by Marguerite Duras which has never appeared in English before, and poems by taboo-breaking poet Dean Atta and the Liverpool Poet Brian Patten. We also have an extract of a story by censored Chinese writer Chen Xiwo about a mother and her daughter and their abusive relationship. Plus Index magazine’s first ever crossword by Herbashe.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Special Report: Border forces: how barriers to free thought got tough”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Big brother at the border by Rachael Jolley

Switch off, we’re landing! by Kaya Genç Be prepared that if you visit Turkey online access is restricted

Culture can “challenge” disinformation by Irene Caselli  Migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe are often seen as statistics, but artists are trying to tell stories to change that

Lines of duty by Laura Silvia Battaglia It’s tough for journalists to visit Yemen, our reporter talks about how she does it

Locking the gates by Jan Fox Writers, artists, academics and musicians are self-censoring as they worry about getting visas to go to the USA

Reaching for the off switch by Meera Selva Internet shutdowns are growing as nations seek to control public access to information

Hiding your true self by Mark Frary LGBT people face particular discrimination at some international borders

They shall not pass by Stephen Woodman Journalists and activists crossing between Mexico and the USA are being systematically targeted, sometimes sent back by officials using people trafficking laws

“UK border policy damages credibility” by Charlotte Bailey Festival directors say the UK border policy is forcing artists to stop visiting

Ten tips for a safe crossing by Ela Stapley Our digital security expert gives advice on how to keep your information secure at borders

Export laws by Ryan Gallagher China is selling on surveillance technology to the rest of the world

At the world’s toughest border by Steven Borowiec South Koreans face prison for keeping in touch with their North Korean family

Stripsearch by Martin Rowson Bees and herbaceous borders

Inside the silent zone by Silvia Nortes Journalists are being stopped from reporting the disputed north African Western Sahara region

The great news wall of China by Karoline Kan China is spinning its version of the Hong Kong protests to control the news

Kenya: who is watching you? by Wana Udobang Kenyan journalist Catherine Gicheru is worried her country knows everything about her

Top ten states closing their doors to ideas by Mark Frary We look at countries which seek to stop ideas circulating[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row disable_element=”yes”][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Global View”][vc_column_text]Small victories do count by Jodie Ginsberg The kind of individual support Index gives people living under oppressive regimes is a vital step towards wider change[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”In Focus”][vc_column_text]Germany’s surveillance fears by Cathrin Schaer Thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin wall and the disbanding of the Stasi, Germans worry about who is watching them

Freestyle portraits by Rachael Jolley Cartoonists Kanika Mishra from India, Pedro X Molina from Nicaragua and China’s Badiucao put threats to free expression into pictures

Tackling news stories that journalists aren’t writing by Alison Flood Crime writers Scott Turow, Val McDermid, Massimo Carlotto and Ahmet Altan talk about how the inspiration for their fiction comes from real life stories

Mosul’s new chapter by Omar Mohammed What do students think about the new books arriving at Mosul library, after Isis destroyed the previous building and collection?

The [REDACTED] crossword by Herbashe The first ever Index crossword based on a theme central to the magazine

Cries from the last century and lessons for today by Sally Gimson Nadine Gordimer, Václav Havel, Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller all wrote for Index. We asked modern day writers Elif Shafak, Kerry Hudson and Emilie Pine plus theatre director Nicholas Hytner why the writing is still relevant

In memory of Andrew Graham-Yooll by Rachael Jolley Remembering the former Index editor who risked his life to report from Argentina during the worst years of the dictatorship[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Culture”][vc_column_text]Backed into a corner by love by Chen Xiwo A newly translated story by censored Chinese writer about the abusive relationship between a mother and daughter plus an interview with the author

On the road by Marguerite Duras The first English translation of an extract from the screenplay of the 1977 film Le Camion by one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century

Muting young voices by Brian Patten  Two poems, one written exclusively for Index, about how the exam culture in schools can destroy creativity by the Liverpool Poet

Finding poetry in trauma by Dean Atta Male rape is still a taboo subject, but very little is off-limits for this award-winning writer from London who has written an exclusive poem for Index[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Column”][vc_column_text]Index around the world: Tales of the unexpected by Sally Gimson and Lewis Jennings Index has started a new media monitoring project and has been telling folk stories at this summer’s festivals[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Endnote”][vc_column_text]Endnote: Macho politics drive academic closures by Sally Gimson Academics who teach gender studies are losing their jobs and their funding as populist leaders attack “gender ideology”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe”][vc_column_text]In print, online, in your mailbox, on your iPad.

Subscription options from £18 or just £1.49 in the App Store for a digital issue.

Every subscriber helps support Index on Censorship’s projects around the world.

SUBSCRIBE NOW[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Read”][vc_column_text]The playwright Arthur Miller wrote an essay for Index in 1978 entitled The Sin of Power. We reproduce it for the first time on our website and theatre director Nicholas Hytner responds to it in the magazine

READ HERE[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Listen”][vc_column_text]In the Index on Censorship autumn 2019 podcast, we focus on how travel restrictions at borders are limiting the flow of free thought and ideas. Lewis Jennings and Sally Gimson talk to trans woman and activist Peppermint; San Diego photojournalist Ariana Drehsler and Index’s South Korean correspondent Steven Borowiec

LISTEN HERE[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Creative dissent in Syria

Ali FerzatThe Syrian regime has gone to great lengths to silence the satirical commentary of Ali Ferzat. But the celebrated cartoonist and Index award winner has no intention of letting the censors keep him down. Malu Halasa reports

Three months before the start of the Syrian revolution in March last year, Ali Ferzat broke with his own satirical convention: he stopped using symbolism in his cartoons to criticise the regime and began to target identifiable individuals, including the president himself. He describes the shift as pushing through “the barrier of fear”. The first cartoon in Ferzat’s new series showed President Bashar al Assad agitated at seeing the traditional day of mass demonstrations against the regime, Friday, marked on a wall calendar. Another had him hitching a lift from Gaddafi making his own getaway in a car. The third featured the “chair of power”, one of Ali Ferzat’s iconic symbols, with the springs popping out of the cushion and Bashar hanging onto its arm.

Drawing the president, Ferzat admits, was a personal and political breakthrough — if not foolhardy. “It is quite suicidal to draw someone who is considered a godlike figure for the regime and the Ba’ath party, but still I did it and people respected that courage and started carrying banners with caricatures in the protest to show how they feel about things.”

Ferzat must have anticipated that his actions might lead to violent repercussions. Last August, pro-regime forces viciously assaulted him and broke both his hands. During the attack, one of the assailants yelled at him, “Bashar’s shoe is better than you.” Article 376 of the Syrian penal code makes it an offence to insult or defame the president, and carries a six-month to three-year prison sentence.

The most lauded cartoonist of the Arab spring, Ferzat has won countless international prizes — including this year’s Index Freedom of Expression Award for the Arts. For more than 40 years, he has been delivering his own scathing messages to dictatorship. Published daily in al Thawra (the Revolution) newspaper in Damascus for a decade, he was a thorn in the side of Hafez al Assad. In the early noughties, the launch of his satirical newspaper al Doumari (the Lamplighter) was considered a hopeful sign in the nascent presidency of Hafez’s heir. Last December, when Bashar al Assad was asked about the attack on Ali Ferzat by the American news commentator Barbara Walters, he responded, “Many people criticise me. Did they kill all of them? Who killed who?’”  Such comments made little sense and attest to Ferzat’s power, whether convalescing in a hospital bed or through his drawings.

There are two cartoons by Ferzat embedded in my own visual consciousness of Syria during years of visiting and writing about the country. The first is a drawing of a man whose head has been sliced and popped open at the airport. Instead of searching the luggage on the rack, a uniformed authority figure inspects the contents of the man’s brain. The other is of a dismembered prisoner hanging in a cell, body parts everywhere, while the jailer sits on the floor, sharp implements to hand, crying over a television soap opera. Both of them were a comment on the secret life that routinely takes place in Syria, the self-censorship that is sometimes needed to survive and the ongoing activities inside prisons that are rarely officially acknowledged in the state media.

Speaking the truth

In a recent exhibition of Ali Ferzat’s work at the MICA gallery in London, there were numerous examples of his coded messages: the armchair of salat (representing ruling power), the shortened ladder to suggest the gulf between the political elite and the nobodies (sometimes in a hole) or the ever busy authority figure waving a roll of toilet paper like a flag. The messages are inescapably clear but their target is not always what one might expect. In one colourful drawing, a man is trying to pluck fruit from a tree, but the three ladders on which he is standing have been laid horizontally, not vertically. Pausing beneath this picture, Ferzat points out: “Yes, I always speak truth to power. Sometimes it’s not only the president to be blamed but the people too.” The gallery, usually closed at the weekend, was filled with Syrians and their families within minutes of its unscheduled opening. Everyone, from grown men to children of all ages, photographed the cartoons on the walls with their mobile phones.

Ferzat’s unique visual vocabulary, developed in extreme circumstances, has had an unexpected reach:

To survive and get around censorship, my caricatures had to be speechless and rely instead on symbols. That gave them an international aspect I did not intend in the first place. So I managed to get the voice of people inside Syria to the outside, through channels of common human interest.

During his stay in London in the spring, Ferzat received good news. There is an interest in reviving al Doumari, with plans to publish it in exile in Dubai and, ultimately, hopefully back home as well. One gets the impression that no matter where Ferzat is — he currently resides in Kuwait because his family thinks it is too dangerous for him to be in Damascus — living away from the revolution has been frustrating. He spends most nights watching the Arabic news channels and drawing until the early hours. His right hand, which was fractured in the attack last summer, remains a little stiff, although that is not evident in the first two cartoons he drew when he was able to move his fingers. One shows an armoured Trojan warhorse with marauding tanks for hooves. The second is, again, a tank poised on its back wheels, ready to crush a lone green shoot sprouting from the ground.

False springs

The Syrian people are a major influence on his work. “Drawing is first of all a means and not a purpose in itself,” he says.

The artist is always the one who produces an idea, but if that person is not living within his community then how can he reflect what his community is going through? Art is about being with your own people and having a vision of what they need. You can’t sit in your room isolated behind your window and draw about life — it doesn’t work like that.

The revolution was sparked in March 2011 when young graffiti artists in Deraa, between the ages of nine and 15, were arrested and tortured for writing government slogans on the walls. The sale of spray paint is now banned in Syria unless ID papers are shown.

There have been many false springs in the country’s turbulent political history. A decade ago, and just a few months after Bashar al Assad assumed the presidency, Syrian artists and intellectuals were hopeful that change was possible in their country, a sentiment that began in Ferzat’s case when Bashar al Assad, a “tall dude with a large entourage”, walked into his exhibition filled with censored cartoons. (Ferzat always shows banned cartoons in his exhibitions.) When the new president asked Ferzat how he might be able to gauge popular opinion, the cartoonist urged him to simply talk to the people. Eventually Bashar telephoned him and said he was having a Pepsi with ordinary folk in the street. This was during the so-called Damascus spring of the early noughties, when the regime was courting artists and intellectuals. Imbued by optimism in 2001, Ferzat started his satirical newspaper al Doumari, but as the mood of the political elite reverted to tried and trusted methods, so did the fortunes of his weekly. By the time it closed in 2003, 105 issues later, he had survived two assassination attempts that were never investigated. Thirty-two court cases had been filed against the newspaper and advertisers had stopped advertising.

An incredible heritage: satire in the Middle East

Historically, cartoonists have been astute in their circumvention of censorship. As Fatma Müge Göçek has shown, under the Ottoman press laws of the early 1900s, they sent erasable drawings to the censors and, after approval, substituted other images in their place. Newspapers at that time also appeared with black boxes where a cartoon had been censored. As the gap widened between official pronouncements and reality – or as Václav Havel once said, ‘People know they are living a lie’ – caricatures became an important means of expression in the Middle East. Now cyberspace provides a comparatively safe haven for pictures and ideas that cannot be expressed in print.

Editorial cartooning, like journalism, is considered a western invention, but the convention of satire in the Middle East is as old as the stories of Alf Laila wa Laila (A Thousand and One Nights). Ferzat’s peers include the Egyptian Baghat Othman, who parodied Sadat, Palestinian Naji al Ali, creator of the Palestinian barefoot boy Hanzala (with his back always to the reader in rejection of the world around him) and Algerian Chawki Amari, now in exile in Paris after serving a three-year sentence in his country for drawing the country’s flags in a cartoon that was seen as ‘defacing’ a national symbol. The Syrians also bring something new to the mix, which springs from a sense of humour coloured by the experience of dictatorship, coupled with sexual innuendo. This blend is nicely demonstrated by a joke from the 1980s that is still pertinent, as recently told to me by a political activist.

A guy used to talk about the president. The mukhabarat, secret police, picked him up and started beating and torturing him. They told him, ‘Stop making jokes about the president. Stop talking about the president. You can tackle whatever issues you want, but in the end you always have to say: this has nothing to do with the president. The president is not aware of this.’ So the minute the guy is released, he sees his family waiting by the door and says, ‘Have you heard, the wife of the president is pregnant and the president has nothing to do with it. He’s not even aware of it.’

Even in his comic strips for juveniles, Ferzat has challenged traditional sensibilities in Syria, a country known for channelling propaganda through state-sponsored children’s publications. Ferzat was 26 years old when he created ‘The Travels of Ibn Battuta” for the popular Usama magazine, published in 1977. In the strip, the famous medieval Arab traveller Ibn Battuta is depicted with a moustache and beard, wearing a turban in the shape of the globe. Ferzat demystifies Ibn Battuta by drawing Muhammad Ali, Omar Sharif and the pop singer Abdel Halim Hafiz, with a turban globe on their heads; as avatars of Ibn Battuta, they respectively box, hug a leading lady and sing. Later in the strip, as the historic traveller pulls his donkey into the present day, his size shrinks, suggesting he is overwhelmed by modern life.

A letter sent to the editor of Usama complained about this portrayal of Ibn Battuta. Ferzat did not use one of the traditional Arab figures of ridicule such as the poet Abu Nuwas or the folk character Juha as his fumbling protagonist, but instead a notable historical personage, which the letter writer found highly insulting. This was at a time when the magazine was already starting to change, and was publishing less controversial material, as Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas show in their study of Arabic comic strips.

Self censorship, survival and living without boundaries

Originally from a Sunni Muslim family in Homs, Ferzat describes freedom of the press as “a responsibility”. He stresses:

It’s not as if I should do whatever I feel like doing, regardless of the consequences. It is a matter of moral commitment at the end of the day and varies between countries, depending on the culture and civil liberties. You have to find the right balance. Some newspapers have no obligation, not even morally, and they refrain from nothing and then call it ‘freedom’. Meanwhile other newspapers censor human interest stories. I see both as bad — whether too much suppression in the name of commitment, or too much unethical commitment in the name of freedom. They are both the same.

During prolonged periods of dictatorship, there have been unexpected chinks in the wall of silence, which Lisa Weeden outlines in her tour de force Ambiguities of Domination. One way ordinary Syrians thwarted the cult of Hafez al Assad that pervaded their daily lives was in their choice of newspapers. Throughout the 1970s, al Thawra published a daily editorial cartoon by Ferzat. When he was dropped from the newspaper, al Thawra experienced a 35 per cent drop in sales and was forced to ask the cartoonist to return. Ferzat’s stories about his days there are particularly amusing and they reveal just how much leeway can exist in what at first glance appears to be a monolithic system. In some instances, the offending cartoon would be published in the paper. Then the abusive phone calls from the minister of information would begin.

Ferzat continues:

They came with this new procedure. First the editor-in-chief had to look at the caricature. If he approved it, he had to send it to the general manager. If he approved it, or if he found it controversial and difficult to understand, he had to send it to the minister of information. Take into consideration that the minister of information was a bit of an ass, he would say ‘Yes’ because he didn’t understand it and the next day the people would get the meaning because it only took commonsense. Suddenly the angry phone calls would start all over again.

According to Italian visual critic Donatella Della Ratta, Bashar al Assad’s Syria is ruled by what she calls “a whispering campaign” waged by competing elites, the secret police, the official media and finally the president and his inner circle. All of the different factions are involved in censorship: it takes many pillars of society to control the flow of information and ideas in a totalitarian state.

In such a society, what is the difference between self-censorship and survival for someone like Ferzat? “What I can tell you is that I have no boundaries,” he says.

I don’t have a censor or a policeman in my head before I draw. However, it is not requested of fedayeen — freedom fighters — to be suicidal. As an artist, I’m not going to go and find a landmine and sit on top of it. I invented the symbols that actually manipulate the censor and survive the dangers of punishment. I put simple codes and symbols in my drawings, and anyone who has the capacity to notice things would understand them. That is what I do to secure myself and not be suicidal.

He concludes: “At the end of the day, my drawings and caricatures are part of the daily culture of the street. I want to represent the consciousness of the street, of the people, and I do, and that gives my work value.”

As Ferzat and the graffiti artists of Deraa, who sparked a revolution over a year ago, have shown: Sharpie pens and spray paint can be the most effective tools against a brutal regime.

Malu Halasa is a writer and editor. Her books include The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie (Chronicle Books)

This article appears in the new edition of Index on Censorship. Click on The Sports Issue for subscription options and more