Statement on the Amendment to Law No. 270/1995 Coll.
on the State Language
Bratislava, 15 July, 2009
1. Justification of the need for amendment.
The Explanatory Note states, inter alia, that the State Language Law (hereinafter: Law) is intended to contribute “to the strengthening of the position of the Slovak language as state language in the Slovak Republic. The amendment to the Law was necessitated first of all by the unsatisfactory situation in the use of the Slovak language in public communication. The current practice of the language use clearly indicates that the Law on the State Language is not applied to the necessary extent.” (Explanatory Note, p. 2)
The unconcealed intent of the initiator of the legislation was primarily to handle the linguistic situation in southern Slovakia. This is proven e.g. by the words of Prime Minister Robert Fico at the celebration of the St. Cyril and Methodius’ Day on 4th July 2009 in Devín. Mr Fico said that tightening the Law on State language “is (…) the way to defend oneself from the dangerous irredentism that has been breathed from over the Danube (River) ever more strongly”.
The allegation of inadequate position of the Slovak language in the southern part of Slovakia, however, does not correspond to reality and is not supported by serious facts and arguments.
There may be isolated shortcomings, but not of a systemic character. On the contrary, the overall trend is exactly the opposite. In places – particularly in towns – with a mixed population the language of the minority remarkably recedes from public life. Providers of public services use Slovak primarily and often exclusively in contact with customers, the language used in written communication with the authorities is solely Slovak, even in the predominantly “Hungarian” cities such as Komárno or Dunajská Streda, and bilingual signs and inscriptions are not used even in the extent as current legislation allows.
Why does the government need to spread hysteria on the danger of the loss of position of the Slovak language in southern Slovakia and on the danger of irredentism between two member states of NATO and the European Union?
2. The government argues that the Law does not apply to minority languages. At the same time, however, government representatives deny this statement in their pronouncements, and it is also in contradiction with the text of the Law itself, according to which
(Section 1, paragraph 4): “unless this Law provides otherwise, the use of the languages of national minorities and ethnic groups are governed by separate regulations.”
In addition, the explanatory report acknowledges that both the original text of the Law, as well as the amendment affect the use of minority languages.
“During the drafting process of the amendment to the Law on the State language, the Recommendations of the Council of Europe Committee of Experts referred to in the Report of 16 January 2006 on the application of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in Slovakia had also been taken into account. Although it is not the role of the Law on the State language to implement this Charter, the Ministry of Culture reviewed all the provisions of the Law, which could impose undue restrictions on the legitimate use of minority languages in public communication, and, where possible under the amendment to the Law, proposed modification of relevant provisions.” (Explanatory Note, p. 4.)
3. The Law extends the concept of State language to the entire domain of public communication (as opposed to the official use). Nowhere, however, is precisely defined what is considered as public communication and where the boundaries between official, public and private communication lie. Moreover, it is questionable whether the interpretation of the State language as a “preferred language of the entire public communication” is at all in accordance with the wording and spirit of Article 6 of the Slovak Constitution.
4. One example of such a confused interpretation is in Section 8, paragraph 4, under which:
(4) … “The patient or client who is a person belonging to a national minority, may use his/her mother tongue in communication with staff of these facilities in municipalities where the minority language is used in official communication under a special legal regulation. Staff members are not required to have a command of the minority language.” (Note: Law No. 184/1999 allows the use of minority languages in official communication in those municipalities where the proportion of the persons belonging to the minority represents at least 20 per cent of the overall population.)
The Law subordinates humanitarian aspects to ideological ones, which is a rarity in the European legislation. Moreover, communication between staff and patient in the health care sector is considered as official communication, which is inappropriate. This limiting provision of the mentioned clause is, from the point of view of a patient, an unacceptable restriction of his rights, and an infringement in his most intimate private sphere. (Should a patient on his death-bed be denied of the right to convey his last words in his native language, just because the hospital is in a town beyond the linguistic border and he or she is demonstrably familiar with the “state” language?) For the doctor, in relation to the patient, the Hippocratic Oath must be of a paramount importance, that is, he must make every effort to help the patient, according to his best knowledge and belief, regardless of any surrounding circumstances. (Is this provision of any relevance in the case of small children who do not speak yet, in the case of patients lying in coma, deaf-and-dumbs, seriously mentally ill persons, etc.?) The illogicalness of the provision lies also in the fact that it refers to the place of the healthcare institutions and not to the place of residence of the patient. Since most healthcare facilities (particularly the specialized ones) are located outside the territory inhabited by minorities, the number of persons affected by the provision in a restrictive way is much higher than in the case of “regular official communication” under Law No. 184/1999 Coll.
5. Another example of a negative impact on the use of minority languages is the provision of Section 4, paragraph 3, under which in schools and school facilities in which education and training is conducted in the language of national minorities, the entire pedagogical documentation dossier, as well as documentation of any other nature must be bilingual: written in the State language and in the language of the national minority. The requirement of keeping all documentation (not only basic pedagogical documentation) bilingual means a disproportionate burden of work for teachers which is not properly rewarded and which may come at the expense of the quality of the teaching process. (E.g., the teacher should make preparation for the lesson of Hungarian language and literature both in Hungarian and Slovak). Insisting on this provision may lead to a gradual dispense with documentation in the minority language. It is also an expression of fundamental mistrust of the state vis-à-vis its own citizens. Instead of strengthening the capacity of school inspection, the National Institute of Pedagogy and the methodological centres in their areas of competence for minority education, the state shifts the burden on the teachers.
6. The Law re-introduces the provision on sanctions. This is done under the following circumstances: the scope of possible abuses of this Law is considerably large, as well as the range of sanctions (100 – 5000 Euro). Boundaries between the private, official and public communications are not clearly defined; possible violations are related to the “codified” form of the state language declared by the Ministry of Culture. While the “language supervision” shall be carried out only by two employees of the Ministry of Culture, the law stipulates that „state authorities, authorities of self-governments and other authorities of public administration are […] obligated to approach actively to control compliance with the measures of this act.“ All this can result in selective penalization of “inconvenient” subjects, and in creating of a network of “voluntary informers”. This may lead to further deterioration of interpersonal relationships, especially in ethnically mixed areas. The mere fact that someone can be fined for applying his/her rights, runs counter the fundamental principles of the rule of law and liberal democracy.
7. The entire philosophy of the Law is based on prioritizing the national (nation-state) principle, while the state authorities, on the other hand, constantly require respect for the civic principle from the members of the national minorities. (“The Slovaks are the only state-forming entities, the Slovak language takes precedence over other languages in all areas of public conduct” etc.). This inconsistency is a permanent source of latent tension. The state intends to promote the Slovak language actively, including sanctions. On the other hand, the state only permits, in certain frameworks, the use of minority languages, but does not promote their use actively and does not create for them the relevant institutional and organizational-technical environment (the creation of special terminology and forms in minority languages, services of translation and interpretation, sanctioning of non-observance of legal regulations relating to minorities.) The use of minority languages is postulated as an option but the use the Slovak language as an obligation in all situations, even in case of internal issues or events of minority communities not directly related to citizens belonging to the majority or if it is a private event. (E.g., cultural events of minorities, Section 5, paragraph 5 to 7.) But the same does not apply to the inverse situation. Local loudspeakers have to broadcast announcements (first) in Slovak, even if there is in a village of 1000 inhabitants only 1 (one) Slovak (or no Slovak at all). However, if there are, out of 1000 inhabitants of the village, 199 Hungarians, they are not entitled to claim any language rights in official communications. (Section 5, paragraph 3)
According to the philosophy of the Law “the State language is an expression of State sovereignty and a means of guaranteeing the equality of its citizens”, “implements the state-integrative function”, is “the general language of communication among its citizens” etc. If these postulates were true in general, then multi-ethnic sovereign states such as Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, Canada, India (even U.S.) etc. could not exist and their citizens would not be equal.
8. Solution. We understand the sensitivity of the question of the status and interrelation of the Slovak and the Hungarian languages in southern Slovakia, especially in municipalities where Slovaks live in numerical minority. We, though, see the solution not in putting one language over the other in all situations but in the introduction of a special language regime for this territory – supported by material resources, organizational-technical measures and human capacities –, thanks to which neither the Slovaks, nor the citizens belonging to linguistic minorities would feel discriminated against.
For these reasons, we take the liberty to turn to the President of the Slovak Republic Ivan Gašparovič with the request of not signing this Law.
On behalf of the Coordinating Committee of the Round-table of Hungarians in Slovakia:
Kálmán Petőcz, Károly Tóth