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  • Analysis
  • 31. May 2020

Structural problems threaten press freedom and independence in Slovakia

Ondřej Zacha / Photo: Journalists on the elections day in Slovakia. Aneta Václavíková. /
Ondřej Zacha / Photo: Journalists on the elections day in Slovakia. Aneta Václavíková. /
The tense situation in the Slovak public broadcaster RTVS is in the spotlight once again. The Media Committee of the Slovak Parliament is requesting an investigation of its unbalanced coverage ahead of the 2020 parliamentary election after independent monitors warned about the issue. Journalists are drawing attention to the leadership’s breach of editorial independence and the broadcaster’s employees are demanding reform and depoliticization of the organisation. All while private media are warning about the loss of vital advertising revenue due to the coronavirus crisis.

The murder of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová in 2018 was a turning point which attracted international attention and transformed the Slovak media landscape. An unprecedented wave of solidarity between otherwise competing publishers arose in response to this incident. They stood up for the protection of journalists and unprecedented cooperation begun between investigative journalists uncovering the cases around the trial of Marian Kočner, accused of ordering the murder of Kuciak, especially the investigative project “Kočner’s library”. 

But other alarming changes and persistent structural issues lie in the shadow of the journalist’s murder. International observers are warning for years about the declining tendency in press freedom in Central Europe, even though only a few years back, the Central European countries were at the forefront of the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation promoting freedom of information. Press freedom is declining globally, but the former socialist countries of Central Europe are in the heart of the crisis.

Hungary is attracting most of the international attention. The decade of Orban’s rule devastated independent news publishers and pushed the once democratic country among hybrid regimes. Poland is close behind. The consolidation of power of the Law and Order party there clearly took inspiration from Orban’s playbook. But Czech and Slovak media are not spared of these challenges. Uneasy global development and structural weaknesses of local media undermine press freedom also in Slovakia. 

Publishers are facing loss of advertising revenue

Public Policy Forum, a Canadian nongovernmental organisation, warns that advertising revenue, which is often the main source of income for publishers since they to moved online, now goes primarily to foreign digital giants like Facebook or Google. The debate about revenue sharing is moving only slowly. But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is once again reminding about the need for quick, reliable, verified and independent information. 

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the fall of print news in Central Europe. | Photo: Aneta Václavíková

The health crisis and associated restrictions caused a loss of vital advertising revenue for publishers. Slovak media were not spared from the crisis. Moreover, the coming economic crisis can further intensify the pressure and threaten the survival of many independent publishers in Slovakia and Central Europe. 

Global crises mostly do not reshape the world in an instant. Rather, they have the tendency to accelerate ongoing structural changes. For journalism in Central Europe, this could result in accelerating the fall of print news, which has been slowly ongoing for years. On the other hand, this could mean the acceleration of the growth of subscription media and the transition from ad-dependent model to digital subscriptions for some. In 2019, however, only eight percent of Slovaks paid for digital news.

The EU should move together on advertising revenue sharing efforts

There are ways for readers to support publishers directly through subscriptions but ad revenues will remain a key source of income in the foreseeable future. At this point, the situation can be offset by limiting the revenue loss in favour of foreign digital giants headquartered in tax heavens. But no country can fix the issue on its own.

One of the ways forward could be introducing a digital tax. Although the Visegrad countries are calling for national solutions, this will have to be done at least on the level of the EU. Legally forcing digital giants to pay directly to publishers for using their content could ensure the independence of private media. A similar solution was recently introduced in Australia. But Facebook and Google (or its parent company Alphabet) are huge companies determined to fight the loss of revenue. Therefore, acting together on the level of the EU could mean a greater chance of success. 

Limiting ad revenue loss could also help save regional media. The digital tax could also help to finance public broadcasters, but it would have to be legally guaranteed and not subjected to political bargaining. 

The death of regional and local media

Regional and local media are the cornerstone of journalism and their reporting and stories are closest to the lives of their readers. But regional media are disappearing in record numbers. For example in the Czech Republic, half of all regional newspapers were forced to shut down in the last decade. The circulation of large Slovak regional media is falling by tens of percent annually.

Regional media, which often have only a few journalists, are also most dependent on advertising. According to Lenka Waschková Císařová, a Czech media expert, local journalists often have their hands tied when covering political topics. Advertisers usually block topics that could negatively impact their business. In the worst-case scenario, regional media are used as a tool for marketing or political campaigning. Local media representatives in Slovakia confirm this trend. 

Regional reporting is mostly outside of the national debate and there are cases of mafia-like intimidation of journalists in Slovakia. The car of a local investigative journalist Miloš Majko in Sereď, Slovakia, which investigates local corruption, was set on fire in 2016. He says this was and intimidation attempt. Similar cases were frequent mostly in the 1990s.

Fighting municipality-sponsored political propaganda

Local municipality newsletters are another actor pressuring the local media. They are distributed into people’s mailboxes free-of-charge and increasingly resemble regular newspapers. Readers are often unaware that they are issued by the municipality while for the politicians they are a brilliant tool for campaigning. According to the Slovak branch of Transparency International, in 2017, close to three quarters of municipality-issued newspapers were propaganda. The situation is improving imperceptibly. Municipality newsletters are also stealing vital advertising revenue from independent newspapers.

A Similar issue was, according to media expert Císařová, solved in the UK. In order to protect local newspaper, the government there limited their scope and periodicity and prevented them from attracting advertisers

Moreover, the disappearance of local media and the loss of attention to local stories is hurting the credibility of media in general. Peter Bardy, editor-in-chief of the investigative site Aktuality.sk, reminds that all the big players are based in the capital, Bratislava. Adding that “it’s difficult to build trust for something, that is so far from the problems of regular people.” This is also behind the loss of trust of some readers in the so-called ‘traditional media’ and the surge in popularity of alternative or event outright disinformation websites. 

Slovak national media should turn their attention back to the regions if they do not want to lose their readers and credibility to oligarchs, political advertising, or mendacious alternative media. But maintaining regional newsrooms and local investigative journalists is expensive. This process, again, goes hand-in-hand with the transformation of their financing.

The Slovak public broadcaster is prone to political control

In the shadows of verbal and outright devastating attacks on Slovak journalists, there is an ongoing political attack on the independence of the public broadcaster. The Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS), and especially its news section, is in continuous crisis since its current director, Jaroslav Rezník, assumed office in June 2017. Rezník’s ties to the Slovak National Party (SNS) are especially problematic. 

Other key leadership positions were given to individuals with ties to SNS after Rezník took office. One of those is Vahram Chuguryan, director of the news section. He previously worked as an editor at the Slovak Television, but before being appointed to RTVS in 2017, he served in the press departments of government ministries led by SNS and SMER. 

The internal struggles in RTVS’s news section are now again gaining momentum with changes at key leadership positions. These came in reaction to complaints about the leadership by the ousted journalists. 

First came firing of journalists and pressures on self-censorship…

Miroslava Kernova, media analyst and editor-in-chief of Omediach.com points out, that it is not easy to cut political ties. She explains, that “there is an unwritten rule that there should at least be a pause or these people should not go into journalism, certainly not at such an important position, because they basically served one political party for years.” 

According to several former RTVS editors, after the new leadership came to power a tense atmosphere prevailed in the newsroom, with pressure on the journalists’ self-censorship and even outright content tampering efforts. These controversial practices led to the firing of one of the most experienced senior editors, Olga Baková, at the beginning of 2018. 

The core of the newsroom protested these practices in April 2018 with an open letter, signed by 60 RTVS journalists. But the RTVS leadership, taking advantage of their external employment contract, sacked several full-time editors in reaction to the protest. A large group of experienced editors left RTVS and were replaced by often inexperienced early-career journalists in spring 2018. Other editors were transferred from the television screens into less exposed positions.

In Poland and Hungary, where public broadcasters are now entirely under political control, the first steps, worryingly, were similar massive firings of journalists and editors or their transfers to less exposed positions.  In both cases, the public broadcasters then turned into government mouthpieces. 

… then outright content meddling 

Currently, the RTVS news section is not under a direct control of the government or any political party. But structural changes and the departure of key journalists allow the leadership of the Slovak public broadcaster direct meddling in the content of its news and the work of its editors. All while even during the last general director Václav Míka, RTVS news grew to be the most trusted news source in the country. 

In recent years, it was surpassed by a private news station TA3 but is still among the top most trusted. Pressure from the leadership, expected self-censorship and the effort to artificially “balance” its reports by involving respondents with disinformation tendencies or political ambitions were the reasons for the first wave of departures of RTVS employees. 

Long-term RTVS editor and anchor Michal Kaťuška was forced to leave after the public broadcasters’ leadership pulled his reportage before the 2020 parliamentary election. | Photo: Aneta Václavíková

Disagreements over the content of his reporting lies also behind the transfer of seasoned editor and anchor Michal Kaťuška from TV screens back into radio. Officially, his move was supposed to “help save the radio”. According to Kaťuška, viewers, which are not familiar with the internal struggles within the public broadcaster are especially vulnerable to political meddling.

The last straw, according to Kaťuška, was his reportage about the threat of a possible Russian disinformation campaign in Slovakia. In this piece, he criticised Andrej Danko, the Speaker of Slovak Parliament and the leader of the SNS party. 

Last year, a one-sided radio segment “Z prvej ruky” by RTVS was criticised by Reporters Without Borders for turning into a political campaign platform for Danko. The organisation also criticised international visits by RTVS journalists accompanying politicians and their one-sided coverage of these trips. 

Concerns about the leadership’s content meddling before the March parliamentary election were confirmed in January. When a recording of communication between Andrej Danko and Alena Zsuzsová, a “bait” of controversial businessman Marian Kočner, was made public it dominated the headlines of most major media. But the RTVS leadership pulled a reportage about the recordings from its main evening news in the last minute and also from the most popular morning news segment. A controversial adjustment was also made to its election debate to include the nominee of SNS.  

Two analyses released by MEMO98, an NGO, and the Slovak branch of Transparency international both warn that RTVS did not meet the legal criteria for a public broadcaster before the election. A similar criticism could be found in the final report of the OSCE monitoring mission. 

The official News Agency of the Slovak Republic (TASR) was also previously accused of favouring SNS when it was led by the current director of RTVS Rezník.  

Structural problems of RTVS

Structural problems in the way the RTVS director-general is elected and the organisation’s financing lie behind its propensity to political meddling. In contrast to the Czech Television, where the director is elected by the Board, the RTVS director is elected directly by the parliament. Her appointment is, therefore, often the result of political bargaining within the coalition. This is also reflected on the frequency of their replacement. Former director Václav Míka was the only one finishing his entire term in the history of RTVS and the Slovak Television. 

Another issue further deepening the public broadcaster’s dependence on the government is its financing. The government continues to shrink the pool of people who pay the television and radio license fees. Furthermore, the price of these fees has not risen since 2003. Slovakia has one of the lowest public broadcasting license fees in Europe, further increasing the economic deficit of RTVS. 

This deficit is balanced by a four-year contract with the government that requires the negotiation of an annual amendment. In reality, RTVS director negotiates the amount of the government subsidy in a given year directly with the finance minister. 

Former director Václav Míka admits, that these negotiations are another potential sphere of influence and dependence on the government. The Slovak public broadcaster was paid by the government almost €230 million since 2011, on average almost €29 million annually. But even with this bonus, the RTVS is still underfunded. In its draft budget, the broadcaster itself admits, that this prevents it from investing in more demanding formats.

De-politicisation of RTVS director and financing

The transformation of the leadership and financing of public broadcasters remains the biggest challenge. The way RTVS director general is selected is directly allowing political influence and needs to be changed in order to truly depoliticise the organisation.

Facebook and Google should pay publishers for using their content. A similar solution was recently introduced in Australia. | Photo: Aneta Václavíková

RTVS could transfer to the Czech system, in which the director is selected by the Board. However, not even this system can entirely prevent political struggles to determine the future of public broadcasters. But political control would become much more difficult to achieve. Slovakia could take inspiration form the Czech model and better tune board-member selection. 

The debate about the fate of the license fees is still going on. They allow for the greatest autonomy of the public broadcaster and potentially also increase the citizens’ concern for political meddling. On the other hand, increasing license feed and re-introducing them for other groups of people is politically very unpopular. A broad political agreement would be needed which seems unlikely in the current government which includes SaS, a party that previously fought against the fees.

Another alternative would be to link RTVS financing to the government budget by a percentage of the GDP. However, as the former RTVS director Míka reminds, the army also has a similar guarantee which is not adhered. 

Media in Central Europe are facing similar problems. Moreover, these news publishers are not spared of the global media changes on which they need to react. Hungary and Poland serve as an example how both private and public media can fall under political control. It is, therefore, necessary to focus on structural problems which are threatening press freedom in Central Europe.

This story was supported by Visegrad Fund.