JOURNALISTS and politicians have always had a love/hate relationship. While many say that journalists need to keep their distance from politicians in order to see the wood despite the trees, those who favour closer ties with elected officials and the powerful say there is no other way to get information, and that peeking over the shoulders of their sources gives them valuable insight into confidential state affairs.
Many journalists in Slovakia have been done in by their chummy relationships with politicians, and now find the doors of credible media outlets barred to them for good.
The candidates list of the opposition New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) means nothing in terms of the upcoming June elections, as the party has as much chance as an ice cube in the desert.
However, it offers a revealing glimpse of the connection between politics and the media in this country, and a sad testimonial to the influence that disgraced former Economy Minister Pavol Rusko exercised over Markíza, the most watched TV station in the country.
The ANO candidates list resembles a Titanic that has been boarded by Rusko's former Markíza disciples, journalists who now will follow the hand that fed them to the very bottom of Slovakia's polluted political sea.
Aneta Parišková, the darling of Markíza's prime time news programme who has several times been elected the country's most popular television personality, has boarded Rusko's ship to keep company with her former Markíza colleague, Eva Černá, who leads the ANO election slate.
Few would call Parišková's move a pathway to top politics; most see it as professional suicide. Parišková, who never wielded much influence over the content of the news she read severy night to viewers, has said on several occasions that Rusko "created" her.
Maroš Havran, who occupies the No 7 slot on the ANO list, also worked as a business reporter for Markíza. For many it was only logical that he became the spokesman of the Economy Ministry after his boss took the ministerial post.
It is also perhaps not surprising that former Markíza reporter, show host and manager Robert Beňo is the current spokesman of the Economy Ministry, now led by former ANO member Jirko Malchárek. Beňo also served as the editor of the Národná obroda daily, which Rusko controlled.
Rusko's wife, Viera, who had a major influence on Markíza's prime time news with greater powers than the editor-in-chief, is also on the ANO candidates list. She resigned from Markíza after Central European Media Enterprises (CME) bought out Rusko's stake in TV Markíza.
All the time he was active in politics, Rusko retained his influence in Markíza through his wife and several servile reporters-turned-stars.
Rusko's Markíza will always remain the classic Slovak example of political abuse of the media, a grubby record of the use of journalists and a broadcast license to pave the way of a select few to top politics.
Not that the journalists deserve any sympathy. These reporters, most of whom are still young and have no other professional experience besides Markíza, will never be able to erase the brand from their foreheads.
Of course, Rusko and ANO don't have a patent on journalist/politicians. The boss of the Free Forum party, Zuzana Martináková, used to work for the Slovak section of the BBC, while the Smer opposition party's extravagant No 2, Monika Beňová, also started her career as a journalist.
Ľubomír Lintner, who has many years of journalistic experience including at Rusko's Markíza, served for several years in ANO. However, he has recently been toying with the idea of applying for the top post at the public Slovak Radio.
In Slovakia, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, journalists often became spokespeople for political parties and state institutions. The country lacked a public relations tradition, and journalists tended to have the contacts and the know-how to get simple messages across.
The press departments of political parties and state institutions either came to resemble a rigidly bureaucratic communist apparatus, or were packed with immature youngsters playing at PR with neither the experience nor the brains to do the job properly.
Although it was understandable that events took the course they did, the defenders of media purity have long called for the line between journalism and political PR to be made more distinct, and for travel between the two groups to be reduced to a minimum.
Understandably, when a journalist joins a political party, the public starts to see signs of favouritism in the person's journalist work for the party he is running for. It also casts a negative light on the journalist's former employer.
Those who were journalists and now walk the political path say that their political experience has given them a better understanding of the events they once wrote about. They also ask why they should not have the right to enter politics just because they once worked as journalists.
Of course, their path to politics should not be barred. But this country's democracy is now old enough that there should be no way back to the media - if only that the lesson of Markíza, not be lost on the post-revolution generation.
By Beata Balogová
27. Mar 2006 at 0:00