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FIRING OF TOP NEWS STAFF FUELS FEARS OF POLITICAL TAKEOVER

STV boss cleans house under cabinet gaze

EVER SINCE Radim Hreha took over as director of Slovakia's public television station, STV, last December, media observers have expressed fears the station will quickly lose its independence under the Robert Fico government. In the second week of January, these fears were confirmed in dramatic style.

EVER SINCE Radim Hreha took over as director of Slovakia's public television station, STV, last December, media observers have expressed fears the station will quickly lose its independence under the Robert Fico government. In the second week of January, these fears were confirmed in dramatic style.

The first to go during Hreha's rule was editor-in-chief Roland Kyška at the end of December, followed by Eugen Korda, head of the investigative reporting program Reportéri, at the beginning of January.

Both Kyška and Korda said that Hreha had told them during one-on-one meetings that they were being let go due to political reasons. "He told me in private that he would like to help me out but that due to the pressure being put on him by politicians he was going to let me go," Korda told The Slovak Spectator.

Hreha said his reasons for firing Korda were entirely professional, and told The Slovak Spectator that he "feels independent [of political pressures]".

However, Milan Urbáni, deputy-chairman of the ruling coalition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), confirmed that the three government parties had agreed to divide the station into various spheres of political influence following June 2006 elections.

In a January 8 interview with the Sme daily he said that "we agreed that the coalition parties would control certain areas of STV, and this is why we wanted [control over] the news department. We said that we would be responsible for this person, that he would be a professional, and that he would turn STV's news into the kind of news befitting a public service station.

"You have to understand, this is how things work. You can't separate politics from everyday life. Let's not pretend that we come from Mars. Political parties influence everything that has to with the state."


Reactions


The STV Council, the station's governing body, accused the ruling coalition on January 10 of trying to take over STV's news and investigative journalism programming. "We regard [these efforts] as a violation of the Act on STV," the council said in a statement.

Miroslav Kollár, who recently resigned as the chairman of the STV Council, said that Urbáni's statements made it likely that Korda and Kyška were telling the truth. "It is clear from this that they [the coalition parties] want to turn personnel decisions at STV into political decisions," he said.

Confronted with the Council's complaints, Hreha admitted that politicians use a variety of "social opportunities" to communicate their opinions on STV to its director. "This is normal for public television stations across Europe," he said.

Hreha said that he expected more professional conduct from his new editor-in-chief, Ján Šmihula, and from Katarína Začková, an experienced investigative reporter with 20 years' experience, who will replace Korda.

"The approach of [STV] journalists has to change towards giving as accurate a picture of reality as possible. In other words, they have to avoid approaching stories with pre-conceived notions and then assembling facts and arguments to support these notions.

"I will also ask for the presentation of facts to be separated from commentary. And on difficult stories, I will require that STV's lawyers be consulted during their preparation and before they are broadcast."

Hreha said he did not plan any further changes to senior news and investigative staff at the station, "although at the same time I can't rule out that changes might become necessary in practice."

The journalist regarded as next for the axe is Štefan Hríb, the presenter of the Pod Lampou (Under the Spotlight) talk show.

Last October, ruling HZDS party MP Ján Kovarčík said that "STV talk shows are often biased and tendentious, due to the ideological sympathies of some of the creators of these shows with the parties of the current political opposition." As an example, Kovarčík cited Pod Lampou, whose presenter, Hríb, has never hid his sympathy for the opposition Christian Democrats.


Long time coming


For months before Hreha's election, government officials criticized the news reporting of Slovakia's public media, which is why changes to STV's senior news staff came as no surprise.

In September 2006, Slovak National Party deputy chair Anna Belousovová said that "the public media are ridiculing democratically elected members of the government. It is impermissible for public media to start putting the boot to the government in a biased way before it has really begun to function."

In October tensions rose after STV editor Kyška said that Prime Minister Robert Fico had called him to complain about the station's coverage of his working trip to Italy.

"He told me that we are paid with taxpayers' money, and that public service stations had to report on things like his working trips. He said we should use some photographs and put it together somehow, and then he asked us to run at least a telephone interview with him."

While the PM's spokesperson, Silvia Glendová, accused Kyška of "deliberate misinterpretation" and of launching "a political attack on the prime minister", Kyška said he stood by his claims.

"For this government, public service means servility," he said.

Media analyst Marek Mračka from the Memo 98 NGO, which monitors bias in the news, said that Fico's demands of the STV news chief were "inappropriate", and compared them to the era of the third Mečiar government from 1994-1998, when politicians with the then-ruling HZDS party made no secret of their interference with news programs on public media: "This is the type of thing that would have happened a decade ago," Mračka said.

From 1994-1998, STV reporters continually presented the political opposition in a bad light, while some journalists perceived as being anti-government, such as Eugen Korda, were harassed by the secret service.

According to a report on the activities of the secret service from 1995-1998 that was presented to parliament in 1999 by new director Vladimír Mitro, "provocations were prepared and carried out by members of a special secret service unit, including gangsterish acts like the burning of the car of TV Nova reporter Eugen Korda".

Korda and Kyška were not the only changes to STV's management that occurred under Hreha. Others have also left, including former interim station director Branislav Zahradník, who competed with Hreha for the position of general director, Ľubor Košút, STV's business and marketing director, and STV spokesman Peter Kavecký. All three resigned from top management positions to take jobs in the private sector.

The new STV executive director is Roman Lipták, director of the Forza production house, while the new editor-in-chief, Ján Šmihula, until now has been a foreign correspondent with the public Slovak Radio channel in Prague.

Košút's spot as marketing director was taken by Pavol Hanzel, the former director of radio stations Fun and Forte. The deputy chairman of the STV Council, Peter Malec, said of Hanzel that "the HZDS has begun to put into effect its own understanding of the coalition agreement [between the government parties]."

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