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EDITORIAL

Right place, right time

THE AMERICAN media company Central European Media Enterprises (CME) has become the sole owner of Slovakia's most popular television station, Markíza. The news would have been more exciting if the shares shuffle happened in 2005, when the US Department of State singled out Pavol Rusko, one of the former owners of Markíza, for "influencing TV Markíza's editorial policies, despite having divested his ownership interest."

THE AMERICAN media company Central European Media Enterprises (CME) has become the sole owner of Slovakia's most popular television station, Markíza. The news would have been more exciting if the shares shuffle happened in 2005, when the US Department of State singled out Pavol Rusko, one of the former owners of Markíza, for "influencing TV Markíza's editorial policies, despite having divested his ownership interest."

Rusko, the former economy minister who was forced to resign over corruption suspicions, lost his influence over his media empire in 2005 after CME acquired a controlling 80 percent share, a deal that cost CME around $28.7 million US. The impending television license renewal in 2006 and the growing criticism of Rusko's tampering with Markíza news made the acquisition more urgent for the American company.

Now, in July 2007, CME has finally bought the remaining 20 percent share in Markíza, paying Ján Kováčik and Milan Fiľo a total of Sk1.9 billion.

CME, which understood the post-communist bloc's hunger for private television stations early enough, owns the most popular television stations in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, along with an additional 12 stations around Eastern Europe.

On the heels of the Slovak deal, Markíza announced that there will be no major changes either to the management or the programme structure.

However, changes were evident when Rusko left Markíza, followed by his wife Viera Rusková who worked in Markíza's news division and had access to one of the most-watched programmes in Slovakia.

The first blemish appeared on Markíza's face when Rusko made up his mind to march into Slovak politics and Markíza reporters started intense coverage of Rusko's New Citizen's Alliance (ANO), even before it was an officially registered party with the Interior Ministry.

The history of Markíza is a textbook example of the vulnerability of private television stations on post-communist media markets. Private television at the time of its inception had more credibility than the state-run Slovak Television, which had been an apple-polisher for the Vladimír Mečiar government. However, it is hard to believe that Rusko would have had obtained a television license without having the right contacts with the Mečiar government.

As Slovak journalist Konštantín Čikovský noted in his commentary for Sme, "CME is a successful firm only thanks to the fact that at the right time, it had good judgment about people who had the right political contacts to get exclusive licenses for free."

Shortly after establishing himself on the media market, Rusko endorsed the then-mayor of Košice, Rudolf Schuster, and helped him move into the presidential palace by promoting the Party of Civil Understanding, which has since slipped into political oblivion just as Rusko's own party has.

Political analysts agreed that Rusko and his ANO party would never have made it to parliament in 2002 without Markíza. One of the most popular news announcers oatthe television station, Aneta Paríšková, even ran for election under ANO colours as one of the top candidates during the parliamentary elections. Paríšková is now back in the news business with another private station, TV JOJ.

CME, which today has 90 million potential viewers, obviously does not have to worry that much about the past, because the television station has maintained its popularity even after having to share the market with TV JOJ and the revamped public television STV, which under the management of former director Richard Rybníček became a significant player.

CME has also been gradually building up a "complete ownership portfolio of television stations in Europe, which has a much higher price within the network involving channels on the markets of six countries, than if the company had to share them with local businessmen," according to an analysis by Vladislav Doktor for the economic daily Hospodárske Noviny.

However, last year and in early 2007, Slovak media saw several notable media ownership changes that analysts believe will contribute to more ownership transparency on the media market.

The British publisher group Daily Mail has bought almost 100 percent shares in Perex, the publishing house that has been putting out the Pravda daily. Perex was owned by Juraj Široký, president of the Slovak Ice Hockey Association and an alleged sponsor of the ruling Smer party. He was also a paid agent of the communist secret police from 1979 to 1990, according to a copy of his secret-police file that was provided to the Slovak media by the Nation's Memory Institute.

Although fears emerge now and again over the foreign ownership of Slovak media, experience shows that some Slovak owners can get far too intimate with the media they own, especially when it comes to their ambitions to power.


Beata Balogová

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