Communication failure or censorship?

ONE of the country's tallest buildings, the socialist-style headquarters of the public broadcaster Slovak Television (STV), has seen some pretty weird things since the first journalists moved there in 1975.

ONE of the country's tallest buildings, the socialist-style headquarters of the public broadcaster Slovak Television (STV), has seen some pretty weird things since the first journalists moved there in 1975.

The building is located next to the Bratislava Zoo and journalists often joked about sometimes hearing the sounds of wildlife while working on their news stories. However, it seems that the howling of hyenas infiltrating the newsroom has been the least of the problems for the STV news department.

Some might recall that after Vladimír Mečiar lost power after the parliamentary elections in 1998, his star propaganda team ended up being fired from STV. The new STV management - led by Milan Materák, a nominee of the new ruling coalition - sacked Mečiar's spin doctors, who were left without any news reporting to do. In protest, they moved to the top floor of the building and camped there during their working hours for a couple of weeks.

Mečiar's party accused the new management of ghettoizing the journalists and called the 28th floor an "STV gulag". To intensify the theatre of the absurd, the most notorious HZDS deputies said they would write a letter to the US Congress about the violation of journalists' rights. The HZDS did not even try to pretend they were not interfering in the affairs of the public service STV.

Many thought that after that point things were bound to improve, and that the STV had taken the road to becoming a credible public broadcaster. And in many senses, it took that road in 2002 when it adopted a charter for news reporting that incorporated principles used by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

However, the recent departure of several reporters from the STV news desk just six months after the broadcaster got a new general director and a new head of the news department suggests that there might be some deviations again.

Jaroslav Barborák, Martina Ruttkayová, Mária Ölvédyová, Nora Gubková and Michal Petruška have left. Earlier this year, the STV fired the head of its news analysis department, Eugen Korda, and Štefan Hríb, the host of political talk show "Under the Lamp," who were the first to talk about political pressures at the STV.

In fact, every new government reshuffles people in the management of public broadcasters. With current director Radim Hreha, the STV has had 15 general directors since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The army of former STV general directors suggests many things but stability and freedom from political pressures.

The new STV management denies any political pressure or censorship of the work of journalists. But the head of STV news reporting, Ján Šmihula, openly admitted in an interview with the Sme daily that he stopped a news report after a phone call from the Culture Ministry.

When asked why he stopped a story about the state wanting a greater influence over STV, Šmihula responded: "We reported the topic several times. In this case, the Culture Ministry spokesman asked me to wait since they were working on a more detailed response. We dealt with it later."

No matter how "good-willed" the phone call was, in principle, Šmihula did act upon a phone call from the ministry, which is reason to question the editor's integrity. In a country where a couple of decades ago, the news departments were directly managed from the headquarters of the sole political party, such statements leave a bad taste in a journalist's mouth.

STV Director General Radim Hreha, in an interview with the economic daily Hospodárske Noviny, said "it was exactly the moment when internal communication failed. The editor-in-chief had more information than the reporter on the spot. He decided to air the story the next day, so that it contained all the information."

That explanation does not, however, melt away the image of an editor whose buttons are being pushed by the ministry. In this context, one can hardly resist attaching one more quote made by deputy chairman of the HZDS Milan Urbáni, who told Sme in January 2007 that "it had been agreed upon that the political parties within the ruling coalition will have an impact on some activities in the STV and will take over responsibility".

"We protested because we had clearly agreed that when the new STV director is elected, we would sit down and come up with names," Urbáni told Sme. "We assess them and we choose someone. Right now I do not have anyone in mind who I would want to have on the news desk, but for example the SNS could have proposed someone."

It could have been again just a "failure of internal communication," and Urbáni perhaps did not imply that the ruling coalition parties discussed the option of installing "friendly" people at the broadcaster.

But clearly enough, when seven people leave the news department of a public service media and say that there is something wrong there, it is not only that a couple journalists suddenly desired a change in their careers.

Even if there was no direct censorship involved at the STV news desk, even if the editor was guided by the best journalist intentions when he stopped a report, there seems to be just too much "failure of internal communication" at the country's public broadcaster.

Beata Balogová

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