Moving out. Slovenská Republika employees spent the last day in their old offices packing, reminiscing and complaining of political persecution.
photo: Martina Pisárová
A menacing obstacle course of stacked chairs, tables, cabinets and cardboard boxes lined the dim hallway leading to what used to be the offices of Slovenská Republika, the parochial, feisty daily paper which in its heyday had been the mouthpiece of the former ruling party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).
But the days when Republika - and only Republika - was offered exclusive interviews and information by the government have passed. Struggling to attract advertising revenue, the paper was bought out and terminated as of November 30, leaving 75 employees jobless.
"Is your paper looking for a new staff writer? I'm ready to start this moment," one reporter joked dryly.
Media insiders said that the move had become inevitable as Slovak readers matured to the point that they would no longer buy into Republika's insular style. The former staff, however, say that they were merely presenting another opinion and that political persecution drove them out.
"We've been fired because we went after problems and were critical of those in charge of this state," said another reporter as he carried a box of his personal belongings towards the elevator.
Ján Füle, head of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN), offered a different take on Republika's demise. "Slovenská Republika has always been an outlet for pro-HZDS propaganda," he said. "It was offensive in its attempts to dishonour all 'enemies', and it never managed to get rid of this plagued reputation."
"The creators of the paper missed one important point," Füle continued. "The era when papers were divided into opposition and coalition is long gone. Today it's increasingly more about quality reporting, and this is one thing they weren't able to offer."
This is the end
Moving-out day at the former Republika offices was a mixture of bitterness, disappointment, and longing for the 'good old days' when HZDS boss and three-time ex-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar was in power. Those days were erased on November 24 when the paper's publishing rights and trademark were sold to American-born Slovak Leopold J. Danihels.
Danihels made a name for himself in Slovak media circles this past July when he bought a 49% stake in the NO Publishing House, which publishes the Slovak daily Národná obroda. The contract he signed with R-press, Republika's publisher, called for the printing of the opposition daily to be halted on November 30 at the latest.
As to why the paper had been forced into the sale, a former Republika employee, who declined to be named, said the paper carried a debt of 17 million crowns ($340,000) for unpaid printing and distribution services. When contacted by The Slovak Spectator, Jozef Majský, one of the richest businessmen in Slovakia and the reputed owner of Republika, offered only vague information.
"The owner wishes to remain anonymous and I can't speak on his behalf," he said. "I did advise the owner in this case, but it wouldn't be appropriate of me to say more."
Another part of the sale called for Obroda to honour Republika's subscriber contracts with subscriptions to its own paper, as well as to hire some of the Republika staff; three reporters from the weekend supplement were hired, but all the editors and political writers were sent packing.
"We have enough writers on our own staff," said Dag Daniš, Národná obroda Editor-in-Chief. "We don't need more reporters. Besides, the Republika reporters were too politically biased to become part of our paper."
While some Republika reporters and journalists hope to find work at Nový deň ('New Day'), Slovakia's other pro-HZDS daily, the ousted reporters again complained that their jobs had been lost due to political intolerance from the current coalition.
"The space for open criticism of the policy of the current ruling coalition is getting smaller," one reporter said. His colleague added: "They [the coalition] have managed to shut the mouths of real opposition journalists."
Republika management agreed, saying that the change in government after national elections in 1998 brought an ad revenue draught the paper had been unable to weather.
"Our 1998 advertising revenues were 33 million Slovak crowns ($970,000 at the time), but ever since the government changed, we haven't gotten a single big ad," said 48 year-old Dušan Jurík, the former Republika Deputy Editor-in-Chief.
But the SSN's Füle said that advertisers had been scared away because of the disrepute of the paper itself. "Advertisers just don't want to have their names associated in any way with an uncultivated paper," he said. "As an advertiser, you have to think twice about where your company's name appears. Most wouldn't like to see it displayed besides second-rate journalism."
The lack of lucrative ads plagues Nový deň as well, where Editor-in-Chief Naďa Lazarová says that advertising executives have a hard time attracting any company to advertise, big or small. "Companies are afraid to advertise in an opposition paper, and this causes us big problems."
"My journalists and sales executives are labeled as HZDS-positive, and have a difficult time in their work every day," Lazarová added.
Dagmar Beláková, who worked as a reporter and later as general secretary at Republika, agreed that opposition journalists faced a tough road. "There was dislike for Republika reporters especially from the younger journalists," Beláková said. "Some of them wouldn't even talk to us just because we represented a different opinion in our articles."
Battle on two fronts
Although Nový deň and Republika have been similar in style and content, the two papers were not particularly friendly. In September 1999, when Nový deň was first published, a rivalry between the two began as they fought for readership.
"In the printed press every paper is a competitor, especially if its one representing similar opinions," Lazarová said. "In the end, although we are not happy that Republika does not exist anymore, we are happy we managed to survive because now we have a chance to attract Republika readers."
The NO Publishing House also has new readers and subscriptions in mind.
"We think it'll be a good way to gain new readers," said Daniš. "Maybe half of the Republika readers will start reading Obroda while the rest will probably turn to Nový deň."
Republika's Jurik saw little chance of that happening. "Our readers want a critical, balanced and intelligent opposition paper. Obroda can't offer what they want."
Fule agreed that Republika readers were not likely to embrace Národna obroda. "The majority of former Republika readers will probably look for a similar paper, like Nový deň. Most of them need some kind of official support in their shaky belief that the HZDS is in the right. This is what Republika was giving them, and what Nový deň gives them now."