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Editor Petr Šabata: Journalists must serve only one master

Czech journalist Petr Šabata has been editor-in-chief of the Slovak paper Pravda ('Truth') since March 1, 2001. At age 39, he has over 16 years experience as a reporter and later editor-in-chief of the influential Czech daily Mladá Fronta Dnes, experience that spans both communism and capitalism, the break-up of Czechoslovakia and the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
He says there is room on the Slovak media market for one or two 'serious' newspapers, and that the best part of his new job is getting a chance to improve Pravda, to make it a newspaper "that's fun to read". The Slovak Spectator spoke to him May 16 about his first several months in Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You've been a journalist since 1985. How difficult was it for you after fall of the Communism in 1989 to make the transition to thinking and writing for a 'capitalist' market?


Czech journalist Petr Šabata says ťhe first thing he noticed about the Slovak media market after arriving in March was how small it was.
photo: Ján Svrček


"Nobody is interested in detailed reporting on every-day politics. People want instead to know what's really going on, what events mean or signify, not just what happened yesterday and who said what."

Pravda newspaper editor Petr Šabata


Czech journalist Petr Šabata has been editor-in-chief of the Slovak paper Pravda ('Truth') since March 1, 2001. At age 39, he has over 16 years experience as a reporter and later editor-in-chief of the influential Czech daily Mladá Fronta Dnes, experience that spans both communism and capitalism, the break-up of Czechoslovakia and the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

He says there is room on the Slovak media market for one or two 'serious' newspapers, and that the best part of his new job is getting a chance to improve Pravda, to make it a newspaper "that's fun to read". The Slovak Spectator spoke to him May 16 about his first several months in Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You've been a journalist since 1985. How difficult was it for you after fall of the Communism in 1989 to make the transition to thinking and writing for a 'capitalist' market?

Petr Šabata (PŠ): It was difficult. I don't remember it all, but I worked for the Czech daily Mladá Fronta, which was different from other communist papers because it allowed us to write more freely. It was owned by the Socialistický zväz mládeže [Young Socialists League, an organisation which prepared teenagers for entry into the Communist Party - ed. note]. So we had more freedom, but it was still a bitter kind of freedom.

Two years before the Velvet Revolution, we began meeting various people who had been exiled, at which time we began questioning our reasons for staying at the paper. We never dared hope that something like the events of November 1989 would happen, which turned the world upside down from one day to another, yet we started thinking about cleaning out our desks and moving on to something more serious.


Šabata refuses to reveal his plans for Pravda because, he says, he doesn't want to give anything away to the competition.
photo: Ján Svrček

Although journalists from Mladá Fronta were mentally ready for change, at the end of the day it appeared that not a single one of them was ready to work as a professional journalist. At the beginning [of the 1990s], newspapers started to work normally, but journalists still lacked a professional approach to their work. I think one could say the Prague papers were generally the most ready to answer the challenges implicit in the new freedom, but still, the general level of professionalism was low.


TSS: As far as the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993 goes, people say that it wasn't just a decision made by politicians, but that it was also a reflection of the frustration the two nations were feeling about each other. Slovaks felt that all their money was going to Prague where it was used for the construction of the city's underground metro and for the reconstruction of historic buildings. On the other hand, Czechs felt that their money was being used to pay for the industrialisation of the poorer, more agrarian Slovakia. Was the Velvet Divorce driven by social reality or by self-serving politicians?

PŠ: I think that the politicians were acting largely according to the wishes of their voters. Maybe in their hearts Czechs and Slovaks felt they belonged together. But on another level, not only did Czechs feel that all their money was being spent in Slovakia, but they also had the feeling that Slovaks wanted even more. And then they started talking about emancipation. This went on for two years, and the Czechs simply lost patience.

In Slovakia, it was obviously vice versa. Feelings there also played into the hands of politicians who wanted the split. Vladimír Mečiar and Václav Klaus understood these tensions and managed to split the country without too many problems. In a normal situation, of course, responsible politicians would have tried to patch things up, but in this case they [Mečiar and Klaus] didn't.


TSS: Ordinary Czechs and Slovaks knew little about plans to split their country, and certainly were not given a chance to vote on the divorce. How informed were you as a journalist? Did you know what was actually going on?

PŠ: It all happened very quickly. Parliamentary elections were held in June 1992, and a government was formed quickly thereafter. Politicians had only a few months in which to make the split happen, but there was no fixed plan for politicians to follow. I don't think the politicians themselves were always the masters of what was happening. In January 1993 the country split.

As journalists we were always well informed about what was going on, but there was no way to predict in June what would happen on December 31, 1992. No plans for divorce existed.


TSS: You arrive in Slovakia over eight years since independence, having worked the whole time on the Czech media market. Do any differences between the Czech and Slovak media markets leap to your eye?

PŠ: The main difference is that the Slovak market is smaller. This fact led to foreign publishing houses coming here later and in smaller numbers [than in the Czech Republic], which at the end of the day had a negative impact on the market.

I also understand that publishers here in Slovakia in the past ran their newspapers not to make a profit, but to advance their political and business interests, which is an obvious problem.


TSS: Wasn't this also a problem in the Czech Republic?

PŠ: There was one attempt earlier on, when the ODS [Civil Democratic Party of former Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus - ed. note] ran a newspaper called Telegraf and financed it through the [state-owned] IPB bank, but the paper went bankrupt. The general situation changed when foreign publishers hit the market. Foreign publishers quickly standardised the media environment and weeded out unhealthy practices.


TSS: Is it only the size of the market which leads to a climate in which newspapers and journalists are influenced by political circles?

PŠ: The media was obviously influenced by the abnormal political situation during the Mečiar era [from 1992 to 1998], and behaved abnormally. But this was understandable because they were fighting to maintain fundamental democratic principles, something Czech journalists never experienced, never had to defend. In the Czech Republic, the media was able to focus on doing business and making money, rather than having to worry about shaping politics, as was the case in Slovakia.

But the size of the market does have a huge influence. Whether you want to run a printing house in either Prague or Bratislava, you still have to invest the same amount of money in both cities. But in Prague you make twice as much from your investment as you do in Bratislava. That's the problem, and that's why so many more foreign publishers have invested in the Czech market.


TSS: Do you feel you have something to teach your Pravda reporters, after your experiences in Prague?

PŠ: No, they know it all. It's just that some of them don't realise that they actually know what they know.


TSS: Slovak media often use words such as 'allegedly', 'apparently', 'evidently', 'supposedly', 'rumour has it' etc. in their stories, rather than writing only those things they are able to prove with comments on the record. Such tactics generally lower the trust of the public in the media in general. Have you discussed this problem with your Pravda journalists?

PŠ: We told them that we're a professional newspaper which has to follow certain rules. Let's take the example of the Roland Tóth case, which we followed since the beginning of April [Roland Tóth was a Government Office official dismissed from his job under suspicion of having misused some of the funds sent by the European Union to Slovakia - ed. note]. I closely followed the way we covered the case, and I was very satisfied. Even though we used anonymous sources and the words you mentioned, we knew that we were citing existing sources and documents. We had good reasons not to run some of the names of our sources, something that we explained to our readers. I think that's still all right.


TSS: Some relics of communist-era journalism still persist in Slovakia, such as the custom of allowing sources to 'authorise' their quotes, meaning the journalist does an interview, sends the transcript to the source, and publishes basically what the source permits. How have you dealt with this issue at Pravda?

PŠ: This was one of the first things I cancelled as soon as I took over here. We were having a few problems with it, so I just said we weren't going to do it any more. I expect this move [cancelling the practice of offering authorisation] will cause real problems for us, because politicians and other sources have become used to being allowed to authorise their comments. But our approach is 'either you give us an interview without asking for authorisation, or you don't give us an interview'. There's no other option, no middle ground.

Look, when a source gives a live interview on TV, there's no opportunity given to authorise what was said. The same should apply with print media.

We went through this fight in the Czech Republic, but it was a tough battle. We succeeded, though, and since around 1996 it has gradually become normal that sources don't ask for authorisation.


TSS: Who does authorisation benefit? Why does this practice exist?

PŠ: Authorisation would only be justifiable if you had a devious, unreliable politician on one side of the table and an unprofessional journalist on the other side. But whenever you have a decent politician and a professional journalist, people who can rely on each other, meaning that the journalist doesn't add anything to what the politician has said, and the politician understands that anything he says can be published, then there is no need to authorise because the two are equal partners in the transaction.


TSS: You've said that Slovak papers cover politics too much. What do you mean?

PŠ: I was thinking specifically about how many reports we get on every press conference and the comments made by individuals after them. It's unnecessary. Journalists here haven't yet figured out that it isn't interesting for readers.


TSS: Do you mean that readers aren't interested in politics per se, or that they aren't served by the way the stories are written?

PŠ: Politics as a topic will always grab people's attention, and there is always a lot to write about. But nobody is interested in detailed reporting on every-day politics. People want instead to know what's really going on, what events mean or signify, not just what happened yesterday and who said what. As a professional journalist you have to be able to paint a larger picture and find sources to support this picture. That's what journalism is all about. But when a journalist reports only comments from a press conference, he's misleading his readers, because the crux of the story usually lies somewhere else.


TSS: Does the media in central Europe play a different role than it does in developed countries?

PŠ: It shouldn't.


TSS: But does it?

PŠ: It hasn't so far. But those media that, for instance, are trying to influence political events, are digging their own graves, not serving their countries.


TSS: Does this still happen?

PŠ: It depends on what paper you're talking about. But yes, it does.


TSS: During the 1998 election campaign, some Slovak journalists biked with current Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda on his campaign around Slovakia, and received flattering phone calls from the PM about the articles they later wrote. Has the media matured since then? Will it try to influence politicians and again become players instead of observers in 2002?

PŠ: It's difficult to predict. People make their own happiness. Of course, whoever does this kind of thing harms only himself. Pravda will certainly not do it.


TSS: What's the best news coming out of Slovakia you've read over the last year?

PŠ: There's been more than one story. But perhaps the fact that it seems Slovakia is on its way to NATO [Šabata here clasps his hands as if in prayer, and grins].


TSS: And the worst?

PŠ: [Pause]... Of the articles I've read over the last two months, the ones that have struck me the most are those revealing how easy it is to bribe a judge in this country. Judges in society should form the last bulwark against corruption, but when even judges can be bribed, that's terrifying.


TSS: What do you understand by the term journalistic ethics?

PŠ: That a journalist serves only his or her profession, meaning the only concern is to publish important and well-sourced information. A journalist mustn't serve any other master.

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