Slovak TV mogul Pavol Rusko, owner of Markíza TV, told The Slovak Spectator the following on February 5, three months before launching his new party, Aliancia Nového Občana (Alliance of the New Citizen - ANO):
"I can announce on my honour that no manipulation of Markíza in favour of my party will ever take place," he said. "I advise you to wait and see how it all works out [the relationship between Rusko's Markíza and his new ANO party]. Be observant, and criticise me if mistakes occur - but not before."
"Whatever I say today, nobody will believe me anyway."
He was right - no one believed a word he said. Nor should they have - an independent press survey released at the beginning of June showed that Rusko had indeed used Markíza to give ANO more coverage than many other political parties, and at the same time had ignored fundamental journalistic principles in presenting ANO as a better alternative than either the current government or opposition.
The monitoring was done from April 22 to May 20 by MEMO 98, a non-governmental organisation sponsored by the US fund National Endowment for Democracy. The period surveyed covered the first full month following Rusko's public introduction of the members of ANO's preparatory council.
MEMO found that Markíza had given ANO the third most airtime (6.7% of newscasts) of any political party, more than double what ANO was afforded by the public STV and private TV Luna put together. What is more, while Luna portrayed ANO in a generally neutral fashion and STV in a negative light, Markíza's coverage was universally positive. By giving minor ANO events, such as registering the party name with the Interior Ministry, a "celebratory, almost reception-like atmosphere", by casting ANO officials in "missionary-like" roles in reports on minorities and unemployment, by not giving other parties space to respond to criticism from ANO members, and by broadcasting "suggestive shots of people clapping" during ANO reports, MEMO 98 said, Markíza had sometimes "ignored basic principles of journalistic ethics."
Rusko has used many little tricks to get ANO people onto the screen even when what was being presented had nothing to do with the party. For starters, there's Nadácia Markíza (the Markíza Foundation), a charity group on whose board sit two members of ANO - foundation president Rusko and Markíza show host Eva Černá. Markíza TV, as the 'media partner' of its own foundation, manages to find a group of mentally handicapped children, aging cancer patients or hopeless drug addicts seemingly every night for Rusko to throw a caring arm around and convey to the public certain information about his heart (i.e. that it's big, and that it's in the right place).
Then there are Rusko's own guest appearances on his own station - a stint in May on the show Bonzáčik ('Tattletale'), where the guest's children reveal parental foibles in cutesy-cuddly interviews. Or his June appearance on Chuťovky ('Nibbles'), a cooking show hosted by Czech comic Petr Novotný, where the conversation, amazingly, touched on ANO and what the party had to say to gourmands everywhere.
Nor does it stop there. The national daily Národná obroda, which belongs to the Markíza media group, in May alone carried 23 stories in which ANO was mentioned, compared to eight for the daily Pravda and one for the unflappable business weekly Trend. The June 4 edition of Národná obroda gave a whole page to Rusko, in which the ANO leader driveled on about the meaning of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Le Petit Prince for his party. "Slovakia doesn't have an ocean, but desire, hope, vision and faith in our own abilities and powers can create an ocean in each one of us," he wrote. "We all can be carriers of a little internal ocean - a symbol of freedom, ability and internal fortitude."
It would all be absurd if it weren't so dangerous. Surveys have shown that there are times when 74% of all households reached by the Markíza signal, and where TV is being watched, are tuned in to Rusko's station. The fear is that the Slovak public, which seems so besotted by Markíza fare, may accept ANO's political doggerel with the same lack of critical judgement. And Slovak history has shown how dangerous parties can be if they once attain power, and then lose their voter support after their unfitness to rule become apparent.
The only saving grace is that Rusko himself is such a buffoon. He clearly can't write, and his lip-smacking performance on Chuťovky (where he was reduced to gestures rather than words as he stuffed his mouth) shows that his communication problem is all-embracing. He doesn't have the charisma of his political rivals, and is so gross in his use of his media to force his way into politics that even Markíza addicts may soon tire of it. In his arrogance he may also refuse the advice of cooler heads, which is also to the country's general advantage.
But that's a few too many 'ifs' to be comfortable, especially as neither he, nor the wider public, seems to remember or care about the honour he pledged four months ago.