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Media tide turning for Slovakia's image

An influential American media figure told a round table audience at the US Embassy in Bratislava last week that he felt Slovakia's image was slowly improving after years of sensational media stories during the Mečiar administration.
Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, said a front-page article his paper had run on October 12 about the decision of US Steel to buy the VSŽ steel factory and relocate 30% of its steel production to Slovakia had been a significant step in improving the country's image.

An influential American media figure told a round table audience at the US Embassy in Bratislava last week that he felt Slovakia's image was slowly improving after years of sensational media stories during the Mečiar administration.

Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, said a front-page article his paper had run on October 12 about the decision of US Steel to buy the VSŽ steel factory and relocate 30% of its steel production to Slovakia had been a significant step in improving the country's image.

"[Former Prime Minister Vladimír] Mečiar was a colourful character, he was an easily graspable stereotype, and his influence on Slovakia still persists, even if he is in the wings rather than at centre stage," Steiger said.

"But the image is changing. The story on page one of our paper was fairly positive for US Steel and, I think, will prove to be positive for Slovakia. That's the way to get the change - it doesn't happen in one big stroke, but through a succession of them."

That's welcome news for Slovak government officials, some of whom have complained privately that the international press was still prefering lurid political stories over coverage of the economic victories which the cabinet has notched since inheriting a faltering economy in 1998.

It also may presage a switch in the international media 'take' on Slovakia. Other recent strokes towards reshaping the country's public face include a November 19 travel article featuring Bratislava in The New York Times, and the September 18 visit to Slovakia of American publisher Donald Newhouse, whose Advance Publications firm puts out 22 daily papers and magazine titles such as The New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Both Newhouse and Steiger were visiting Slovakia at the invitation of US Ambassador Carl Spielvogel, whose plan to promote Slovakia includes pro bono ad campaigns and increased coverage from major international media.

Some media professionals believe the job of erasing Slovakia's western press image as a political and economic basket case is a matter of getting western journalists themselves to question the country's stereotype. Steiger revealed that the October 12 Wall Street Journal article had been criticised by US Steel's top executive in Slovakia as not being positive enough. The piece alleged that nostalgia for "the old days" among older Slovak citizens had led to "a political campaign to return to communism".

"I thought it [the article] was highly positive for Slovakia, but it was interesting that the head of US Steel here felt it didn't tell enough of the good points about Slovakia - he had become so excited about the potential of the country," said the managing editor, adding that his news team was always careful to question past assumptions.

"One of the things I try to tell my colleagues is that just because you've written something in the past, that something may have been true in the past, doesn't mean that it's true today," he said. "We don't spend a lot of time regurgitating clips, but instead ask ourselves how is something different, why the pre-conception might be wrong."

But others believe the task involves raising more the quantity than the quality of coverage. Thomas Coreno, a sales consultant with Slovakia's largest TV station, the privately-owned Markíza, said that he planned to approach the American broadcast channel CNN about running Markíza-produced news clips from Slovakia.

"People even in Europe still see Slovakia as part of [the former] Czechoslovakia," he said. "It's been a real surprise to me. We in this country could be doing a better job of PR."

The missing link

For all the elbow grease that may be applied in polishing Slovakia's image, however, the fact that Slovak politics continue turbulent may defeat efforts to focus coverage on more up-beat developments.

Jeff Gable and Marco Annunziata, senior members of Deutsche Bank's emerging markets research team, had crossed their fingers that the "very positive" Slovak economy would once again be the country's biggest news story after the November 11 referendum on early elections was over.

But on November 28, hours after Steiger's presentation, they found themselves back in Bratislava taking soundings on Slovakia's tumultuous political scene. Even as they were being driven from Vienna to the Slovak capital, the ruling coalition Christian Democrats were winning support in parliament for their decision to break away from Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's SDK party.

The establishment of the new eight-member Christian Democrat parliamentary caucus means that the coalition government now comprises five rather than four parties. It is also expected to weaken the prime minister politically, and to increase the power of anti-reform elements within the coalition - an unsettling situation for market analysts and potential investors alike.

"I had rather hoped that once the referendum was over we could once again concentrate on the positive economic news, but it would be naive to suggest that the current negotiations within the coalition are not going to cause worry among international investors," said Gable.

It's a cycle familiar to anyone who has followed Slovak current events from abroad since the 1998 elections: no sooner does an economic success story hit the headlines than an exotic political event diverts the attention of international observers. Thus were the current government's first crucial economic reform packages overshadowed in early 1999 by approaching presidential elections which, it was feared, would open a door to the return of Mečiar. Positive economic data early this year too were trumped by an April police raid on Mečiar's house, while OECD accession this summer took a back seat in the tense lead-up to the referendum.

"The most frustrating thing we've seen is that in a year [2000] when we've had very positive economic news throughout, the focus has really been on political events," added Gable.

But while foreign readers continue to be drawn more by human drama than economic data, the emphasis is unlikely to change.

"Western media, especially American, are primarliy focused on domestic issues, so the stories they'll look for from Slovakia are ones about calamity or disaster or ones that support the theme that transition is awkward," said Laura Kelly, a Knight International Press Fellow who, with over 20 years experience as a print journalist, came to Slovakia 14 months ago to take part in a new journalism programme at Akadémia Istropolitana Nova.

"Foreign media are looking for something sexy and controversial, so you have to ask why this country [Slovakia] should register on their radar when there are hundreds of other countries out there," she mused. "They're not going to write 'things are going well', they're going to write 'things are falling to shit'."

It's a reality not lost on senior Slovak journalists, whom experience has taught that getting no news coverage is more healthy than encouraging intense foreign media interest in Slovakia.

"During the referendum and just before, my phone was ringing several times a day with foreign media wanting statistics and information," said Martin Šimečka, editor of the Slovak daily paper Sme. "At other times, it may not ring for months. Really, I don't like to read about Slovakia in foreign papers, because it's mostly bad news."

Note: The Slovak Spectator and Sme are both majority owned by Grand Press, a German-Slovak publishing venture.

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