The future of Slovakia's most popular television station, the privately owned TV Markíza, is once again in serious doubt. On the same day that a broadcast watchdog announced the station might lose its license for past infractions, police announced an important court document submitted by current Markíza executive director Pavol Rusko in his fight to keep his license from another challenger was a forgery.
The fact that both announcements were made within hours of each other on June 6 was no coincidence, according to Rusko, who claimed that "certain political groups" were out to secure the station for their own interests. Whatever the case, the fact that Rusko's court file contained a forgery made him freshly vulnerable to such pressures, media experts said.
The recent furore began on June 6 when Peter Juráš, the head of the licence committee of the Slovak Council for Radio and TV Broadcasting (RRTV), announced an internal audit stretching back several years had found Markíza guilty of "several dozen infractions" which would require the imposition of heavy fines. "Under these conditions, the Council is required, not just able, to take the station's license," he told a press conference.
Later that same day, the Criminal Forensics Institute of the Bratislava Police Department announced that a document submitted by Pavol Rusko in his court case against the Gamatex firm, who are suing for Markíza's license, was a fake, bearing an additional paragraph and a court executor's signature that had been falsified using high-tech laser equipment.
Rusko claimed, in turn, that he had proof that Gamatex had in fact forged his (Rusko's) document to discredit him, and that the Council announcement was simply another step in the RRTV's drawn-out "war" against him.
"I have no trust whatsoever in the Council," Rusko said. "Its  people just want to act out their hatred towards us and keep on making every situation more complicated for us. According to my sources, there are political interests which don't represent the current opposition behind the attempt to take my license. I was very suprised to find that it was some people in the current ruling coalition."
Both government officials and RRTV members vigorously denied the accusations. Zuzana Jašková, RRTV deputy director, said that contrary to Rusko's views the Council had always done its best to preserve rather than destroy existing TV stations. "We fought for a long time to help VTV [a small TV station which went bankrupt in 1999 - Ed. note] and keep it going," said Jašková. "Even if we wanted to strip Markíza of its licence, which we don't, can you imagine what impact that decision would have on Slovaks? Considering only the people's reaction, we couldn't do it even if we wanted to."
Jašková explained that in spite of Juráš' announcement, the Council had actually only begun to consider an audit on June 6, and that no decision of any kind had been made regarding Markíza's licence. Juráš, she said, was on sick leave and unavailable for comment.
But accusations of political influence at the RRTV surfaced soon after, this time from Gamatex's executive director Marián Kočner. Noting that RRTV members were all political appointees [Juráš himself was appointed by the HZDS opposition party - Ed. note], Kočner agreed with Rusko that "certain political interests" - which he would not specify - were behind Juráš' announcement. "Where you have two people fighting [Rusko and Gamatex], a third party often wins," he said cryptically, quoting a well-known Slovak saying.
Even independent journalism bodies admit that the independence of the Council may be flawed. "They are political candidates and we all know who represents whom in the game. The law concerning the RRTV is not perfect but an amendment is being prepared," said Ján Fule, head of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN). "But on the other hand Mr. Rusko has always had objections to the council except for when they granted him a licence for his TV station."
As Rusko himself explained, the latest RRTV shot across his bows was nothing out of the ordinary. But for other media professionals, the police announcement of the forged document puts the Markíza director in a delicate position.
Markíza began broadcasting on August 31, 1996. Almost two years later, on August 14, 1998, armed thugs hired by Gamatex entered the station's premises claiming they had become the company's new rightful owners. Taking place just over a month before critical national elections, the invasion created a furore at the time as members of the political opposition claimed to see the HZDS - then in goverment - behind the takeover.
In the months that followed, however, it became clear that the Gamatex action had less to do with politics than with an unpaid debt Rusko had ignored. Early in 1998, Kočner bought a several million Slovak crown debt from a certain Espe Studio, owed by Rusko to media mogul Siloš Pohanka. This debt had accumulated over several years after Rusko failed to keep his promise to Pohanka to create a joint venture with him after he had acquired the licence for Markíza [which he obtained in 1995].
Armed with the debt, and an order from a court-appointed executor that Markíza property - including its licence - be distrained to settle the claim, Kočner invaded Markíza on August 14, and then again on September 15 after a public outcry foiled his first attempt. Since that time, the courts and the Council's licence committee have been studying the case to decide who is the actual owner of Markíza. Their work has been complicated by the existence of a second executor's order, supplied by Rusko, which contradicted the terms of the order held by Kočner.
According to both Kočner and Anton Bury, the original executor, the Gamatex document is the real item. "We bought Markíza at an auction and we have the executor's official confirmation that the television is ours. And that's it," Kočner said. "I won't be dragged back into this dispute, which has been closed for me since 1998, but I will say this - the Gamatex document is the real document,"added Bury.
Rusko, however, isn't giving up. "It was Kočner and executor Anton Bury who faked the document. They wanted to discredit us, but I believe that the investigation will confirm that it was their business."
Whatever the prosecutor's verdict eventually is, Rusko claims that according to Slovak law the investigation should block the Council from continuing its own proceedings concerning the licence transfer from Markíza to Gamatex.