Pavol Rusko, the politically ambitious director of the Markíza TV station, has recently expanded the media outlets under his wing to include the revamped daily paper Národná Obroda and the popular Fun Radio. Although Rusko says he has no actual ownership stakes in either the paper or the radio, he claims to wield influence in both through close ties with "friends."
Rusko's growing media empire is drawing mixed reviews from news professionals and media regulators, both of whom say they fear the Markíza boss will use the properties to promote his open political ambitions. Rusko himself says that the country might be better served if he were in government.
"The government cannot be led by people who have no idea of how to manage things and are not able to make several decisions at the same time," said Rusko in an interview for The Slovak Spectator on September 1. "People have no idea how difficult it is to start from the beginning, like [Rusko did as the] the general director of Markíza TV. If a man has created a successful television station, he might have the right stuff to lead some [government] ministry."
Fun Radio, the most successful private radio station in Slovakia, became in August the latest of Rusko's media interests. The Sme daily newspaper reported on August 27 that the NO Publishing House, which publishes Národná Obroda, was on the verge of buying a 60% share in Fun Radio from SERC, a French company. This information was confirmed by Ján Kasper, deputy director of the SPP gas utility, whose wife is an NO shareholder.
Just how the prospective NO purchase involved Rusko was not clear, but Národná Obroda bears obvious links to the TV station. Markíza programme director Ľubomír Linter sits on the NO Board of Directors, while Markíza TV reporters such as Róbert Beňo, Aneta Parišková and Eva Černa write regular columns for the paper. Rusko himself told Národná Obroda reporters in April that Markíza was the "main business partner" for NO publishing.
The same personal rather than ownership ties appear to link Rusko with Fun Radio. Rusko said that he had warm personal relations with the owners of Fun Radio, making contracts or shareholder rights irrelevant. "Good and assured personal relations are better than any contract," he said.
Fun Radio officials on August 27 strictly denied that the SERC stake was about to be used.
Slovak news professionals voiced concerns that Rusko's growing influence could amount to a dangerous concentration of media power in one man, but Rusko himself said that concentration on the media market was a healthy development. "Some people would really like to see hundreds of television and radio stations in Slovakia, each with 3% preferences. These people should go and have a look at small countries with developed economies which have two main television channels," Rusko said.
But it is Rusko's political ambitions, rather than his media aims, that have people most worried. Ján Fule, president of the independent Syndicate of Slovak Journalists, agreed that "it is nothing unusual to see such activities [as Rusko's interest in Fun Radio] on the Slovak media market. The really unhealthy thing here, however, is that this is not about accumulating properties in pursuit of wealth, but about spreading propaganda for certain political groups."
The 'propaganda' Fule was referring to was Rusko's open promotion of the SOP political party and Slovak president Rudolf Schuster over the last 18 months. International media monitoring groups such as MEMO have long criticised the amount of airtime and positive coverage that Markíza has given the SOP and Schuster, but Rusko has always dismissed such warnings.
Indeed, despite the fact that Rusko's wife, Viera Rusková, is now a member of parliament for the SOP, Rusko himself claims to be politically neutral. "I don't need to support any party or any person in particular. Each medium has a right to express its own opinion. It is up to the viewer to make up his own mind. So let's just listen to those viewers and let them decide."
"There is nothing wrong with letting viewers form their own opinions," responded Fule. "But spreading political propaganda is against the rules of commercial broadcasting."
Ján Budaj, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Media and Culture, was equally uneasy about Rusko's media intentions. "I just hope that if there is any change in the ownership of Fun Radio, it will preserve its original quality and not become tool for advancing the ambitions of certain people," Budaj said.
So what are Pavol Rusko's political ambitions? "I can't think of any other opportunity on the Slovak media market that could satisfy my needs and ambitions more than Markíza," he said. "I want to improve my image and be accepted by the common people, politically as well. I have the necessary know-how. I will make a decision on my future by next month."
"I wish him [Rusko] all the best, and I especially welcome his idea to leave the media market," Fule responded.
For now, no one may be able to stop Rusko from using media to promote his political goals. Slovakia is still without a comprehensive media law that would prevent such use of commercial broadcasts, and although Budaj promised a draft would be ready this fall, Fule warned that getting tighter regulations passed might be difficult.
"The media helped put the current [government] coalition in power, so it's difficult for the coalition now to discuss a law that will be against some media," Fule said.