Sipox Holding's Jozef Majský
photo: Ján Kuchta
However, the two men already own other media properties, and have close connections to the Party of Civic Reconciliation (SOP), a member of the government coalition. Media experts warned that if either were allowed to purchase VTV, the cable station in question, it would result in a conflict of interest.
Rusko's wife, Viera Rusková, is a member of parliament for the SOP, as is Majský's partner Diana Dubovská. What is more, Rusko is general director of the private television channel TV Markíza, whose open promotion of the SOP party and its chairman, Rudolf Schuster, has been documented in the past by international media monitoring groups.
Majský, on the other hand, already owns stakes in the influential independent station Rádio Twist as well as in the Sme daily newspaper.
"Rusko uses Markíza for the promotion of his political interests, which is a pity. If he buys VTV, I hope the same won't happen," said Ján Fule, president of the independent Syndicate of Slovak Journalists. "I would really like to know the intentions of both men with regard to VTV."
Markíza TV's Pavol Rusko.
photo:Courtesy TV Markíza
At the end of February, the Slovak media carried several reports of Rusko and Majský's intention to purchase VTV. Although rumours of VTV's sale have been common over the past several years, sources within the station said that this time the sale was assured.
VTV officials could not be reached for comment, as the station's phones had been temporarily disconnected.
Rusko told The Slovak Spectator on February 24 that "I am considering buying VTV," but said he was wary of the station's deep indebtedness.
"The current financial state of VTV can't be characterised as anything short of a catastrophe," Rusko said. The station is reportedly over one billion Slovak crowns (Sk - $25 million) in debt, and is regularly unable to meet payments for basic services. VTV employees have several times gone on strike to protest non-payment of wages.
"VTV is one of those companies which banks gave loans to without taking economic reality into consideration," said Ján Budaj, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Media and Culture. Budaj said that "buying VTV would be almost an act of patriotism, because this TV station owes more than a billion crowns to [the state-owned phone company] Slovak Telecom and [state-owned bank] Všeobecná Úverová Banka."
Budaj added that "we would really welcome it if somebody were able to cover these debts, because losses to the above-mentioned institutions are also losses for the state budget."
Rusko said that VTV's creditors had two choices. "They can either accept an installment plan submitted by an investor for repayment of the debt, or they can kiss their money goodbye." According to Rusko, VTV would be able to find a comfortable position on the commercial market with the right investor.
A competing offer
Competing for VTV's hand is successful Slovak businessman Jozef Majský. The owner of the Sipox Holding company, Majský told The Slovak Spectator on February 24 that he was "considering buying VTV, and if my conditions are met, I will go ahead with the purchase."
Majský said that he would attempt to raise the station's advertising revenue by enlarging its signal coverage area, using the broadcast frequency of a small northern Slovak station, TV Sever. "My idea for VTV is to combine satellite broadcasting with terrestrial broadcasting of another television channel, TV Sever, and thus reach a larger signal coverage area than [Rusko's successful station] Markíza," Majský said.
Fule said that according to his information, Majský had submitted a five-year renewal project for the station, but argued that "he would have to be a media wizard" to generate enough revenue from the station within five years to cover VTV's debts.
A senior official with a state media watchdog also expressed doubts about Majsky's plan for VTV, calling it a 'non-starter' because the TV Sever frequency could not be used by any other station. "[Majský's imagined] terrestrial network doesn't exist," said Anna Hausknotzová, head of the License Department at the Committee for Radio and Television Broadcasting.
According to Hausknotzová, TV Sever's license cannot be used by Majský as long as the holder of the license was TV Sever itself. "However, as you know, everything is possible," she said. "The holder of the license is allowed to announce all changes to the Committee for Radio and Television Broadcasting within l5 days. The committee then considers these changes and can either change or take the license away."
The contest for VTV has bred a certain amount of personal animosity between the men vying for the station. Rusko said that Majský did not understand the media and therefore should not meddle in it. "Let the shoemaker stick to his craft," he said of Majský.
Majský refused to comment, saying that "everybody should be given a chance to show their business abilities" in the purchase of VTV.
VTV was formed in 1995 as a private, commercial television channel broadcasting from Bratislava on cable and via satellite, covering all of Slovakia and some areas of Europe.