The newly appointed management of Slovakia's public television channel, STV, made radical changes to the station's personnel, financial and broadcasting policies on December 2. Political opponents of the new management say, however, that the personnel reshuffle was not done for professional reasons, and has only installed a new leadership loyal to the government of Premier Mikuláš Dzurinda.
The new management, led by Milan Materák, STV's general director since November 19, cut managerial positions in nine departments that had been occupied by people appointed by former general director Igor Kubiš.
Kubiš and other top executives at STV have been blamed by the coalition government for abusing the station to disseminate political propaganda favouring former premier Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS party.
In addition to criticism of STV's biased political reporting, however, Materák accused Kubiš and his associates of looting the company.
"This is not a poor television station, this is a television station in debt," said Jozef Filo, STV's new programme director at a December 2 press conference. Filo said that STV's previous leadership had left the company with a 600 million Sk ($16.5 million) debt in 1998.
"The cutbacks in personnel and programmes were tough, but absolutely necessary to secure the regular operation of public television," Materák said. He declined to specify how many of the station's 2,600 employees would eventually lose their jobs, but said that most of the cuts and programming changes would be implemented by January 1999.
According to Tibor Búza, the 28 year old news department editor-in-chief, STV's poor financial situation meant that severe staff cuts would have to occur in all departments. "The news department staff in particular was bloated and dysfunctional," Búza said, adding that more than half of the 60 news reporters and anchor people would be dismissed. "Some of them never showed up on screen, they just came to the office to get money for nothing," he said.
The management also created a new Concepts and Strategies Department that will analyse the overall situation, compare it with the rest of the media market and propose changes in management, financial and programme structures. "Our main goal is to build a model following which STV will survive the year 2000," said Martin Šmatlák, the department's new director.
According to Materák, STV's biggest financial problem is its low income from concession fees. "As few as one third of households pay the fees that are the main source of STV's income," Materák said, adding that there was as yet no way of forcing non-payers to fulfill their legal duties.
The new management also sharply criticised the station's former leadership for signing contracts that had disastrous effects on STV's financial situation. On November 30, SITA press agency published a list of "disadvantageous contracts" signed by the station, according to which STV must pay 190 million Sk ($5.25 million) to a number of production and advertising agencies close to the Kubiš management and the HZDS.
According to SITA, STV signed a contract for a TV series with the Open Records production company owned by Daniel Junas, a former pop singer close to former culture minister Ivan Hudec. Each installment of "Bachelors", as the series was named, cost the station 1.48 million Sk ($41,000), a sum which had to be paid in advance. The penalty for breaking the contract is 63 million Sk ($1.75 million).
Materák also reported that the members of the former management had paid themselves 5 million Sk ($138,000) for their efforts during the recent election campaign. STV, he said, had been assigned 30 million Sk ($833,000) to improve news reporting and editing, but Kubiš had asked then-finance minister Milan Maxon that the funds be used for pre-election campaign coverage.
Although no such directive was approved by the minister, the 5 million Sk was later distributed among editors, technical and economic managers. Materák said that this case, as well as other suspicious contracts now being analysed by legal experts, would end up in court.
Despite the Materák team's accusations, however, opposition politicians and some media analysts claim that the station's new managers are not white knights on white horses.
"Public media, with its great influence on the public trust, will always be subject to political calculations," said Jerguš Ferko, a former STV council member during the Mečiar reign. "I think it is natural that every new ruling coalition tries to control the public media in a legitimate way," Ferko said.
According to Ferko, there are several groups currently interested in gaining control of STV. "These groups are not only tied to political structures [of the ruling coalition], but also to private companies, so we cannot be under the illusion that the only criteria [for signing contracts and hiring staff] will be professional qualifications," he said. "I am convinced that in the near future we will see the professional failures of several managers who are now being appointed on the basis of their so-called qualifications."
HZDS deputy Ján Cuper accused the new coalition of placing their political servants in control of public media. "They are trying to turn STV away from the viewers and to broadcast programmes that would serve the foreign interests which control the new government," he said. Cuper stated that the STV cuts reminded him of "the Chinese cultural revolution."
On the other side, coalition deputies claim that the new management will transform public media from a propaganda weapon into a functional institution providing balanced and unbiased information.
Ján Budaj, a media expert with the ruling SDK party, said that "the STV supervisory council appointed the station's new leader on the basis of his professional qualifications, not his political influence."