One day after the announcement of election results and the decision of opposition parties to form a coalition, Slovakia's state-owned STV channel suffered its first casualty. Hana Pravdová, STV news director, had a nervous breakdown and was rushed to hospital in Bratislava on September 28. The Slovak media said that Pravdová had been overwhelmed by infighting at STV over post-electoral changes at the station.
STV, which was used by the government of Vladimír Mečiar as a propaganda tool over the past four years, will certainly undergo a personnel overhaul if the former opposition parties manage to form a government. But while politicians from these ascendant parties promise a just and orderly return to balanced programming, STV and its erstwhile masters in Mečiar's HZDS party are bracing for the worst.
"The opposition politicians have already said they would wipe the slate clean and change the management and top representatives of STV. If this happens, it will be a total catastrophe - a media terror," said HZDS deputy and media expert Eva Zelenayová.
Zelenayová explained that the current opposition already has one sympathetic TV voice in the private TV Markíza. If these parties put their people in charge of STV as well, she argued, objective news coverage would disappear with the country's two main TV stations taking the same political line.
But opposition politicians have promised that changes at STV will serve one purpose only - to return the station to its public media role.
"The opposition parties should do what they have promised, which is to give the public STV station an objective and non-partisan character," said Ján Budaj, a deputy with the SDK opposition party. The goal of objectivity simply couldn't be reached, he said, without changes in the highest posts.
Two names repeatedly surface when personnel changes are mooted - those of STV Director Igor Kubiš and his deputy Štefan Dlugolínský. An analysis of Slovak media done by independent monitor MEMO'98 showed that these two men had turned the station into a propaganda tool of the government. "The results of monitoring STV and TV Markíza both before the beginning of the official [election] campaign and since August 26 reveal clear and convincing evidence of the misuse of STV for the benefit of partisan interests of [the government and ruling coalition parties]," reads the document.
Other names put forward as ripe for dismissal include that of the unfortunate Pravdová and reporter Pavol Kapusta. Kapusta has already announced his intention to leave STV for the small VTV channel, which is owned by interests close to the HZDS.
"These people sold out to the previous government and we will urgently request their dismissals," said Igor Presperín, Vice Chairman of the SOP, the smallest opposition party.
But Zelenayová said the planned changes were vindictive. "They are preparing an act of vengeance that might have tragic consequences on STV as well as on the whole future development of Slovakia," she said. "The only chance to create an objective, balanced and unbiased public TV is through compromise, which could be reached only if some opposition party joins the HZDS."
The opposition parties denied they were motivated by revenge. Róbert Fico of the reformed communist SDĽ party said that "parties should learn a lesson from STV's performance in this year's elections, and never allow anyone to take revenge on previous STV management."
What about Markíza?
As Slovakia's most watched TV station, private TV Markíza was also censured by MEMO '98 monitors for biased reporting during the election campaign. Government deputies said that the station had an obligation to clean up its act and restore balance to its programming. "Absolute balance must be guaranteed for private stations as well," said Viliam Oberhauser, vice chairman of the far-right SNS party.
But the opposition fired back that Markíza's bias had been forced on it by a rabidly pro-government STV. "When politics become less confrontational, Markíza won't feel the need to produce the kind of argumentative political shows it has been producing until now," said Budaj.
Stanislav Pavlík, Markíza's news director, agreed that as soon as STV returned to unbiased coverage and its public service role, Markíza could also return to its function as a private commercial station. "We have been standing in for STV for the past four years," he said. "Now STV will have to take over these responsibilities, and I'm really looking forward to seeing this transformation process occur."