TV Markíza was occupied by private security forces for the second time in less than a month on September 15. In a dramatic sequel to the first invasion, around 25 rough-looking private guards hired by entrepreneur Marián Kočner took control of the newsroom of Slovakia's most popular private TV station and fired its director and over 20 employees.
On this occasion, however, the assault was met by a national public outcry, as spontaneous demonstrations were held in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica, Žilina, Prešov and Košice. "Give us back our Markíza," crowds chanted. "Enough of criminals."
The takeover was also stoutly resisted by Markíza employees, who physically overcame the security guards and retook control of the station with the assistance of the crowds who had gathered outside the building.
The nationwide rallies were sparked by Markíza's own evening news programme on September 15, which related the details of the breaking story. "Today, at approximately noon, representatives of [Kočner's company] Gamatex entered the building of TV Markíza with their bodyguards. They summoned Pavol Rusko, the general director [of TV Markíza] and fired him."
Marián Kočner and Štefan Ágh, the owners of Gamatex who claim to be majority owners and statutory representatives of TV Markíza (see story, page 6), did not stop at Rusko. They also fired his wife, two other top managers and 20 employees.
Kočner has been wrapped up in a dispute with Rusko over Markíza's ownership since the first time his men stormed Markíza on August 18. On August 19, he agreed to withdraw from the TV building and not interfere with its management or broadcasting until the dispute was resolved. But when talks broke down on September 14, Kočner occupied Markíza for the second time.
Kočner's bodyguards controlled the newsroom and the transmission room for several hours during the afternoon of September 15. Kočner himself tried to calm Markíza employees. "We came to stop Rusko from continuing to use [Markíza] to publicize our conflict," he said. "TV Markíza is not going to change its political orientation and we want news to remain just the way it is."
But Kočner's words did not strike a reassuring chord with TV personnel. At first, it seemed that Markíza employees were going to obey Rusko who, according to his deputy Stanislav Pavlík, "requested over the phone that they stop working and leave the building." However, the mutinous employees managed to sneak a message onto Markíza's teletext readout, asking people to come to the TV compound and protest Kočner's actions. "We [employees] got together, agreed to broadcast in the same manner as we had had before and decided to take over the broadcasting," said Pavlík.
At 17:00, Markíza employees physically took over the crucial transmission room, assisted by a crowd of supporters pushing from behind them. "We would not have stood a chance without the people who were outside and inside Markíza," said Pavlík, explaining that the Gamatex bodyguards had not dared to attack the hundreds of people pushing themselves inside the room.
The impasse, with Kočner's people ruling the administrative building but not the transmission area, has lasted until The Slovak Spectator went to print on September 17.
During the first two days of the crisis, all top Slovak opposition politicians came to TV Markíza in a public show of support for the independent station. They were careful not to support either Rusko or Kočner personally, but as SDK leader Mikuláš Dzurinda said, "we want to show solidarity with Markíza news people." "This is the only TV outlet we have that is impartial and that enables us to communicate with the public," said Pavol Hamžík of the other major opposition party, the SOP.
Not only politicians, but hundreds of ordinary people also continued to stream in and out of the compound. Their number fluctuated between several hundreds in the small hours to several thousands during the day. "I think they will be able to hold Markíza for the 9 days remaining until the elections," said a political analyst close to the opposition.
Fighting back, Kočner threatened to ask state-owned Slovak Telecom to turn off Markíza's transmitters if he is not allowed to resume control. Gabriel Szantó, director of ST's radio-communications division, told the government-run STV that "we have not received any such request from Mr. Kočner...and we can turn off [Markíza's] broadcasting only if the Radio and Television Broadcasting Council takes away Markíza's licence." However, Szanto later told the daily Sme that ST could switch Markíza off "if someone requests it who can prove that he represents Markíza."
The Council met on September 17 to discuss the situation at Markíza.
Mob replaces police
The most curious aspect of the case is the reluctance of the police to get involved. "I went to the police station and asked them for help, but they said it was our problem," said Pavlík. Kočner, on the other hand, said he though the police had acted correctly. "We do not need police to assist us [in asserting] our legal rights," he told Markíza news.
State police finally arrived on the second day, after being ordered to attend by Interior Minister Gustáv Krajčí, but did no more than watch as the situation unfolded.
With the police conspicously passive, both sides had to rely on private security brawn. However, Markíza's guards were no match for Kočner's mobsters, according to Pavlík. "No one is going to stand up to them. They are called 'A's' [as the most ruthless thugs] in the underworld," he said. "In August, the day before the first showdown, our security people were informed that if they didn't let Gamatex and their people in, they would find bullets in their brains," Pavlík added.
21. Sep 1998 at 0:00 | Miroslav Beblavý