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ORIGINAL BUSINESS ROOTS OF TV CRISIS LOST IN EMOTIONS OF POLITICAL CAMPAIGNING

Opposition sees political ghosts in Markíza closet

As "Markízagate" entered its fifth week, Slovak TV viewers were treated to yet another installment in the furious struggle for ownership of the country's largest private station, TV Markíza. Armed security men attempted to shut down broadcasting, while exiled Markíza general director Pavol Rusko said he was afraid for his safety to return to Slovakia.
But the lurid events that unfolded on September 16 obscured the truth of the protracted Markíza affair. Opposition politicians egged on the crowds that besieged the station, turning what had begun as a contract dispute into a political drama with Slovakia's ruling HZDS party cast in the role of the villain.
The real Markíza affair began on August 18, when over 20 armed men stormed into Rusko's office and told him he was no longer a legal representative of TV Markíza nor an owner of shares in the station.


War Council. Markíza Programme Director Stanislav Pavlik (rear) plans strategy with reporter Anna Ghanamová (right).
Luboš Hrívňák

As "Markízagate" entered its fifth week, Slovak TV viewers were treated to yet another installment in the furious struggle for ownership of the country's largest private station, TV Markíza. Armed security men attempted to shut down broadcasting, while exiled Markíza general director Pavol Rusko said he was afraid for his safety to return to Slovakia.

NEWS ANALYSIS

But the lurid events that unfolded on September 16 obscured the truth of the protracted Markíza affair. Opposition politicians egged on the crowds that besieged the station, turning what had begun as a contract dispute into a political drama with Slovakia's ruling HZDS party cast in the role of the villain.

The real Markíza affair began on August 18, when over 20 armed men stormed into Rusko's office and told him he was no longer a legal representative of TV Markíza nor an owner of shares in the station.

It transpired that Rusko's former classmate, Marián Kočner, had quietly bought Markíza Slovakia in a private tender on August 14. Rusko and his business partner, Sylvia Volcová, had been co-owners of Markíza Slovakia, which in turn held 51% of shares in STS, the company that owns TV Markíza.

Kočner's company, Gamatex, had bought out Rusko with the approval of a Bratislava court, which ruled that Markíza Slovakia was in breach of a contract held by Gamatex.

At first, Rusko was livid, muttering that "this must have a political background," and travelling to Prague for consultations with Central European Media Enterprises (CME), the 49% shareholder of STS. But on August 19, Rusko appeared in public with Kočner, agreeing to negotiate and downplaying the affair.

Cooler heads prevailed for several weeks, but on September 6, the dispute flared up for real: Rusko fled Slovakia, saying that an Interior Ministry arrest warrant was out for him. "They say it's because there is evidence that I am preparing a physical liquidation of Volzová and Kočner," Rusko claimed from a hide-out somewhere abroad.

Rusko connected the "misinformation" with the Slovak Information Agency (SIS, the Slovak secret service), the Interior Ministry and Premier Vladimír Mečiar himself.

Mečiar and the government dismissed Rusko's claims as paranoid, but on September 9, the Slovak state press agency TASR released a news bulletin which contained this sentence: "In the past few days, a commando unit of 20 people called 'Afghans,' trained for special tactics, moved from the east [of Slovakia] to Bratislava." A "well informed source," TASR said, had connected the "Afghans" with Pavol Rusko, and suggested that Rusko was out to get the people who had undermined his ownership of the station.

Rusko responded by criticising the public television station STV, which broadcast the TASR news, for irresponsible and absurd behaviour. "This just shows that during the pre-election period STV is capable of saying anything," he said.

How did the Markíza affair get so silly so quickly? A great deal of the blame can be laid at the door of Pavol Rusko, who from the beginning accused the government of having orchestrated his downfall.

"It is an act of political revenge, because they could not buy us," said Rusko. "We had offers from the Premier himself to privatize [the station], but we refused them, as well as some other offers, because the independence and freedom of Markíza is of paramount importance," said Rusko on September 7.

Marian Kardoš, Mečiar's spokesman, replied that Rusko wanted to pass off his responsibility for the current situation in TV Markíza to others, and to politicize events that were internal affairs of the station. "The Slovak Government Office protests against these statements whose aim is to injure and discredit the name of Vladimír Mečiar in the pre-election period, and it will consider further legal steps against Rusko," reads the statement Kardoš provided.

Rusko was even less cautious about his accusations of SIS involvement, repeatedly expressing his conviction that the agency had had their fingers in the case since the very beginning. "Now [after the receipt of undisclosed information], we can confidently say that the SIS is involved in this case, and that the whole action was co-ordinated by the Interior Ministry...We also know that the next step would have been my arrest," Rusko said on September 7.

Rusko explained that although the SIS had not originally launched the case, they must have known about it in advance. "It sure wasn't two days before Markíza's occupation. It must have been several weeks before," Rusko added.

SIS director Ivan Lexa denied that his agency had been involved in the case. "Rusko has shown himself to be a liar...I refuse to react to groundless accusations," he said, adding that Rusko was a coward because "he fled from his own television and now he makes his comments from abroad."

Similarly, Interior Ministry spokesman Peter Ondera refused to comment on Rusko's statements, saying only that "no investigation bureau in Bratislava has begun a prosecution of Rusko."

When asked to prove his claims, Rusko grew vague. "I could speak of specific people, who gave me that information, but the current situation doesn't allow me to publish their names," he said.

But On September 16, TV Markíza did not lack for politicians willing to press Rusko's flimsy case further. "I don't believe in coincidences," said Roman Kováč, a deputy for the opposition SDK party who was taking part in a round table to examine the breaking story at Markíza. "The roots of this case lie in Slovakia's present political climate."

SDK leader Mikuláš Dzurinda was even more direct. "The HZDS and the SIS are behind the Markíza case, and are trying to liquidate free media."

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