With fall elections fast approaching in Slovakia, more and more viewers will be tuning in to Slovak Television. Voters searching for unbiased information, politicians keeping tabs on the enemy and media watchdogs lying in wait for programming violations will also get a chance to evaluate at first hand the station's "public service" performance.
Stephen Flanagan, special advisor to President Bill Clinton on eastern European affairs, spent only 48 hours in Slovakia, but left Bratislava convinced that public Slovak Television (STV) marches to a government drum.
"I got a totally different picture of what is going on [in Slovakia] from Slovak Television than from what is being reported in other media," Flanagan said at a May 22 press conference, "and I don't think it was just a problem with translation."
Flanagan's judgement weighed in with the claims of many media experts that STV has lost its public character and has become a propaganda weapon at the service of the government. STV news broadcasts have become heavily weighted towards interviews with government figures, critics say, while opposition parties come under often vicious attack in the 'commentaries' that are interwoven with news items.
STV officials, meanwhile, maintain that their station is one of the most trusted sources of information in the country, and argue that while the sins committed by public media are under a microscope, private media shortcomings are studiously ignored.
One of the most recent and blatant displays of STV's programming bias occurred on April 25, when the station interrupted its regular afternoon and evening programming to bring the nation two live broadcasts of the party congress of Premier Vladimír Mečiar's ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).
"STV has thoroughly discredited itself and showed very clearly that the HZDS has privatized it and turned it into their own press department," commented Mikuláš Dzurinda, the leader of the SDK, Slovakia's largest opposition bloc. Media analysts said that the transmission had violated the Operation of Radio and Television Broadcasting Act, which forbids broadcasts that "favor...the interests of one political party or movement."
On May 18, STV Director Igor Kubiš was called before the Parliamentary Committee for Education, Culture and Sports, which is responsible for overseeing the media. According to committee member, Milan Ftáčnik, Kubiš promised that "some consequences would follow" from the transmission.
Jerguš Ferko, STV Council Vice-Chairman, said the council had itself criticized the HZDS broadcast as "unprofessional, mostly in its dramatic presentation, as if some catastrophic or exceptional event had occurred which had some super-important social meaning." Kubiš and STV news director Štefan Dlugolinský, he continued, had faulted "some short-circuit in communication between the Košice and Bratislava STV studios" for the illegal transmission.
For many media people, the HZDS broadcast did not come a surprise. "STV has not followed the law for a long time," said Ľubomír Fifík, a 20-year STV veteran and Chairman of the Union of Television Producers. Fifík explained that STV's current programming bias was no accident. "The governing coalition knew the importance of having politicians on TV," he said, "so they simply gave themselves priority on STV."
Ferko responded that his council was empowered by law to divide air time between political parties. The council had decided in 1996 to adopt the "three thirds" system, under which one third of news space would be given to government sources, one third to the ruling coalition, and one third to the Parliamentary opposition.
"STV has improved in these things," Ferko said, "but the situation is still that the government has 60% of air time, the ruling coalition 20% and the opposition 20%. Let's just call that the election year average."
"The reality is that the governing parties have four times more coverage than the opposition," responded Ftáčnik. "These are the results for 1997, and these are the facts on which I base my statement that STV has lost its public character."
Independent journalism experts charge that STV regularly mixes news reporting with editorial commentaries in its news programs, thereby influencing how viewers interpret news events. "Almost half their news broadcasts now are taken up with commentaries, but no-one really knows where the line between commentary and news lies," said Vladimír Holina, Vice-Chairman of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists.
"The commentaries and editorials which appear on STV, produced by [Pavel] Kapusta, [Maroš] Puchovský and others, are terrible, terrible hurts and injuries to the public character of STV," concurred Ftáčnik.
The Slovak Television and Radio Broadcasting Council upheld such complaints in its May 21 report, writing that STV "broke the principle of objectivity most clearly in the commentaries that were inserted into news programming."
"The STV Council agrees with this evaluation," Ferko said, but explained on the other hand that if commentaries did not directly follow the news item they related to, viewers might become confused. "Commentary must be after the news, that's just logical," he said. "But it does have to be identified as commentary, which STV does."
Media analysts recalled that during the 1994 election campaign, STV had broken the moratorium on political broadcasts within 48 hours of the vote. The station had carried an emotive story featuring Mečiar complaining at a polling station that he had not been allowed to cast his vote because his name was missing from election lists.
But Ferko defended the decision to break the moratorium as a journalistic obligation. "Put yourself in the situation of the chief of the news team," he said, "and [imagine] such a shocking event occurs, but on the other hand the election moratorium blocks you. Immediately you have to decide, what happens if the other media break the moratorium and only you honor it? No, of course you break it, because it was shocking information."
Fifík, for his part, warned that similar violations by STV were bound to happen in the heated atmosphere surrounding September elections. "It will be worse this time around," he said, "because [currently] you have people at STV who have said they will 'model' the way in which society functions through this television." Fifík added that his Producers Union shared one conviction. "As things go with public television in Slovakia, so will they go with democracy," he said.