And in this corner. Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has thrown his weight behind the daily newspaper Slovenská Republika, the only government-friendly daily on the national scene.
Mečiar officially rejected the appeal, but media analysts said the incident only confirmed their claims that Slovakia's political battle is being waged through the country's print media. Not only has the media become a tool in the hands of the country's political and economic elites, they argued, but it increasingly considers itself to be a political player rather than an impartial observer of current events.
Clash of the titans
"Republika's call was totally absurd, and could be seen as inciting civil conflict over the referendum in Štúrovo," said Alexej Fulmek, general director of VMV, publisher of the opposition daily Sme. "Those people don't understand the power they wield, and should go and dig sewers rather than work in the media sphere, because they don't know what they are doing."
But Eva Zelenayová, a deputy with Mečiar's HZDS and a Republika columnist, accused the opposition of having cast the first stone. "We now have a lot of print media which are opposition-oriented, so sometimesÉpeople do not get objective information," she said, and warned that "politics and journalism have become the servants of special interests."
Media experts explained that Republika and its owner, printing giant Danubiaprint a.s., were doing no more than Sme and VMV, namely fighting to increase their readerships and score political points. Sme, for its part, held its own version of the Štúrovo referendum in Bratislava on April 18.
Miloš Nemeček, chairman of the Slovak Association of Periodicals Publishers, described Slovakia's print media battle as a classic campaign between two publishing empires, each of which owned separate printing facilities and controlled a variety of regional Slovak publications.
Cutting up the market
"VMV have in many ways been successful pioneers in the media industry," Nemeček said. "They have built a publishing empire that now includes such journals as Sme, Domino Fórum, Trnavský Hlas extra, Prešovský Večerník and Korzár. But the key for them was setting up their own printing facilities [in 1996]."
Danubiaprint had assembled a rival network of national and regional publications, including Republika, Hlas ľudu, International and Večerník, said Nemeček, and with its Bratislava printing house now controlled more than 50 percent of Slovakia's periodical print facilities.
Both VMV and Danubiaprint have been accused of conducting their media fight according to a political as well a business agenda. Fulmek pointed to the fact that Republika's year-on-year advertising revenue growth had been the second lowest among nationwide Slovak dailies in February 1998, and said that the paper's overt political orientation had alienated advertisers. "They are not interesting for usual clients in the advertising area," Fulmek said. "This is not socialism, and even though they can force state firms and banks to advertise with Republika, you cannot control the entire market."
Nemeček said that VMV, too, had political undertones, albeit less strident ones. "The steps that VMV have taken are commercial steps," he said, "although certainly with a political aspect, because it is part of [their quest] to protect independent media." In the election year of 1998, Nemeček continued, the political affiliations of the two groups would intensify the media war. "We are going to see this contest continue for maybe a month or two, and then once the two camps have these resources in their hands, they will settle in for a real slugging match."
First round underway
Other media sources, however, say that the fight is already well underway. "The [ruling] coalition has very clear goals," said Vladimír Holina, vice-chairman of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN). "In Martin [at a HZDS party conference on January 24, 1998], Mečiar said that he was dissatisfied with the media's treatment of the HZDS."
The government's print media strategy, Holina continued, was being executed through Danubiaprint. "The first step was to acquire ownership of the publishers of regional press, which was successfully done," he said. The second move had been Danubiaprint's purchase of 97 percent of shares in the distribution company, PNS, which had given the government de facto control of 70 percent of the Slovak periodical distribution market. "Can this be a coincidence?" asked Holina. "In my opinion, these are deliberate steps that have been taken as part of the pre-campaign fight."
Zelenayová denied that Mečiar's Martin statements had given rise to a campaign to oppress opposition journals. "That's absurd - he doesn't really have any tools to [control the media]," she said. "It's logical that at such a high-level party conference they would evaluate the domestic political situation, the media and so on, and it's possible that they were critical towards the media, but I don't think there could be any restrictions on freedom of speech from the side of the government."
Holina rejected Zelenayová's assurances. "In Slovakia we say 'he who wants to beat a dog will find a stick'," he rejoined. "During the  elections, PNS [the largest periodical distribution network] didn't deliver opposition press to some village post offices, while some towns didn't receive enough copies. Instructions were given to distributors and salespeople not to sell all copies [of opposition journals] that they received."
Slovakia's media net was an intricate one, Holina added, "and when you have a complicated mechanism, there are many ways to pour sand into it somewhere."
Oliver Brunovský, editor-in-chief of Trend, an independent business weekly, said that in the face of the recent concentration of market power under figures close to the government, his publication had begun to create an alternative distribution system. "We are preparing a strategy [to help us in the event of political manipulation of media print and distribution channels], but the question is how quickly we can adapt or prepare an alternative system," he said. "But at least we have more than half of our circulation in our own hands, and that is not a typical situation for Slovak dailies."
The struggle for control of media has been an ongoing battle for the past several years. In The Slovak Spectator's next feature series, Slovakia's media will be examined in three parts, starting with newspapers, followed by radio and then television.