"We helped build SME. The only thing we wanted from them was for them to behave reasonably."
František Mana, Concordia Trading Director
Alexej Fulmek, Sme's general director, claims political pressure was applied by the government on Concordia Press to stop printing the openly opposition daily paper.
Daniel J. Stoll
But Concordia Press, the formerly state-run printing house that went private in 1993, was telling a wholly different story; one of seven-figure debts and bottom lines.
The saga began at 2:15 p.m. on October 10, when Concordia, a Bratislava-based company that has printed Sme for two years, abruptly announced that it would no longer do so. Faced with the spectre of a day without a paper, Sme went cross-town to Danubia Print, which is still state-run. Danubia agreed to print that day's news.
But the next day, Danubia told Sme they could no longer produce the paper. Scrambling again, the publishers found a press in Komarno - over 100 kilometers away, with a deadline of 4 p.m., earlier than is desirable for a daily paper in a highly competitive market.
Unhappily settled into a printing routine, Sme appealed to its readers. "Doesn't this remind you of the methods of the Mafia and the dark powers?" Alexander Fulmek, the general director, asked readers on the front page on October 12. "The daily Sme is in danger, and the powers that be are using all methods against it."
František Mana, Concordia's director, flatly denied such accusations, citing the financial reality of Sme's debt to Concordia.
"We would call this political blackmail from publishers against printers," he told The Spectator. "We helped build Sme. The only thing we wanted from them was for them to behave reasonably. Since June I have been knocking on their door saying, 'Listen, we have to solve this because this will drive Concordia into a hole.'"
Concordia has a $5.6 million loan from National Westminster, a British bank, hanging over its head. But the printer and the paper disagree on the fundamental numbers at hand. Sme executives acknowledge that they owe Concordia 1 million Sk - the cost of 10 issues. But Ivan Baranovič, Sme's deputy director, said the daily paid its printer on the 20th and 30th of every month and, therefore, it was natural that on October 10, the paper would owe Concordia around 900,000 Sk.
But Mana shook his head at that figure. He said that Sme still owes Concordia 4 million Sk from a deal struck in July, in which the newspaper agreed to pay the printer for paper bought from a Finnish company.
In fact, Mana said, at their last meeting, Fulmek had come up with a plan to sell Concordia cheap paper, which the printer could then sell to its clients for a profit - enough to eventually cover Sme's debt. Mana said he was prepared to consider the plan, and expected a draft on October 9. When he had heard nothing by the 10th, he decided to stop printing. "I have been asking them for four months," Mana said sternly. "I am a humble man, but not with Fulmek."
Stories and theories
So why all the talk of dark powers? Sme's theory is that Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's government - which the paper has openly opposed since splitting from the daily Smena in 1993 - made it profitable for Concordia to stop printing their paper. "Concordia will get state customers," Baranovič said. He said the privately-owned press is now printing national laws - a job the state printing house could do. Mana parried that accusation, insisting that Concordia has had the law contract since before the house went private. "We don't have anybody to replace Sme," he said.
Politics will out
But Sme's Fulmek maintains that politics lie at the bottom of Concordia's decision. "They asked for money in the form of credit, and I assume that Concordia got the credit from one of the banks controlled by the state," he said. "I think the condition for getting the credit was to stop printing Sme, but there is no evidence."
Nor is there evidence that political motives lay behind Danubia's refusal to continue printing Sme. Stanislav Vanek, Danubia's director of newspaper printing, told The Spectator, that, " Unfortunately, Danubia Print does not have the option to print Sme's format because we are using all our machines."
According to Baronovič, Danubia demanded that Sme pay Smena's old debts to the press - first tallied at 11 million Sk, but raised to 15 million Sk two days later - before discussing a contract.
While Vanek wouldn't confirm the level of Smena's debt, he insisted that all "legal and financial matters" be cleared up before negotiations started. But even then, he said, Danubia doesn't have the capacity to produce Sme. Either way, Vanek asserted that politics was not involved in the deal. "The most important thing is money, not politics," he said.
Mana agreed, naming other dailies Concordia has cut off in the past - including the nationalist Nový Slovak and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) mouthpiece Slovenský Dennik - due to lingering debts. "We are a printing house," he said. "It's never our place to look at the content of what we are printing."
In the end, he said, it will be up to the courts to settle the debate. In the meantime, Sme is investigating the issue. "The truth will be found," said Baranovič. "But our main problem is to get the newspaper published somewhere."