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ORIENTATION QUESTIONED AFTER EDITOR LEAVES

Declining eastern Slovak daily newspaper rescued by VSŽ

KOŠICE- In a move that has some crying foul, VSŽ Košice, the East Slovak Ironworks, has bought out the largest circulation daily newspaper in the East Slovak region, SlovenskýVýchod. To some, it looks like a smart business decision for both VSŽ and for the newspaper. Slovenský Východ's circulation had been almost halved in the past year, plummeting from a daily readership of 50,000 to 27,000. The paper's editor-in chief, Dušan Klinger, who abruptly announced his resignation after the change, did acknowledge that the paper had been in the market for a solvent co-owner.

KOŠICE- In a move that has some crying foul, VSŽ Košice, the East Slovak Ironworks, has bought out the largest circulation daily newspaper in the East Slovak region, SlovenskýVýchod.

To some, it looks like a smart business decision for both VSŽ and for the newspaper. Slovenský Východ's circulation had been almost halved in the past year, plummeting from a daily readership of 50,000 to 27,000. The paper's editor-in chief, Dušan Klinger, who abruptly announced his resignation after the change, did acknowledge that the paper had been in the market for a solvent co-owner. But he, deputy editor-in chief Tibor Ferko, a columnist and the paper's Bratislava correspondent all resigned in protest of Slovenský Východ's new ownership and the editorial slant that the paper is taking.

Slovenský Východ was known for its uncompromisingly critical stance toward the current government. That stance became apparent as early as in the fall of 1993, when the newspaper published a transcript of a secret meeting between Mečiar and HZDS regional representatives in the East Slovak village of Zlatá Idka. At this confidential meeting, Mečiar outlined for the first time his plan to steamroll his political enemies.

But Slovenský Východ's militant approach toward Mečiar may have backfired by drying up advertising revenue, according to one editor at the paper who requested anonymity. "Who would expose himself to the risk that he or she is supporting with advertising a daily which publishes sharp anti-Mečiar articles?" said the editor.

Alojz Lukačin, the president of Cassoviainvestment, an investment fund of VSŽ's daughter company, Cassoviainvest, which purchased 67 percent of the paper, agreed with that assessment. "According to us, Slovenský Východ was focused very narrowly," Lukačin said. "We want the paper to be open for other opinions as well, and we want to create a space for dialogue and a plurality of opinions. After that, the advertising will come."

But not all are convinced that this is the true thinking behind the change. VSŽ has supplied past or present Mečiar-led administrations with two ministers, Július Tóth, a former minister of finance, and the current minister of transportation, Alexander Rezeš. Also, a recent turnover in the company's board of directors created a storm of controversy over whether politics precipitated that move. Perhaps more concrete is that Slovenský Východ's new editor-in chief will be Ján Pallai Bíly, who was the deputy-editor-in-chief at Lúč, a strong pro-government daily in East Slovakia.

Allegations such as these, true or not, played a part in several voluntary departures by newspaper staff. However, it seemed to be a shift in editorial policy to what Klinger described as "moderate opposition" that precipitated the exodus. When Ferko was asked why he was going on vacation and not coming back, he said, "While I technically still have a working relationship with the newspaper, I do not want to talk about certain pressure that was directed toward us. But I am not hiding the fact that I am leaving because I do not agree with the new orientation of Slovenský Východ."

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