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CRITICS SAY STATE-RUN NEWS-WIRE ENJOYS ILLEGAL ADVANTAGES

No news for TASR agency at this point

MEDIA experts agree that the state-run News Agency of the Slovak Republic (TASR) needs to undergo dramatic transformation. However, disputes remain over the ownership and future role of the wire.
Critics say every government since the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993 has been reluctant to transform TASR because they see it as a tool for pursuing their political aims.


TASR employees uncertain about the future of their company.
photo: TASR

MEDIA experts agree that the state-run News Agency of the Slovak Republic (TASR) needs to undergo dramatic transformation. However, disputes remain over the ownership and future role of the wire.

Critics say every government since the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993 has been reluctant to transform TASR because they see it as a tool for pursuing their political aims. They say the agency is dependant on the political will of those in power, as the head is government-appointed, and a great part of his or her income relies on state finances.

The share of state subsidies in the agency's total income in 2003 is planned to reach around 40 percent, according to TASR's budget figures published on its website.

"Politicians are so immature as far as media are concerned that they feel that a state medium can be their defence against private media," said Dušan Deván, executive officer of the private Slovak News Agency (SITA).

Politicians striving to manipulate public opinion through the agency can potentially be successful in their attempts, pundits say.

"The current situation is the doing of politicians who think that they can influence media," agreed Deván's colleague, SITA general manager Pavol Múdry.

In the past, TASR has been blamed for sacrificing its independence on several occasions. It lost much of its credit during the rule of the former PM, Vladimír Mečiar, when it often acted as a voice for his ruling coalition.

However, suspicions have also arisen under the subsequent government, headed by PM Mikuláš Dzurinda. In May 2002 Roman Tarabus, a journalist with TASR, told the daily SME that TASR altered his report on the premier's reply to the verbal attacks of a group of outraged citizens, following requests from the PM's office.

However, TASR representatives say political pressures are a matter of the past.

"From when I took office through today, I have had no call from a political representative who would try to influence our content," said Peter Nedavaška, director general of TASR.

"I'm absolutely apolitical. I'm perhaps the first person in office that was not nominated politically," added the veteran journalist, who has been with TASR for a quarter of a century.

"It's absolutely not true that we curry favour with the government. We do not look for scandals, but I think no one expects that from us," he said.

But he too says change is much needed. "I'm definitely in favour of transformation," said Nedavaška.

Nedavaška was chosen for the job in a tender in August 2002, filling a vacancy in the top spot that lasted for weeks. His predecessor, Ivan Čeredejev, was recalled from his post in late June 2002.

Čeredejev's fall started on June 13, when the daily Pravda reported that TASR bought an expensive BMW for its boss. The paper speculated on his earnings, allegedly higher than those of the PM, at a state agency troubled by insufficient funds.

One of the key requirements for a new TASR director in the course of the selection process was that he have a clear vision of what to do with the agency in the future.

In March 2002, Culture Minister Milan Kňažko presented the government with an analytical study of TASR's possibilities.

The study elaborated four different roles that TASR could play in the future - a state body with a new scope of activities, a state body doing what it does now, a state-owned corporation, or a public institution.

Under the first option, TASR would cease to be a news agency. As a state body it would focus on publishing governmental materials, gathering information for the administration, promoting Slovakia abroad, and coordinating the state's PR.

The management of SITA, a competitor of TASR, supports this model.

However, the ministry found two major weaknesses to this option, and ruled it out. According to the ministry it would be difficult to set mechanisms to prevent political abuse, and it would mean a complete restructuring and change of the institution.

The ministry also rejected the idea of financing TASR as a news agency from the state budget. According to the study, continuing state funding for TASR would give it an unfair advantage over privately owned competitors.

The flow of money from state coffers into the hands of the wire has been troubling representatives of the privately held SITA agency for years. They say subsidizing TASR contradicts the Slovak constitution and EU legislation.

In July, SITA asked Attorney General Milan Hanzel to initiate proceedings before the Constitutional Court, claiming that legislation enabling funding for TASR violates constitutional provisions that establish the state's duty to protect and support free economic competition.

"It's only a question of time before Hanzel signs it and goes to the Constitutional court," said Múdry.

Critics seem confident that the case against the current legislation is a strong one. "Everyone says it's unconstitutional. I have not yet met anyone who would say otherwise," said Deván.

Moreover, SITA representatives say the subsidies contradict the principles of free trade embedded in EU legislation and say they are prepared to take their complaint before the European Court of Justice the moment Slovakia enters the Union in May 2004.

"It's going to be one more embarrassment for Slovakia, but we are ready to do it," said Múdry.

TASR representatives say the question of competition needs to be looked at in a broader context.

"I accept the objection that conditions are not equal. But are conditions equal if people have to work for me as full-time employees, and I have to bear the deductions and other expenses, while people work on a trade permit for the other company?" asked Nedavaška.

TASR is legally bound to formally employ most of its staff, whereas private businesses can agree with their writers to pay them as independent trade workers, in which case social and healthcare deductions have to be paid directly by the worker.

However, generally miserable financial conditions press private media companies to insist that journalists become independent trade workers and pay their insurance on their own.

"Are conditions equal [if one company] gets Sk700,000 (€17,000) per month for Euroservice? There are inequalities on both sides," Nedavaška continued.

Euroservice is a product of the SITA agency. It contains information about the EU and is intended to serve mainly regional media and the state administration. The government pays for the service.

The new Deputy PM for European Integration, Pál Csáky, who took office after the September 2002 elections, decided to terminate the Euroservice contract, which will end at the end of this year.

"The project was selected in an official public tender, which was won by a PR agency. The supply of Euroservice by SITA is only a part of a broader campaign," said Múdry, adding that his agency receives only Sk333,000 (€8,074) a month as part of the project, and the money cannot be spend on anything else.

Nedavaška also claimed that granting state aid to news agencies is common practice all around Europe, although perhaps not in the form of state subsidies allocated in the state budget, as is the case in Slovakia.

TASR was to receive roughly Sk40 million (€970,000) under the initial draft state budget for 2004. The parliament's media committee has, however, proposed to double the figure.

"If we get only Sk40 million (€970,000), it will mean further drastic measures," said Nedavaška, who has in one year managed to reduce the staff of 226 working at TASR by 30. He also said the amounts he is asking are insignificant from the perespective of the state budget.

SITA representatives, on the other hand, say TASR should not get any state finances at all. They claim that the citizen has to pay TASR thrice - firstly in the form of state subsidies, secondly when the state pays TASR for its products, and lastly at the kiosk, as fees paid by media companies to TASR reflect in the prices of newspapers and magazines.

Transforming TASR into a business corporation, the solution preferred by the Culture Ministry, would solve some of the problems. Shares of the company would initially be owned exclusively by the state and could later be transferred to private hands.

When applying for his position, Nedavaška also supported this plan. However, he has since changed his mind, fearing potential privatisation.

"If property is transferred to a joint-stock company, then no one can really keep track of what happens with the shares at the National Property Fund," he said.

Unlike SITA representatives, who see state involvement as a threat to journalistic objectivity, Nedavaška fears private investors could cause biased reporting.

In an open competition, one agency would most likely monopolize the media market, experts say.

"One will win. Either they reach an agreement [to divide the market] or only one will survive," said Múdry.

When asked who owned SITA, Deván replied: "Three Slovaks, and none of them holds a majority. All have a different political background and all are active in public life."

However, Deván ruled out any possibility of his agency being misused to manipulate public opinion.

"Other media need to attract people. We need to attract the media and, through them, service the entire spectrum of target groups," he said, arguing that biased reporting is not in the firm's interest, as it would alienate their customers and thus damage the company.

However, TASR and SITA representatives alike agree that if the state-run agency is ever privatised, it will most likely not be because of its agency services.

"If you have real estate worth Sk150 million (€3.64 million) and a business activity which produces a loss of Sk30 to 50 million (€730,000 - 1.21 million), there is little to think about - you will end the activity and sell the real estate," said Deván.

The TASR building stands close to Bratislava's new Košická Bridge, whose construction has recently resumed, and in a zone which proximity to the city centre and easy access and vacant lands make it one of the most attractive areas for future development in Bratislava.

"So far, there has been silence. But there is no question in my mind that the financial sharks which have bought the surrounding lands [will be interested in it]," said Nedavaška.

The TASR boss expects that the debate on the agency's fate will intensify as influential players become more interested in the venue. "We will soon move into the spotlight," he said.

Currently, Nedavaška supports the fourth alternative of transformation - turning TASR into a public institution, a status enjoyed by Slovak Television (STV) and Slovak Radio (SRo). The agency has also prepared its own draft law on TASR.

Nedavaška says TASR could, in that case, be financed from concessionary user fees, just like STV and SRo. In its March 2002 document, the ministry stated, "due to the nature of a public institution, with its activities carried out in the public interest ... it is not recommended that this model of transformation be chosen."

Both TASR and SITA representatives agree that it is now up to the ruling coalition to make up its mind.

The Culture Ministry is expected to present draft legislation on TASR early next year.

TASR's present status has not escaped the attention of international journalism organizations, which largely consider the TASR model to be a relic of communist news reporting.

The International Press Institute, in its annual World Press Freedom Review, released in March 2001, warned that Slovakia has continued to preserve TASR even though the country has had a reformist government since 1998 and despite the fact that the cabinet promised in 1998 to pass new laws securing TASR's absolute independence from all political parties, but this has never been fulfilled.

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