Media empires crumble, political stars fall

2005 is not a good year for Pavol Rusko. After being forced out of his ministerial seat and watching his one-time coalition party disintegrate, he is now losing influence over his media empire, private television station Markíza.
Being branded a corrupt politician has arguably never stung so badly.

2005 is not a good year for Pavol Rusko. After being forced out of his ministerial seat and watching his one-time coalition party disintegrate, he is now losing influence over his media empire, private television station Markíza.

Being branded a corrupt politician has arguably never stung so badly.

What comes as bad news for Rusko, however, brings some relief to the country's media watchdog organization, the License Council, which has issued numerous warnings regarding TV Markíza's news bias. This bias has often benefited Rusko's political party, the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO).

Recently, Central European Media Enterprises (CME) took steps to acquire a controlling share (80 percent) in TV Markíza. It is estimated that the deal cost CME around $28.7 million (€23.75 million).

Gaining control over TV Markíza has become rather urgent for CME. With next year's licence renewal procedure on the horizon, the increasing criticism of Markíza's news programming and its inability to stand up to Rusko did not bode well.

Although one can argue that all forms of publicity, even negative forms, are good, it couldn't have helped CME's reputation that one of its media concerns was making it into an annual report released by the US Department of State on human rights abuses. In its report, the US Department of State singled out Pavol Rusko for "influencing TV Markíza's editorial policies, despite having divested his ownership interest".

Markíza Director General Vladimír Repčík said that the report was "very unspecific and general, and so I have to take it as a subjective opinion of the authors rather than as an analysis supported by expert facts. In our case, the authors were rather superficial, which I consider to be unprofessional," he said.

Rusko's wife Viera Rusková has since left Rusko's sinking ship at TV Markíza's news division where she worked, along with the editor-in-chief, Peter Višváder.

Paradoxically enough, TV Markíza's prime time news channel was among the most watched programmes in Slovakia. Rusko maintained his influence through his wife who had more power over content than the editor-in-chief himself. Rusko also kept his tentacles alive through several reporters-turned-stars.

Journalists formerly associated with Rusko are quick to defend their positions at the station, saying they were only doing their job. Some of them deny friendly links with Rusko; some of them see nothing wrong with being friends with politicians. Slovakia is such a small country, everyone knows everyone.

In May 2004, the Pravda daily discovered that Rusko, while acting as economy minister, took along two TV Markíza celebrities on his official trip to China. The Economy Ministry has not been able to explain why the TV personalities were included in the official delegation. Officials told the daily that meat-processing firm Tauris invited Kveta Horváthová and Štefan Skrúcaný on the trip. However, the firm's representatives refused to give reasons for the invitation.

Several years ago, in late September 2001, the media watchdog MEMO 98 accused TV Markíza of dominating its news coverage with Rusko unjustifiably and presenting him predominantly in positive terms. The License Council echoed MEMO 98's warnings in 2002, suggesting that Rusko's ANO was becoming an everyday topic of the channel's news programme.

The media community had concerns regarding the way Rusko would use his television empire since the very inception of his political party. Many doubted that Rusko's ANO would have made it to parliament without the existence of TV Markíza. During the party's election campaign, for example, several popular television celebrities from the Markíza screen campaigned for their boss.

The ANO received airtime even before it was registered with the Interior Ministry before late May 2001. However, at that time, Rusko argued that he would not risk the credibility of his television station by making it serve his political agenda.

In the long run, TV Markíza proved the power of propaganda when it helped then-Košice Mayor Rudolf Schuster climb to power by publicizing the Party of Civil Understanding (SOP), which has since slipped into political oblivion.

Rusko's erstwhile ally and freshly minted opponent, Ľubomír Lintner, was one of the journalists who started building the news department at Markíza. Later, he turned into a strong critic of his former boss.

Though the position of the head of Markíza's news department saw several faces, its top managers did not alter that frequently.

Many say it will be difficult to completely weed out Rusko's influence at the station. He is involved in several businesses operations linked to TV Markíza.

When the media servants of the former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar ruled the public service television station STV; when Markíza TV was just getting off the ground in 1996, its news broadcast was considered far more objective than the pro-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) alternative.

Although Rusko's station delivered a service to the SOP and to the Slovak Democratic Coalition Movement of Mikuláš Dzurinda, one can perhaps forgive it for violating ethical and professional principles, because it did so far less than Mečiar's spin-doctors at the STV did. TV Markíza had little real competition on the market in its early years and it could have abused its position to a much greater extent.

Today, TV Markíza has to share the market with private TV JOJ and the revamped public broadcaster STV. Its market share lead is not as marked as it was a few years ago.

The story of TV Markíza shows that running a television station is not just a business like any other. It does bring along moral challenges along with the professional ones. Only a few made of unique metal can resist the temptation to use the media they created for serving their personal goals - especially if they believe, however twisted, that those goals serve the people.

By Beata Balogová

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