SLOVAKIA'S public service television has a new general director. Again. Including those who lasted only a couple of months or - in one case - just a single day, the monolithic headquarters of Slovak Television (STV) had seen 13 general directors pass through its doors since the fall of communism in 1989. With Štefan Nižňanský's appointment on April 16 the number climbed to 14.
One might fairly ask: what is notable about the appointment of yet another boss for the public service TV broadcaster other than the startling frequency with which this seems to occur? In fact it is precisely the instability of the post which makes the event both newsworthy and troubling.
That so few media positions are as precarious as the chair of STV's boss suggests that something has gone badly wrong in public service television. It has become a sad routine that STV is blessed with new leadership whenever governments change in Slovakia: in fact, directors have been changing even when governments did not. Yet in their rotation politics remain.
Those with abundant cynicism might suggest that the country turn the appointment of STV's boss into a kind of annual festivity where candidates of different qualities, ages, political and professional backgrounds could entertain the public by competing for the post and presenting their concepts of how STV should be run.
However, there is another reason why the election of Štefan Nižňanský to the post is newsworthy: he is a former star anchor of socialist news broadcasting who is now returning to public television. Nižňanský's comeback is in fact a reminder not just for those who are actually able to recall his "performances" on the television screen at the time, but everyone who recoils when watching people associated with the communist regime reappearing as though the past had never been present.
At the time of his television glory, Nižňanský was in his early thirties and joined the Communist Party. Many who did so at that time say it was the only staircase to "top" journalistic jobs. And Nižňanský certainly climbed that staircase.
The Sme daily recently posted on its website a video recording from 1988, featuring Nižňanský, a week after the famous candlelit protest against the oppression of religious freedom, addressing people in front of a church and asking them what they thought about the protest and the coverage it received on Radio Free Europe; in particular, whether they knew who had organised the protest.
One thing is sure: anyone with such baggage needs very strong ambition and extraordinary confidence to aspire to such a top job.
Yet Nižňanský's arrival at STV is hardly a victory march, and the job that he faces is not exactly enviable.
The public broadcaster has yet to recover from last year's ructions in the news department which led to several reporters leaving STV just six months after the previous general director, Radim Hreha, and a new head of the news department, Ján Šmihula, were appointed.
The reporters cited political pressure as the reason for their departure; a blemish which will be difficult to erase.
Nižňanský's appointment comes at a time when the media environment is in uproar and the prime minister and his ruling coalition have just "blessed" journalists with a controversial press code, roundly condemned at home and abroad for limiting media freedom.
Those who look at Nižňanský's election with a jaded eye, arguing that it is pretty much all the same whoever is chosen to run STV, might have a point.
Yet Nižňanský has already stated that he will keep news reporting free of any political pressure, while at the same time nourishing national values. Commendable ambitions indeed. Their only fault is that they overlook the fact that public television is financially dependent on the state, and that the state is currently at the hands of a government which sees no harm in passing a press code designed to discipline the media.
One can only hope that the era has passed when a former prime minister (whose party is again in government) could commandeer the TV screens for a grotesque weekly monologue - masquerading as a dialogue - called "What's next Mr. Prime Minister".
The present prime minister, Robert Fico, has not yet reprised this performance. That he does not should be among Nižňanský's top priorities, if his aspirations for the quality of STV journalism are to be realised.
21. Apr 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová