THE FICO government has dropped the country’s largest quality dailies, Sme and Pravda, from its information campaign on introducing the euro, which began in earnest this summer.
The move has quickly given rise to suspicions that the dailies were jilted because of their frequent criticism of the ruling coalition over the past two years.
But other observers say they saw this coming, and point to allegations against the dailies that Fico made this March.
“I see no use in stuffing public money into private dailies that beat the government like a bull at a gate and which work against the strategic goal of introducing the euro,” Fico said in March, as quoted by Sme on July 14. “There are other dailies than Sme and Pravda.”
The government has budgeted Sk180 million for the campaign, according to the Hospodárske Noviny financial daily on July 15.
Government spokesperson Silvia Glendová denied that the prime minister’s comments in March were the basis for dropping the dailies.
“The administering committee decides how the money is distributed, not the prime minister,” Glendová said.
Igor Barát, the government proxy for euro adoption, also vehemently denied that the decision was in any way related to the papers’ criticisms of the government.
Instead, Barát told The Slovak Spectator that most of the communication campaign will take place via TV advertising, which reaches the largest audience. He said the Nový Čas tabloid was chosen because it is the country’s most widely read daily, he said.
This is the “absolutely unbiased criterion on deciding which press to use,” he said. Nový Čas is a “daily aimed at the segment of the public with the lowest rate of being informed” about the euro, he emphasised.
“Any speculation about ‘punishment’ or ‘exclusion’ is absurd,” he declared.
But Matúš Kostolný, editor-in-chef of Sme, maintains that Fico simply made good on his earlier promise.
“The media that criticise his government were deleted from the list, simple as that,” Kostolný told The Slovak Spectator.
Kostolný said that dropping the dailies sent the signal that Fico places a higher value on his personal interests than the public interest.
“If he was really interested in informing as many people as possible, he would not have excluded the country’s serious national dailies,” Kostolný explained.
Even so, Kostolný said, he sees no reason for Sme to stop pointing out the government’s blunders in the future.
Also cutting into the government’s argument is that none of the country’s popular regional papers, such as the Košice–based daily Korzár and the My brand of weeklies, have not been recruited for the campaign. Both titles are published by PetitPress, which also publishes Sme.
The communication campaign is being conducted by the Creo/Young & Rubicam (CYR) and Media Slovak Republic advertising agencies.
Michal Ruttkay, CEO of CYR, declined to comment on the government’s decision.
He explained that Pravda and Sme were approached about the campaign a year ago, but said the government never committed to using them.
“Pravda and Sme have an exceptionally strong campaign of their own in their advertising, which is paid for mostly by respected financial institutions,” Ruttkay told The Slovak Spectator. “So the campaign is already in full swing in these media, making it unnecessary to give readers the kind of basic information the government’s campaign would provide.”
The government's information campaign has already been criticised by Peter Mihók, president of the Slovak Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SOPK).
Mihók told The Slovak Spectator that he felt the public was being led to believe that prices won’t rise as a result of the euro, only be converted.
“But the global economy and the movement of prices, especially in energy, and food, will not be frozen for six months just because Slovakia is adopting the euro,” Mihók said.
Mihók continued that the government had the right to choose which media it would cooperate with, but he felt it was a mistake to have excluded the largest dailies.
Moreover, Mihók said, the media was informing the public better than the official campaign.
“So I believe that they will continue doing so,” he said.
Zuzana Wienk of the Aliancia Fair Play non-governmental think tank said Fico’s statement in March was outrageous.
“This comes close to abuse of power,” Wienk said.
She said any prime minister must be able to separate their emotions from their decisions.
“Deciding how to use taxpayers' money must be done in a clear-headed way,” she told The Slovak Spectator. “The campaign concerns everyone, so all everyone should be informed equally.”
When asked why she believed recent polls show that the Smer party and Fico have the support of a growing segment of voters, Wienk answered that the Slovak public does not attach much importance to ethics or abuse of power.
“This is very alarming from our point of view,” she said.
The Economic and Financial Council of the European Union (ECOFIN) met in Brussels on July 8 to give Slovakia its long-anticipated conversion rate. It was set at Sk30.126 per euro, which Slovak state officials hailed as a tremendous success for the country.