People misunderstand public-service role

THE CONCEPT of public service is often misunderstood mainly by politicians, says Miloslava Zemková, the general director of Slovak Radio (SRo). Since 2006, when she assumed her present post, tensions between SRo and the government have occurred much more frequently than has been the government and Slovak Television. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Zemková about the challenges that the public-service media in general, and Slovak Radio in particular, face today, 20 years after the fall of the communist regime; and about her concerns that the supervisory Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission has recently been acting as a censorship body.

Miloslava ZemkováMiloslava Zemková (Source: Katarína Ácelová)

THE CONCEPT of public service is often misunderstood mainly by politicians, says Miloslava Zemková, the general director of Slovak Radio (SRo). Since 2006, when she assumed her present post, tensions between SRo and the government have occurred much more frequently than has been the government and Slovak Television. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Zemková about the challenges that the public-service media in general, and Slovak Radio in particular, face today, 20 years after the fall of the communist regime; and about her concerns that the supervisory Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission has recently been acting as a censorship body.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Has the understanding of journalism as a profession and the position of journalists changed in the last 20 years in Slovakia?

Miloslava Zemková (MZ): The Velvet Revolution changed journalism as a profession as well as the mission of journalists in society. Some journalists went to the “other” side and became politicians or spokespeople for political parties. That is something that in my opinion shouldn’t happen, because it deprives a journalist of his or her independence. The border between the two professions is strict – journalists should not play the role of politicians or vice versa. Others started their own businesses, thanks to their newly acquired freedom, and some remained in the media where they worked before, hoping that no real change had happened. Those with good language skills or with contacts abroad left Slovakia. And all those who finally wanted to write and tell the truth started doing so.

Now, 20 years on, I believe a new, much more principled generation of journalists is taking over. They are not spoilt by previous political system, they are open-minded and they were never forced to write about distorted reality under censorship. The previous generation was stunted, and has existed in a state of existential uncertainty about writing things that someone might not like. And one whole generation of journalists was lost – and we feel that lack even now.

TSS: Apart from that, how has Slovak Radio (SRo) developed over the past 20 years and what challenges did November 1989 bring?

MZ: November 1989 brought new opportunities, tasks and challenges, but also new problems. The role of this medium had to be redefined: it became more open to new ideas, new programmes and new people, and its new function was later set in a new legislative framework. Simply said, the state broadcaster was changed into a public-service broadcaster. But even if the old, socialist radio broadcaster did not survive 1989, a lot of people in SRo did not realise that 1989 was a turning point, did not recognise the change in its basic function, and remained in positions making politics instead of independently reporting on it. That is why the 1990s period in SRo should be studied and evaluated by historians in its historical and political context.

But this is a medium that was and still is important, because it is the most trusted medium in Slovakia. According to the surveys, it might even be the most trusted institution in the country, with around 75 to 78 percent of people over the long term saying they trust it.

So, before 1989, SRo was a classic state institution, a ‘megaphone’ for the governing Communist Party. And the paradox is that some people would like it to be a government or state radio station even today. But the law was changed: even if we wanted it to be a government mouthpiece today, we couldn’t do this because we would be violating the law.

TSS: What do the public and politicians, particularly government politicians, understand by ‘public-service’ media? Do you think they understand its purpose correctly?

MZ: Only a few people understand it correctly in the entire width and breadth of its sense. This is at the core of the question about what public service means. Because if people wanted the two public-service media (SRo and Slovak Television) to serve the state or governing political parties and not those who pay for them, then it was unnecessary to pass new legislation. The law on Slovak Radio describes very precisely the role of this public-service medium, and what, how and for whom it has to produce and broadcast its programmes.

The first post-socialist law was passed in 1991 and then changed in 1993 when the Czecho-Slovak Federative Republic split, and Czecho-Slovak Radio was thus also divided in two; a new bill on Slovak Radio was adopted in 2003. Today, SRo observes this law strictly. If the politicians, but also other people, and the public, who pay for SRo, knew that public service is described in the law from A to Z, they would know that we must, for instance, broadcast on six circuits, that we must provide foreign broadcasting, that we must produce artistic-dramatic output, that we must have an independent and balanced news service, that we must provide listeners with the opportunity to create their own opinions and that we must contribute to the understanding between different strata in society. Certainly, we are an independent institution, and a national institution, because we focus on Slovak listeners. But we also broadcast for minorities. Simply, SRo is a national cultural institution that also works as a news service.

Our public-service character sets out so many duties for us that we cannot effectively observe them within one radio station. It would be such a puzzle that nobody would listen to it. For that reason, there is specialisation across several circuits, or radio stations. We’ve got eight of them, and yesterday [March 25] they approved another one for us – Radio Junior – so there’ll be nine radio stations under SRo this year. This is the trend, shifting from mosaic composition to specialised radio stations. That is why some of our stations are specialised mono-thematically, mono-genre and we are preparing for another level: for digitalisation, which will allow listeners to choose a specialised programme, which we will compose for them and that they will be able to download from the internet, or listen to via satellite or retransmission. In this sense, we not only have to respect and follow the trends, but also lead them within Slovakia.

TSS: How do you evaluate the law on retransmission – does it require any changes, in your opinion?

MZ: Two main laws are crucial for our existence and our work – the law on Slovak Radio and the law on broadcasting and retransmission. The first one is basically good. It has some small flaws in terms of opportunities for implementation, so maybe small amendments would improve it, but it is good in general. It specifies very well what public service is. Because that cannot be described in one sentence, it is a whole list of activities that public-service media have to perform.

So if there is a controversy, it is not because of the content of the law; instead it is a controversy between what is written in the law and the understanding of SRo's role. If it should be a state or government radio broadcaster, then the law has to be changed. But if it should stay an independent public-service radio broadcaster, the law must be respected as it is today – but also from the other side.

And this [misunderstanding of SRo’s position] is not only a question of the current government, or part of it. Previous governments too held the same position towards SRo; it is like a thread stretched from 1989, since all the politicians regard SRo as the megaphone of the government, while the law says something else. Maybe the real reason for this is the medium’s lack of financial independence, which makes it hard to maintain other sorts of independence. When the management has to beg for additional funds from the state every year to cover its debts, then it can also expect political conditions, or may simply have to obey [the politicians]. And that puts SRo in a schizophrenic position.

This has also been felt in the attitudes of some journalist who have worked here. But now they have clear evidence, confirmed several times, of the fact that the power of the medium to be independent, investigative and all the other characteristics described by the law has been delegated to them – but together with responsibility. There is no censorship in the sense of “you cannot publish this” or “don’t touch this gentleman, because he is my friend”.

But they make mistakes, of course they do. Today we’ve got about 170 hours of live broadcasts daily, prepared by journalists, music dramaturgists, technicians, and others – by 600 people, of whom about 200 are journalists.

As long as a journalist is briefed well about what independence is, as long as he or she knows well the Statute of SRo programme employees and the law, I regard mistakes as unintended and minor. But someone is continuing to punish us for these, sometimes with fines that are damaging for us. During the past four years I have not found a single real, intentional violation of the law by our journalists.

Probably the view about whether such unintended mistakes should be sanctioned should be formalised, and maybe it is necessary to re-evaluate the work of the body that oversees the electronic media, in order for that body not to become a censor. Because it has been turning into one recently: the trend is very visible and we can document it.

The law on broadcasting and retransmission is very strict, more so than the oft-discussed print-media law, and there is this one body – the Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission, [also known as the licensing council] – that, maybe because it will soon have no licences to award [once digital broadcasting is put fully into practice], is looking for other areas of work, and it seems like it has taken the wrong direction. What I am telling you now can be subjective, but that’s how we feel it today in SRo. It is perhaps as subjective as the council's recent decisions. And it is very unfortunate that we have to sue the council over almost every one of its decision against us, not only because we disagree with it, but because by respecting its decisions we would have to stop the work of whole teams or end some programmes because our journalists would be working in a state of uncertainty.

And, thank God, we are winning the lawsuits one by one. My only question then, however, is what such a council is good for. Because the lawsuits costs money, time and human resources. But we have to do it, for the journalists who work here to know that they are really free in their profession.

TSS: You say the council should be prevented from turning into a censorship body. How should that be done? Where should the initiative, the solutions come from?

MZ: They are already coming. Pressure [to stop] the nonsense of some practices and some legal provisions has already been created. It’s all about the people. Just as The Slovak Spectator is made up of people, so is Slovak Radio and so is the licensing council. And as long as there is a body that takes decisions by vote, which is subjectively and often even politically motivated, and that gets deliberate assignments, it is as if journalists were working under the pressure of such assignments, of political tasks or with subjectively processed data. That would make for very bad journalism. It’s in the people.

TSS: Do you expect any changes soon, for example after the elections in June?

MZ: No. The council’s members are elected in cycles and the [general] election will not affect the composition of the council immediately, maybe only later, when the next set of members has to be elected by parliament. The reservations against us mainly regard our news service and live discussions or debate programmes which we are convinced we are running in an independent, balanced and objective way. Logically, we sometimes make mistakes. But we are not supposed to be a mouthpiece. If this is regarded as a mistake, then there is a mistake in the legislation. As I keep saying: if you want to have a state radio, change the law. It’s absurd to evaluate SRo on two levels – as an independent public-service radio broadcaster and as a state radio broadcaster. But it is happening. And I regard this as an injustice towards SRo as an institution.

To read more of this interview with Miloslava Zemková please see The Slovak Spectator special publication coming soon.

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