Daunting libel suits against the press, with Slovak courts awarding disproportionate sums to state officials for so-called moral damages; a new and more restrictive press code; tighter economic pressure on the necks of publishers; commercial pressures to trivialise media content; and a lack of high-level media training for the young generation of journalists: these are part of the full basket of challenges that Slovak media face today – two decades after the Velvet Revolution. But with journalists growing more independent from state power over these decades, with some publications having strong ties to established foreign media groups, and with Slovak news outlets gradually adjusting to new forms of media, the leaders and professionals of the country’s media are more prepared to face these challenges today. So say those who keep their fingers on the pulse of the domestic media.
Just as society has had to cope with growing pains from building democratic institutions, Slovak media have also been evolving significantly over the past two decades. According to media professionals, these changes relate to changes in media ownership, the dynamics between the government and journalists, and evolving ways in which media cope with pressures on their budgets.
“Looking back at the situation of the media 15 years ago, we remember that the media sector was weak and tied to the political class, with the key outlets directly or indirectly being under the influence of politicians competing for power,” Rastislav Kužel, director of media watchdog MEMO 98, told The Slovak Spectator. “This period was characterised by authoritarian governance and violation of human rights, including systematic harassment and intimidation of the media.”
The former government of Vladimír Mečiar, who in the mid 1990s co-ruled with the Slovak National Party and the Slovak Workers’ Association, was particularly unfriendly towards media outlets which were critical of the government.
According to Kužel, there were attempts by the government to eliminate some newspapers by putting them under greater economic pressure and to hinder some private radio stations from broadcasting. Some members of Mečiar’s government stopped some media outlets from access to official information, he added.
“Political interference has marked the development of Slovak media since 1989 and escalated into its most blatant form between 1994 and 1998,” said Kužel, adding that it would be naïve to expect that one day political or economic pressures on the media would completely disappear. “At the same time, however, the Slovak media system is now more autonomous and thus stronger in its ability to resist such pressure than it was 15 years ago.”
Matúš Kostolný, editor-in-chief of Slovakia’s major daily, Sme, says that the way journalists’ relationships have changed towards the government could serve as a good example of the progress made in the media environment.
“While 15 years ago the prevailing majority of journalists were fighting against the government, today journalists are rather in the position of journalists and not fighters,” Kostolný told The Slovak Spectator.
Gabriel Šípoš, an analyst with the media watchdog blog Slovak Press Watch and a director of the political ethics watchdog Transparency International Slovensko also sees much improvement in the media.
First, he notes that Slovak media have gradually slipped from the hands of tycoons who made fortunes during the so-called wild privatisation era and the liberalisation of the 1990s to current ownership by professional media groups based in established democracies such as Germany, the United States and Switzerland.
“Secondly, through their own experience with democracy and economic progress, journalists have grown increasingly independent from the government – able to fight for the public interest and to become a relevant, even if imperfect, watchdog of the powerful,” Šípoš told The Slovak Spectator.
The third important aspect, Šípoš said, is that media have coped well with new technologies, the internet in particular.
“This improved the speed, scope, variety and quality of news services provided
to the public,” said Šípoš.
However, navigating the business dimension, which became part of the Slovak media environment after 1989 when media became free to decide their own content, was another significant challenge, according to Miloš Nemeček, the head of the Slovak Association of Publishers of Print Press.
Pavol Múdry, the head of the Slovak branch of the International Press Institute (IPI), agreed, adding those executives who understood that the media are also guided by business principles, just like any other business, have survived while others who failed to understand the business dimension have not.
“Obviously I don’t want to stress only the economic dimension, although that is very important,” said Nemeček. “Despite numerous problems and often righteous criticism addressed towards the media, we have to underline the role they have played in the development of democracy and plurality, and especially in the efforts to integrate Slovakia into the Euro-Atlantic structures.”
THE judiciary – a major media concern
International organisations and the diplomatic community in Slovakia have been voicing concerns about the independence of the country’s judiciary when adjudicating libel cases. Top diplomats have also grown more concerned that despite the availability of multiple remedies under the Press Code enacted in 2008 many public figures have chosen to file libel suits demanding very high financial compensation.
Undoubtedly, 2009 was the year that witnessed peculiar and rather unprecedented decisions made by courts against the media when over €309,000 in damages were awarded to public officials in civil actions brought against publishers and other media.
The global economic crisis and decisions by Slovakia’s judiciary are currently the main threats to the proper functioning of Slovak media, said the deputy editor-in-chief of Sme, Lukáš Fila, in June 2009 when assessing the main challenges for the media.
“The [court awarded] sanctions are completely out of proportion with amounts awarded to relatives of victims of fatal accidents or with past rulings, which suggests that the main aim of the courts is not to come up with fair decisions but to punish the media and provide an easy source of income to politicians and fellow judges,” Fila told The Slovak Spectator.
Investigative journalism by some Slovak media sources has revealed several serious cases of political cronyism since 2006 and has exposed a series of damaging political scandals involving members of Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer political party as well as his ruling coalition partners, the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).
Šípoš agreed that the main challenge to media independence currently comes from actions by some courts.
“Numerous successful libel suits with regular awards in tens of thousands of euros going to public officials and companies do not bode well for the future of the media,” Šípoš said. “The courts seem unable either to withstand political pressure or do not understand the important role that a free media play in a democracy.”
The Association of Publishers of the Periodical Press has been criticising the level of damages that certain politicians have been awarded by the courts against the media, most significantly by Prime Minister Fico, by Ján Slota of SNS and by Štefan Harabin, the Supreme Court president.
The IPI similarly expressed concerns about this tendency on the part of the judiciary – for the possible self-censorship it could bring to the media and for the financial impact such exceptional damages could have on the media organisations.
“While it is not unheard of for large damages to be awarded in other European countries, the number of cases and the fact that most are initiated by public officials seems to be a trend specific to Slovakia at present,” Colin Peters, press freedom adviser for Europe and the Americas with the IPI told The Slovak Spectator last year.
It is also clear that political interference in the work of mass media has been growing steadily since 2006, according to Kužel.
“[The public-service] Slovak Television (STV), in particular, has experienced a wave of scandals which cast serious doubts about its ability to provide objective coverage ahead of the upcoming polls,” Kužel has said, referring to the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 14.
“Even the recently published human rights report by the US Department of State highlighted the fact that STV was subject to political influence by the government.”
Among other issues, the right to reply introduced by Slovakia’s new Press Code, which came into effect in June 2008, did not escape the attention of the State Department’s Human Rights Report 2009. The report notes that Prime Minister Fico used the right of reply in November 2009 against the Sme daily despite the fact that he had claimed he would not do so and had said the provision was only supposed to benefit ordinary citizens who had no other means to defend themselves from incorrect information appearing in the press.
THE Status of the independent media
Observers also suggest that the tendency of local politicians to question the role of an independent media and to verbally attack the press is worrisome. For example, Prime Minister Fico has often described the press as a “new opposition force” which, in his words, is completely biased and harms national and state interests. Fico has also said that the press fails to “stand behind the common people”.
In October 2008, Fico challenged the print media’s interpretation of his trip to Vietnam by calling reporters from the dailies Sme, Pravda, Hospodárske Noviny and Nový Čas “idiots”. Fico also has accused the publishers of Slovakia’s major daily newspapers of plotting a unified campaign against his Smer party and then took his comments one step further by comparing the print media to the Mafia.
“Another challenge stems from the number of politicians, the current prime minister being the most notable at the moment, who do not seem to think that media have a meaningful role to play in watching and criticising the government’s actions closely,” said Šípoš.
According to Kužel, the position of the media in society is undermined by verbal degradation of journalism by state authorities, most notably Fico.
“As such, instead of being a guarantor of media freedoms and independence, the state does exactly the opposite – which has a negative impact on the position of the media in society,” said Kužel. “As Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy Keith A. Eddins recently pointed out, one of the biggest problems in relation to freedom of the press and speech in Slovakia is a lack of concern by the public. The fact that people simply do not care about problems that journalists have to face is inter alia connected with the fact that people have not yet learned how to ‘consume‘ different media contents.”
Múdry suggested that the media have not successfully persuaded the public about their role [as democracy watchdogs] in the society.
“Therefore, for the moment, they are losing the fight mainly with the politicians,” said Múdry. “It is, however, also a consequence of the quality of the media and inconsistency by its creators – the journalists.”
Kužel is concerned that due to a complete lack of media education until recently in the schools most people cannot tell the difference between sensationalism and good quality investigative reporting and therefore cannot appreciate the exact value of the latter for the society.
But he also added that journalists themselves do not seem to care enough about their colleagues. A recent case involving former STV reporter Martina Kubániová is a good example according to Kužel.
“She did a good job in unveiling a clear case of mismanagement of public funds – instead of being rewarded her contract at STV was not extended,” said Kužel. “There were a few articles about this in some newspapers and two NGOs issued statements in her support but one would expect different, stronger reactions – at least from professional journalism organisations.”
Nevertheless, Múdry believes that the importance of the media within society, despite reservations, is continually rising which can be seen from the politicians’ reactions to the media.
“The legislation has been adjusted towards the international standards but it is still not perfect,” said Múdry. “There is still too much room left for the politicians and the courts to have their own interpretation of the legal provisions. I personally believe that it is intentional on the part of those in power who want to preserve their tools to ‘give direction’ to the media.”
What Múdry also sees missing in the Slovak media environment is a discourse and dialogue about the role of media and its relationships with other institutions.
“We have created kinds of trenches from which we are shouting at each other instead of leading an open public dialogue about our problems or about our relations to politics and politicians,” Múdry said. “I know that at least two partners are needed for a dialogue and that far too often there is a lack of will mainly on the part of the politicians, but we should nevertheless keep trying to lead a dialogue all the time.”
Other important challenges remain, according to Kužel: the politicisation of media regulatory bodies; trivialisation and tabloidization of media content; and the continued difficult situation of most regional media which must still rely on local government resources at the expense of their independence.
“It is also of concern that investigative journalism has been facing serious challenges. It has been gradually disappearing from STV due to political pressure and it is getting more difficult for private media to undertake given the financial crisis – which is, however, not a country-specific but rather a global problem,” said Kužel.
Finally, Kužel added that increased concentration of media ownership is a potential threat to media diversity and independence – as shown in the past, the occurrence of certain pressures were less frequent when Slovak media were owned by foreign capital.
The lack of a well-functioning public-service network is one of the more disappointing aspects of the Slovak media environment.
“The last 15 years are a great case study of how the country failed to build a well-functioning public-service network,” Šípoš told The Slovak Spectator. “Finally, the public itself remains a challenge for the media. With the public prone to be swayed by populist, nationalistic or social slogans, it is not easy for the media to hold the government accountable and yet not lose their audience.”
Šípoš added that a critical mass of the population who can follow the news with an open, yet critical, mind needs to be reached before the quality of the media, including its investigative reporting, can find a proper place in Slovakia.
However, according to Nemeček, looking back in time it was very important that in 1995 and 1996 the first private television stations emerged, notably Markíza TV, which significantly changed the media space.
“Not only in that it soon overran public-service television in popularity but also that it possessed a rarely seen dominance in the advertising market,” Nemeček said.
According to Nemeček, the periodical press has needed to undertake determined efforts to at least partially alleviate this imbalance.
“The structure of advertising among all the media is, however, still significantly shifted in disadvantage to the domestic press, in comparison with most other advanced western European countries,” Nemeček told The Slovak Spectator. “This continues to have a negative impact on the possibilities of the development of the market for newspapers and magazines.”
The tightening grip of economic pressure is another challenge that media, especially those in private hands, have been tackling over the past two decades. With the outburst of the global economic downturn in the second half of 2008, the clinch has become even more constrictive. The first months of 2009 brought a sharply negative economic impact to the media outlets, some of which recorded 30 percent less income, according to Medialne.sk.
Overall expenditures on advertising fell sharply in 2009 according to data published by the TNS SK agency, with its monitoring of advertising in that year showing a fall of about 35 percent year-on-year. The figure however also applies to television advertising and might be underscored by the fact that the broadcasters have cut prices of advertising space. Print media have also worked in a crisis mode by selling advertising space with discounts.
In response to pressures created by advertisers trimming their budgets and the shrinking readership base of print media, publishing houses worldwide reached for austerity measures, with the Slovak publishers being no exception. Just like their international peers, Slovak media houses have struggled to find a sustainable advertising model for their online media, seeking to maintain quality but with smaller teams and increased tasks.
Another form of pressure has come from technological development and emerging new forms of communication such as online journalism, blogs, so-called citizen journalism and multimedia tools.
“Especially the traditional media – newspapers and magazines – are in a complicated position,” Nemeček said. “Internet and social networks have brought unseen possibilities of democratisation and direct access of citizens into the exchange of information. For classical publishing structures it means the necessity of a fundamental change of attitude, mainly in the forms of communication.”
This fundamental change can be accomplished only by those best prepared journalistically, managerially, economically and technologically, Nemeček said.
Kužel believes that the Slovak media market is slowly adjusting to the new media and new forms of communications while Múdry added that there is still a long way to go.
“Traditional media still see the new media as a competitor rather than a helper, Múdry said. “For example, actual news service in dailies is ceasing to have importance because everything has been published on the internet and broadcasted by the electronic media earlier. What we are missing here are more analyses and stories explaining to the reader what certain events mean for him or her personally. What remains a paradox is that we still respect the ‘press-conference culture’ which has been forced upon us by politicians, and we are wasting capabilities and human resources at the expense of the quality of our work. But this is also starting to improve.”