Keeping watchdog journalism on guard

Media watchdogs never want to sit under the table of politicians and just wait for whatever scraps of information those in power might be willing to toss them. Fierce independence, freedom to dig deeply for the truth like a dog after a buried bone, and protection from political interference in their work are three principles that journalists cherish. But Slovakia’s media in 2010 are also facing significant economic challenges from the global downturn and have tough decisions to make about how to mesh print and online news reporting; they require a strategy to fend off politically-based libel suits and must prepare a new generation of journalists who will continue to uphold the finest traditions and principles of watchdog journalism.

Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin has sued several publishers.Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin has sued several publishers. (Source: SITA)

Media watchdogs never want to sit under the table of politicians and just wait for whatever scraps of information those in power might be willing to toss them. Fierce independence, freedom to dig deeply for the truth like a dog after a buried bone, and protection from political interference in their work are three principles that journalists cherish. But Slovakia’s media in 2010 are also facing significant economic challenges from the global downturn and have tough decisions to make about how to mesh print and online news reporting; they require a strategy to fend off politically-based libel suits and must prepare a new generation of journalists who will continue to uphold the finest traditions and principles of watchdog journalism.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Matúš Kostolný, editor-in-chief of the Sme daily, Norbert Molnár, editor-in-chief of Új Szó, the Hungarian-language daily, Ivan Sámel, deputy director of the private newswire SITA and Miloslava Zemková, the director of public-service Slovak Radio about the challenges facing journalism and the paths that journalists have traversed in Slovakia over the past two decades.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How has the Slovak media environment developed over the past two decades? Have the status of journalists and the understanding of journalism changed?

Matúš Kostolný (MK): The media have been progressing over the past 15 years and have advanced a great deal. Perhaps the journalists’ relationship towards the government could serve as a good example of this progress: while 15 years ago the prevailing majority of journalists were fighting against the government then, today’s journalists are rather in the position of journalists and not fighters.

Norbert Molnár (NM): It has simplified. More or less, the market dictates the developments, which is logical. An exception is the public media, since they in many cases are still edited according to politics. The arrival of commercial media, which has rearranged the advertising market and the concentration of print press and then its minimal but still evident loss of space, and the emergence of internet-based news, are among the important factors. However, in Slovakia, an analphabetic media prevails. Though most of the press and journalists these days are trying to fulfil the watchdog role in a much better way, the audience is not interested in this. The non-demanding journalism is more popular, which unfortunately reduces the public and opinion-forming role of journalism.

Ivan Sámel (IS): Over the past 15 years our media environment has completely changed. Back in 1995, there was an absolute dominance by Slovak Television (STV) and Slovak Radio (SRo); a more serious radio journalism at private stations started taking off at Radio Twist but there was no stable private television which offered a real choice in news reporting. There were about 10 dailies I guess, some of which were literally partisan, while the internet was just a word to which 90 percent of the population was not able to attach any real meaning. The self-definition of journalist was only emerging and it was a laborious path since in the overall atmosphere of the society it was increasingly difficult to preserve professional independence. Also, professional and ethical issues that journalists were solving back in 1995 were completely different from the ones in 2005. The relationship of the political elite and media has been through different waves, while the middle of that time period in terms of relations between media and politicians was more or less standard which gave space to the media and journalists to mature. About the remaining time periods, before 1995 and after 2006, one might say that the image of the media and journalists as reflected in rally talk of politicians has evolved from enemies and traitors of the common people, the nation and state to today’s enemies of the nation and liars – which, after all, is a weird ‘progress’.

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 spokespeople for political parties. That is something that in my opinion shouldn’t happen, because it deprives a journalist of his or her independence. 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. The previous generation was stunted and has lived 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 lacking even now. However, the new generation of journalists have not had the tradition or the places to learn the newest trends, for example, investigative journalism.

TSS: What are currently the main challenges in the Slovak media environment? What do you consider as the major problems facing media today?

MK: The greatest challenge for the media is to find ways to combine paper and online. The internet is a sort of redemption for the media, but if they fail to find a sustainable model which will be able to support them financially then at the same time it might become the grave digger for classical journalism. However, recently in Slovakia another trend has been added to the global problems such as the crisis of print media and the economic crisis: purpose-driven attacks by politicians and judges [on the media] who have recently turned this activity into a way of making money.

NM: What has always been the challenge: to resist political and economic influences and to do everything the media can to maintain a healthy market while seeking out the new generation interested in a demanding press. However, I would mention one more thing: the need for a serious leftist daily: today in Slovakia leftist journalism has become equal with the nationalist journalism, which should be unimaginable under normal circumstances. Until some of the press and journalists are writing for someone’s interest, the media cannot acquire the social status that they deserve.

IS: The media have described several cases of symbiotic behaviour between top politicians and businesses during procurements, as well as purposeful adoption of legislation: sometimes it did not help, but sometimes it led to the halt of the ongoing unjustified transfer of large sums of money from public sources to private accounts. This social significance of classic media is simply here and will remain. The challenge and problem is the search for balance between the social importance of information and the perception of information as goods, which even if not sold directly, have for example the potential to influence the number of visitors on websites or the ratings of television stations with a direct impact on the economy of the media. Most importantly, the print media are facing the challenge how to handle the internet in the sense of reasonable solution of cannibalisation of print media by their online version.

MZ: The fact that politicians are behaving towards journalists like some trash has always been here: during the socialist regime and also after the revolution. The journalist is the watchdog of democracy; it is not some kind of Chihuahua that you carry in your handbag.
Journalists must report what they see; they have to analyse and seek relations, reveal connections, which is always unpleasant regardless who is in power. I do not know whether this is how it is taught at journalism schools today.

TSS: How has the Slovak media market adjusted to new media and new forms of communication? What impact have internet journalism, civil journalism, blogs and multimedia had on media?

NM: In a standard way. However, I find it strange that no serious internet news content has emerged in a way it happened in the surrounding and western European countries. Here, the online versions of print media are more popular than the original online newspapers. On one hand, these online versions complete the print but also make their situation more difficult: they want to appear even more original and more professional but then they appear rather stiff.

IS: The internet has incredibly changed information into a commodity that people can get for free while making the exchange of views and opinions more accessible. It is unbelievably democratic: anyone who wants to and has a capacity can start publishing within just minutes. The other side of this phenomenon is the gigantically growing volume of published letters, many of which are making the impression of information, while the issue of their credibility and objectiveness remains open. Then the role of the journalist is to search this mass of information, to ask questions, check, scrutinize and complete the facts. Then, of course, to write the story and help the reader to get oriented within this mass of dispersed information. Here the role of journalist does not change that much. Then there is a question whether the advertising market is able to feed all that or the volume of content available for free on the internet will change. Especially in Slovakia, publishers must solve another problem – the absolutely ineffective and unclear protection of the daily news, because the Slovak copyright assumes that daily events not only happen but they also get written by themselves.

MZ: In fact media must adjust to new technological forms; it is their basic duty since it is linked to the overall mental and technological development of society as such. This development has been speeding up over the past 15-20 years. If you fail to adjust, then you fall behind and someone else will take over while you become an open-air museum, or disappear if you are private media, or society will be preserving you if you are a public media and you live on viewer or listener fees. People around us promptly are switching to new technologies. A couple years ago radio was still broadcasting from tapes; today it is tuned to super-modern digital systems. People had to learn all that along with their regular jobs. The same goes for print media: if the print media fails to acknowledge that there is new media where it can apply its influence and outputs, then sooner or later these print media will disappear.

TSS: How have the relations between the media and government changed and how does this dynamic influence the position of media in society? Which events or legislative changes have been the most significant?

MK: Over the past four years Prime Minister Fico has been purposefully trying to suggest that journalists are harmful. The prime minister has managed to spread this attitude even further. Lawsuits against media, which are growing in number, are proving the success of this tactic. Despite this, media are still very strong; and even in a government of deniers of media influence, media are able to have influence.

NM: Politics is vain. The government cannot handle criticism and the word “watchdog” is essentially unknown to them. Since it cannot lead a substantial dialogue with media it chooses the simplest and the most primitive methods: it has been continuously suing the media; it tries to question the credibility of the media; and it passes laws which throw obstacles to the operation of media. However, the government cannot win this fight – it only might get some scores in the short run. The adoption of the press code is simply ridiculous and just as minimally appalling is keeping the public media in permanent dependence on politics and the state budget. And I would add here also the negative impacts of the adoption of the State Language Law.

IS: The current ruling power has been systematically trying to disintegrate independent elements of society and wants to get them under control to the largest possible degree. This trend certainly has not avoided the media, which from the very first day of their rule they moved the media to the position of enemy No. 1. This is why the press code emerged, along with other senseless trials of stretching the sphere of so-called public media as well as several court decisions or the effort to get at least part of internet content under the supervision of the licensing council.

MZ: Public service is often misinterpreted among the public, and mainly among politicians. And then there are reservations, voiced mainly by the Council for Broadcast and Retransmission, against us, mainly in the area of news reporting – about which we are convinced that we are doing it independently, balanced and objectively. It is logical that we make mistakes. But we are not supposed to be a mouthpiece – if that is considered to be our mistake, then the legislation is wrong. I keep saying it all the time: if you want to have a state radio, you need to change the law. At the moment SRo is independent. And it is very absurd to talk about one thing at two different levels: on the level of a state radio and on the level of an independent radio – and to evaluate its work from both these levels. It is absurd and that’s what is happening at the moment. And I perceive it not as a personal injustice, because I am not a journalist, but as an injustice towards the institution I stand for. As long as this law is in effect, it alone tells us what to be.

TSS: How do you assess the state of journalism training in Slovakia?

MK: The best school for Slovak journalists so far has been real life. We have in our editorial office many skilled young journalists and only some of them have been through trainings at journalism schools. The largest change over the past 15 years is the fact that the schools are literally pushing the students to work in media already during their studies.

NM: As tragic. It has nothing to do with the practice. Besides, Hungarian language journalism training does not exist at all which – considering the presence of a 500,000-strong community – is even more tragic. But it is also true that if someone does not have that certain spark, the person could have degrees from 120 journalism schools and they still will not be a journalist.

IS: When hiring new people for the newswire whether they have a journalism degree is only complementary information for us. We care much more about previous work experiences. However, it is annoying when a journalism school graduate is unable to write a short story. Unfortunately, such cases have repeatedly emerged.

MZ: For example, the BBC is training its own journalists because graduates mostly leave school as semi-finished products. But it is not only about the journalistic work itself. You have a young person who leaves school and badly wants to do journalism but is unable to work as a journalist. Some professors are turning some of the journalism schools into museums. The young people who leave the schools are not journalists yet. They know the history and the personalities of journalism and have some general idea what they would like to do. We call them raw diamonds with the need to be polished and we often give them a chance: they can try out different types of journalism, because radio is not only descriptive journalism. We also invest in our employees. There were times when it made me angry that these trained people then go away, but then I told myself that perhaps this is the natural progression of things and when they leave they are no longer half-finished products. The status of journalistic training, in fact, reflects the situation of the whole education sector in Slovakia. If I am to put it simply then journalism is the reflection of the social and political situation.

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