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Deaflympics, media changes and doctors' protest

It was Slovakia’s first chance to host the world’s biggest event for deaf sportspeople. But instead of live broadcasts from the Winter Deaflympics, the Slovak media was full of reports about alleged fraud and the arrest of Jaromír Ruda, the head of the Slovak organising committee, following the games’ last-minute cancellation. By that time dozens of athletes had already arrived in Slovakia to prepare, and dozens more were en route to the venue. According to the police, Ruda fraudulently borrowed €10 million from at least four companies to finance the Winter Deaflympics. He neither returned the money, nor was he able to prove how it was used. In August, the police added another 11 charges to the list he faces, the TASR newswire reported.

It was Slovakia’s first chance to host the world’s biggest event for deaf sportspeople. But instead of live broadcasts from the Winter Deaflympics, the Slovak media was full of reports about alleged fraud and the arrest of Jaromír Ruda, the head of the Slovak organising committee, following the games’ last-minute cancellation. By that time dozens of athletes had already arrived in Slovakia to prepare, and dozens more were en route to the venue. According to the police, Ruda fraudulently borrowed €10 million from at least four companies to finance the Winter Deaflympics. He neither returned the money, nor was he able to prove how it was used. In August, the police added another 11 charges to the list he faces, the TASR newswire reported.



Changes in the media world



The Slovak media scene began 2011 with a major change: Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS) emerged as a single public broadcaster following the merger of state-owned Slovak Television (STV) and Slovak Radio (SRo). Miloslava Zemková, formerly head of SRo, was appointed interim director of the new institution.

The merger was proposed by Culture Minister Daniel Krajcer to resolve what he called the catastrophic financial situation within STV. He called it the first step in a reform which would involve a change in the financing of public broadcasting – specifically, by scrapping the so-called concessionary fees paid by all electricity consumers in Slovakia – and moving the two broadcasters into a single building.

After initial evaluations, Zemková reported that RTVS had inherited debts of €43 million, arising entirely from STV’s activities. In fact, Krajcer’s plan was criticised by those concerned that merging the financially troubled STV with the relatively healthy SRo would negatively affect the latter. Media experts, however, admitted the situation in STV had become untenable and required some kind of action.

Parliament, voting in an open ballot, selected Zemková from among 19 candidates to become the permanent director of RTVS.

The fall of the government left a question mark over the reform planned by Krajcer, but at the end of October 2011 he had managed to push through a new model to finance the joint broadcaster.

Currently, RTVS is financed from a mixture of sources, some from the state budget on the basis of agreements between the state and the broadcaster and some from the fees of €4.64 paid by every household and business connected to the electricity grid. Beginning in January 2013 those mandatory fees will be scrapped and the public broadcaster will be financed directly from the state budget through an annual lump-sum amount that will be calculated based on Slovakia’s GDP, with €90 million as a guaranteed minimum.

Meanwhile, nine Slovak publishers attempted to improve their financial situations by joining a premium-content payment service for online services, Piano Media, which was launched in April 2011 by Etarget, an online advertising firm, and NextBig, a Prague-based new media consultancy company.

Participating media outlets can place all or part of their content behind a paywall that can be accessed only by those who pay a flat monthly fee of €2.90. This gives unlimited access to all participating publications, much like a cable-TV package. Users’ payments are split between the publications based on how much time is spent on individual sites.

Slovakia was the first country in the world where this kind of common payment system was established and Piano Media received a lot of attention from around the globe. Some foreign publishers have shown an interest in Piano and would like to know how it could work in their countries.



The doctors’ protest



The end of 2011 was marked by a mass protest by doctors working in state-run hospitals. It was organised by the Medical Trade Unions’ Association (LOZ), and ostensibly focused on doctors’ opposition to the transformation of hospitals into joint-stock companies, a process seen as one of the flagship measures of Health Minister Ivan Uhliarik, who said it would help to resolve the chronic funding problems in the Slovak health-care system.

The protest action, which involved around 2,400 doctors sending notice of termination of the employment contracts en masse in late September 2011, culminated on December 1 with 1,226 protesting doctors actually leaving their jobs (according to Health Ministry figures).

The protest was launched to achieve four demands: a halt to the process of transforming state-run hospitals into joint-stock companies; for the hospitals to observe the Labour Code regarding doctors’ hours and other working conditions; for the government to increase funding for health-care facilities; and for the salaries of doctors to be gradually increased based on a formula connected to average salaries in Slovakia. Only fulfilling these four demands would help improve the Slovak health-care system, the LOZ claimed.

The protest action was somewhat hindered by the fall of the government in mid-October, but despite that unexpected turn of events the LOZ continued its protest and doctors continued to insist they would leave their jobs as of December 1 if their demands were not met.

As a first step towards resolving the dispute, President Ivan Gašparovič, using powers he had acquired after the fall of the government, suspended the process of transforming the hospitals into state-owned joint-stock companies.

As December 1 neared and the cabinet saw little progress in its efforts to persuade protesting doctors to stay, a state of emergency was declared for more than a dozen hospitals, meaning doctors could be ordered to report for work, on threat of prosecution, in order to avert a threat to public health. Those hospitals had been designated as the most critical, lacking anaesthesiologists in particular. Many of the hospitals also expected to be lacking surgeons, gynaecologists, and neonatal doctors.

Several hospitals were, however, forced to work under a crisis regime despite the state of emergency, as many doctors reported being sick.

Negotiations between the doctors and the cabinet were finally concluded on the morning of December 3, when both parties signed a memorandum which fulfilled most of the doctors’ original demands.

More than a week later, parliament, after some initial hints that MPs might not agree to the memorandum and that, for instance, the transformation of hospitals might not be dropped from the law on health-care providers as doctors had demanded, passed an amendment to that law on December 14.

The amended law guarantees the doctors two salary increases, in January 2012 and July 2012, changes the Labour Code to allow them to take extra time off or get additional pay for any overtime work, and halts the transformation of hospitals.

Two weeks before the end of the year, however, the LOZ said it was still waiting for the law to become effective before it would lift its strike alert.



The Slovak Spectator archive and the Sme daily with SITA and TASR files


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