IT NO LONGER shocks anyone in Slovakia if, after a change of government, the top manager of the public-service television broadcaster is shown the door. In fact, directors have come and gone even more frequently than governments. The reasons for and circumstances of the sackings, the names of the nominees, and the lengths of time they spend in this extremely precarious position might differ, but political motives have mostly remained at the root of this tradition.
Slovakia’s public TV broadcaster has had nine directors in the 19 years since Slovak independence. If you count everyone who for any reason has been picked to manage public television since the fall of communism in 1989, including those who lasted only a couple of months or in one case just a single day, the number climbs to 15. This number speaks volumes about the extreme vulnerability of the public broadcaster in Slovakia to political influence.
Miloslava Zemková, the ninth director, saw her five-year term cut short in June after less than 18 months in the job. The reason? The ruling Smer party insisted that she had to be sacked for what it called her failure as director to inform the governing body of the broadcaster about the launch of a crucial tender.
Given the peremptoriness of Zemková’s dismissal and the fact that she was not herself an openly political appointee – she was hired to manage Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS), the recently merged public-service broadcaster – it is already clear that this does not bode well for the country’s media environment.
Zemková was removed just weeks after a general election for reasons that are disputable and which have been questioned even by the chair of the RTVS Council, Miroslav Kollár. He said he does not believe that Zemková violated the law, which is in fact the only legitimate basis on which parliament can sack her.
But this, of course, does not have anything to do with Zemková’s professional qualities. Instead it embodies the ruling party’s instinct to make sure the “right” nominee fills this position.
But a brief glance at the history of STV provides an idea as to why it would be much healthier to maintain barriers between politicians and public media bosses.
Under notorious former premier Vladimír Mečiar, STV gradually grew into a nest of government spin doctors who remained there until a new management team led by Milan Materák, a nominee of the ruling coalition which ousted Mečiar in 1998, swept them out. The process was charged with melodrama: the spin doctors in protest moved to the top floor of the socialist-era building and camped there during working hours for several weeks, calling the 28th floor an “STV gulag”.
After the power change in 2006, the STV again got a new boss, its 13th, Radim Hreha. His arrival prompted several well-established journalists to quit their jobs. In 2007, STV fired the head of its news analysis department, Eugen Korda, and Štefan Hríb, the host of the political talk show Under the Lamp. They had been the first to talk about political pressures at STV.
After Hreha, a former star news anchor under communism, Štefan Nižňanský, was appointed. His promotion signalled just how bad things had got at STV. Nižňanský banned the broadcast of an investigative report about a troubled social enterprise which was receiving subsidies from the Labour Ministry, then under Smer ministerial nominee Viera Tomanová.
Then came a power change and Zemková, who has no open affiliation to any political party, was hired to manage the ambitious merger of STV with Slovak Radio (SRo). Smer stated no fundamental objections to how she handled that project.
Her sacking also has a melodramatic aspect, since parliament’s media committee reportedly acted based on a letter from Peter Lisý, an auto industry worker who has been living abroad for two years who admitted that he does not even watch RTVS broadcasts but was merely worried that Zemková would sell its existing two buildings and use the proceeds for construction of a new one.
If Smer wanted a convincing justification for Zemková’s ouster, they should have been forced to try harder. But given the history of STV and the rogue’s gallery of people who have run it, the public are instead inclined to shrug their shoulders and say: well, this is how it is in Slovakia.