THE MEDIA and political transparency watchdogs are used to standing on the same side of the barrier when reporting the mishaps of those who spend public money. The situation changes, however, when spending on advertising by state bodies is at stake.
The non-governmental transparency watchdog Transparency International Slovensko (TIS) recently published the results of an analysis into how the state buys advertising in the private media, saying that there is a clear tendency to politicise advertising orders regardless of who rules the country. With each change in government, the state’s preference for different media outlets to carry its advertising changes as well, TIS director Gabriel Šipoš argued in comments on his organisation’s Transparencyblog, which is carried by the Trend weekly’s website. But the media outlets that he named as having done better since the government of Prime Minister Robert Fico came to power voiced immediate and strong objections to his article.
In addition, the company that collected the original data on advertising has questioned Šipoš’ right to publish the information they provided to him.
TIS sees politics in advertising orders
TIS analysed data from the period January 2009 to March 2013, which includes the period before and after the two most recent parliamentary elections (the 2010 election brought a centre-right coalition government to power; in 2012 it was replaced by Smer, the current ruling party, which is led by Fico). The dataset included data from ministries and their organisations, plus seven big state companies (the Tipos betting agency, rail network operator Železnice SR, Bratislava Airport, postal operator Slovenská Pošta, the state-run health insurer Všeobecná Zdravotná Poisťovňa, nuclear decommissioning company JAVYS, and the state-run forestry company Lesy SR).
The analysis of the volume of advertising showed, according to TIS, that the volume of advertising space sold to the state by Radio Viva, the Pravda daily, and TV news channel TA3 increased considerably after the Iveta Radičová government (in power between 2010 and 2012) was replaced by the current Fico administration.
On the other hand, TV Markíza, the Sme daily, and the publisher of the Plus Jeden Deň daily and Plus Sedem Dní weekly sold much less advertising after Robert Fico and his government took over, Šipoš wrote.
European directives allow state offices to buy advertising without public tenders, which creates “more space for politically-tuned advertising purchases”, Šipoš wrote on Transparencyblog.
Radičová’s people preferred specific outlets too
The preference for some media was, however, a common feature of all governments during the period analysed. Under the Radičová government, some media saw an increase in advertising orders from state offices, while others’ fell, the analysis of the entire dataset showed. The media outlets that have improved their standing since the arrival of the Smer government were also among those that were most negatively affected by the arrival of the Radičová government after the fall of the first Fico government in 2010, according to Šipoš, who points to the example of the Hungarian-language daily Új Szó, published by Petit Press (which also part-owns The Slovak Spectator).
“Although [since] January 2009 Slovakia was ruled for a longer period by Fico than by Radicova, […] Új Szó got as much as 80 percent of its state advertising in that period from the Radicova government,” Šipoš wrote, adding that more than half of the entire volume of the state advertising in Új Szó was ordered by the Agriculture Ministry, headed by Zsolt Simon of Most-Híd, a party which in part represents Slovakia’s Hungarian-speaking community.
Új Szó is Slovakia's only Hungarian-language daily newspaper, and therefore the most effective way to address the Hungarian minority, which makes up almost 10 percent of Slovakia’s population, its editor-in-chief Norbert Molnár told The Slovak Spectator.
“There are state organisations that realise that, and probably that’s why they advertised in our daily,” he said, mentioning the claim Šipoš made in the text, that “advertising is determined not only by politics but also by pragmatic reasons, such as the ideal target group for certain information”.
“The first glance shows that the media [outlets] close to the current government have done better since the  elections then they did before,” Šipoš wrote on the blog, adding that Pravda is reportedly owned by people linked to Smer, TA3 is owned by business tycoon Ivan Kmotrík who “has several common interests with the government” and “his TV station has been known to prefer advertising money to ethics and independence”.
TA3 rejected these accusations, saying that its work “is based on an objective and balanced news service that is supervised by the independent control body the Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission,” Martin Ilavský, TA3’s general director, told The Slovak Spectator.
“We consider the report published by Mr Šipoš to be incorrect, misleading, and incompetent,” Ilavský said.
In the first quarter of 2013, more than half of all state advertising orders by value went to TA3, according to TIS.
“TA3 viewers could see similar campaigns in our broadcasting in previous years too, not only in the recent period,” Ilavský noted, concluding that Šipoš was wrong to connect them with the distribution of political power in the country.
By the end of 2011, C.E.N., the licence-holder for TA3, concluded at least 30 contracts with the state and its organisations, worth €1.3 million, but 90 percent of this sum was ordered under the Fico government, Šipoš claimed, adding that more than two-thirds of it was financed from EU funds.
Previously, a campaign to promote the consumption of freshwater fish, ordered by the Agriculture Ministry attracted media attention. The campaign, consisting of TV commercials and 10 documentaries and a 12-part series about particular kinds of freshwater fish, the benefits of eating them, and recipes for their preparation, produced by TA3, started in late 2012 and is scheduled to last throughout 2013. The overall costs amount to €680,000, with about 80 percent of that paid from EU funds, the Hospodárske Noviny daily reported on December 18, 2012. Economists approached by the daily called the campaign a waste of public funds. They also noted that the channel is aimed mainly at businesspeople, who do not seem an appropriate target group for this sort of campaign, Hospodárske Noviny wrote.
Perex, the publisher of the Pravda daily, also objected strongly to Šipoš’ claim that Pravda is one of the media outlets that has benefited most since the Fico government took power.
In a letter sent to The Rock, The Slovak Spectator’s publisher, by Perex’s lawyer, Marek Ogurčák, Pravda’s publisher alleged that Šipoš’ article “contained speculations, incomplete, deformed, and untrue information and guesses about the volume of advertising”.
The way Šipoš selected partial information and processed and compared it show that he is either not professional in his work or has “an intention to misleadingly inform the public with the aim of painting a negative picture of a group of media selected in advance”, according to the lawyer’s letter. To provide a serious analysis of the advertising ordered by the state from private media, the analyst would need to consider more than only seven state-owned firms who were ordering advertising, and also consider the volume of advertising ordered from particular publishing houses and all their outlets that published advertising from the state between 2009 and 2012, Ogurčák, representing Perex, wrote.
“Comparing the dataset composed in this way, Mr Šipoš and TIS wouldn’t arrive at the information and tendentious, non-objective, and deformed conclusions published in their article,” Ogurčák wrote in his statement on behalf of Perex.
Pravda’s publisher thus believes that the article was deliberately intended to harm the daily and its publishing house, and that it is “a part of a sordid competitive fight that G. Šipoš and TIS became a part of with their misleading article”, the statement reads.
“The Perex publishing house, […], as opposed to other publishers, is not biased in favour of either the current or any previous government,” Ogurčák wrote. “The Pravda daily has been profiling itself as an apolitical daily with no connection to any political party.”
Šipoš responded that he had originally tried to compare data for entire publishing houses, as suggested by Perex, and that the comparison brought the same effect: “After the arrival of Fico, Petit Press [the publisher of Sme and Új Szó] significantly dropped while Perex went up”, he wrote in his response.
In the most recent development, the omediach.com media news website reported on May 22 that Perex had sent a pre-court requisition to Trend, the official administrator of the blog service on which the Transparencyblog is located. Perex previously publicly requested that Trend correct the information that Šipoš presented on the blog.
None of the parties would comment on the requisition, omediach.com reported.
Meanwhile, the TNS Slovakia research agency, which monitors official advertising expenses and which provided its data to TIS for analysis, stated that TIS did not inform it about its intention to publish the data and to use it for its own analysis.
“TNS Slovakia did not authorise the published analysis and interpretation of the data for Transparency International Slovensko and in this way TNS Slovakia distances itself from the published report,” TNS Slovakia wrote in an official statement provided to The Slovak Spectator.
7. Jun 2013 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani