More than money

SHOPPING for media outlets is the latest trend among local billionaires and business moguls, spurring fear among journalists who thought they chose their profession and employer based on the relative independence they were offered in their work.

SHOPPING for media outlets is the latest trend among local billionaires and business moguls, spurring fear among journalists who thought they chose their profession and employer based on the relative independence they were offered in their work.

Whenever investment groups and billionaires ultimately interested in making profits invest in the media business – which has famously been experiencing financially challenging times, forcing many experienced journalists to seek other professions – their investment immediately spurs suspicions about their true motivations and whether they ultimately go against the mission of the newspapers or magazines they buy.

The appetite of the tycoons is fuelled by something other than potential financial profit from struggling media houses, which are unlikely to amount to enough to cover the average tycoon’s Christmas shopping.

The story of Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš, who acquired a number of media outlets, including the influential Czech daily Mladá Fronta Dnes, and marched straight to the Czech government to manage the country’s coffers as finance minister, offers some hints about the ancillary benefits that the shoppers hope to get from their new toys.

In Slovakia, Babiš owns the publisher of the Hospodárske Noviny daily; another business tycoon, Ivan Kmotrík, controls the TA3 news-only TV channel, while another major investment group, J&T, owns the JOJ TV channel and has links to the Pravda daily. Never one to be left behind, the Penta investment group recently moved to purchase two publishing houses, Trend and 7 Plus, and will thus control periodicals such as the Trend business weekly, the Plus Jeden Deň tabloid daily and the Plus 7 Dní tabloid weekly.

What has, however, put media freedom watchdogs on even higher alert is the fact that Penta is now eyeing the Petit Press publishing house, which publishes Slovakia’s major daily, Sme; the only Hungarian-language daily, Új Szó; the regional daily Korzár; and The Slovak Spectator.

In an ideal world, where corporate responsibility is a widely applied concept, the know-how of successful investors along with their cash could help strengthen the business model of the publishing house, while allowing for editorial independence by bringing additional economic stability and security to the essential role that journalists play. Unfortunately, the tale of Babiš and many others in central and eastern Europe suggests that this development is rather unlikely.

Given the diversity of the Petit Press portfolio any owner has the potential to exert influence at both the national and regional level – reaching even the Hungarian-speaking community.

Those who say that it all comes down to the courage and integrity of journalists are right in many ways, as are those who say that it is often under pressure that some journalists are able to reconnect with their better-journalistic selves. But the truth is also that many journalists are, in fact, weary. They have been working in newsrooms already mutilated by the economic crisis and under conditions that combine a drop in revenues with a growing volume of work. They have had to say good-bye to friends and colleagues who have been laid off – and often fear that they may be next.

Nor is it a trivial issue that many of the firms and tycoons so suddenly interested in owning media have also, rightfully, been the target of critical reporting in recent years.

For example, Penta was extensively featured in the infamous Gorilla file, an unverified transcript purporting to originate from conversations covertly recorded by the country’s SIS intelligence service between 2005 and 2006. Penta is mentioned in the file in association with conversations one of its owners is alleged to have had with senior state officials in that period, mainly about the privatisation of state assets and related provisions. Penta officials deny any wrongdoing.

If a buyer with such a history invests in media with a critical readership, could not their very act of purchasing the property harm the brand, and, thus, the investment itself? What if a number of top journalists quit in protest or readers stop trusting what is printed and turn away? What would become of the media’s watchdog role more generally?

Tycoons are toying with much more than just euros and cents here. In suffocating independent press, they may very well push Slovakia back toward the days when it was not at all such a nice place for investing and making profits.

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