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SME DAILY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF AND DOZENS OF STAFF ANNOUNCE THEY’RE LEAVING TO FOUND A NEW PROJECT

RBVG is to sell Petit Press shares to Penta

THE PENTA investment group is set to buy a 50-percent stock in the Petit Press publishing house. This is the result of weeks-long negotiations between the current owners of the house and the new investor.

THE PENTA investment group is set to buy a 50-percent stock in the Petit Press publishing house. This is the result of weeks-long negotiations between the current owners of the house and the new investor.

On October 14 the the Rheinisch–Bergische Verlagsgesellschaft (RBVG) announced to Prvá slovenská investičná skupina (PSIS) that they had decided to sell their stock shares to the company that was represented by the SITA newswire, Alexej Fulmek, the director of Petit Press, confirmed for the omediach.com media news portal. The medialne.sk media news portal of the Trend weekly, which was also purchased by Penta last month, named the company that will buy the shares: Namav. It is represented by SITA and financed by Penta.

Thus RBVG did not accept the offer of the second shareholder, PSIS, represented by Peter Vajda, a subsidiary of Czech investment holding Proxy-Finance and holder of the remaining half of the shares in the publishing house, which had a pre-emption right to purchase RBVG’s shares, Sme daily reported. PSIS initially offered to buy 10 percent of the shares, which the German shareholder considered insufficient and opted for continuing with the transaction, which is to result in the sale of shares to a firm financed by Penta, Sme reported.

It is also a result that has been feared by journalists working for the outlets sheltered by Petit Press. The staff of the Sme daily has launched action over the past week to persuade the departing German owner, RBVG, not to sell its shares to Penta. The news about Penta entering the publishing house prompted the daily’s management, and along with them dozens of staffers, to leave their jobs.

“The agreement becomes effective because the Slovak PSIS, co-shareholder and subsidiary company of the Czech financial group Proxy Finance, did not exercise its pre-emptive right according to statutes and to Slovak law,” the RBVG wrote in their official statement to the transaction.

Nevertheless, in an interview with Omediach.com, Fulmek also said on October 14 that PSIS through its lawyers will announce that it considers the move a violation of its rights and that it has used its pre-emptive right in line with the statutes.

Fulmek also confirmed that Petit Press is still negotiating with Penta about the possibility of the group accepting a minority share in the company, while the Petit Press CEO said he also made it clear for Penta that he is staying in the firm “up to the moment until it is clear that Penta is withdrawing to a real minority, meaning it will have 49 or less percent”, according to Omediach.com

The transaction will be concluded as soon as it is approved by the Antimonopoly Authority, the Sme wrote on its website, adding that the PSIS can still attempt to block the transaction through the courts.

The parties of the transaction agreed to withhold further details concerning the sale, according to the RBVG official statement.

Johannes Werle, managing director of RBVG, the holding company of Rheinische
Post Mediengruppe, and member of the supervisory board of Petit Press, addressed the development by stating that although the group believes in the company’s and in the market’s attractiveness, “the sale is a consistent consequence after the disposition of our Czech activities in the previous year”.

The Slovak Spectator is partially owned by Petit Press, too.

Press freedom concerns

Over the weekend, the Sme daily published the letter from its management to the RBVG, in which they appealed on the German owners not to sell their shares to Penta.

Concerns are also reinforced by the fact that Penta was mentioned extensively 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.

Haščák’s name is featured in the Gorilla file in association with conversations he is alleged to have had with senior officials and politicians from the ruling coalition in 2005 and 2006, mainly about privatisation and the provisions from the sale of state property. Penta has denied Haščák’s involvement.

The Gorilla file also mentions the name of one of the owners of SITA, Igor Grošaft, who allegedly participated in representing Penta’s interests in talks with politicians.

Other concerns pertain to developments in the neighbouring Czech Republic, where Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš acquired a number of media outlets, including the influential daily Mladá fronta dnes. Babiš, who tops the politician popularity rankings, now serves as the country’s finance minister, and is considered one of the most influential men in the country.

Sme in dissolution

The Sme daily is the flagship project of Petit Press, and Slovakia’s major daily newspaper. It is thus a big event on the Slovak media market that the editor-in-chief Matúš Kostolný, and his four deputies, Lukáš Fila, Juraj Javorský, Tomáš Bella, and Konštantín Čikovský, reacted to the news about Penta’s purchase of the shares by leaving the paper.

They have announced and explained their decision on a blog, opentat.sk, and broke the news that they were ready to fund a new project of “a new independent daily”.

“Now that it seems almost irreversible that the Penta group will become a shareholder of the Sme publisher, we are losing two things that good journalism cannot be done without,” they wrote. “We no longer have the security that we will be able to publish freely and Penta as a co-owner will necessarily diminish the trust of our readers.”

They accused Penta of going after the influence over society and politics that it would gain through owning Sme. They also called on their readers to support their new project by signing a form on the website. It got the support of about 1,600 people within the first hour.

Fulmek met the editorial staff of Sme on the afternoon of October 14 and said that Penta is ready to negotiate about giving up part of its shares to become a minority owner only, by selling part of its shares to PSIS or to another person, Sme reported. This is a probable scenario according to Fulmek.

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