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EDITORIAL

The worst publicity gimmick

SLOVAKIA has seen nearly as many stories of integrity as stories of corruption over the 25 years that have passed since the Velvet Revolution. The story of the Sme daily, which was founded in response to efforts by Vladimír Mečiar, the country’s notorious three-time prime minister, to silence the daily Smena, which was not coinciding with what Mečiar and his buddies envisioned for society, is one such story of integrity and the desire for freedom.

SLOVAKIA has seen nearly as many stories of integrity as stories of corruption over the 25 years that have passed since the Velvet Revolution. The story of the Sme daily, which was founded in response to efforts by Vladimír Mečiar, the country’s notorious three-time prime minister, to silence the daily Smena, which was not coinciding with what Mečiar and his buddies envisioned for society, is one such story of integrity and the desire for freedom.

The financial group Penta – which has no compelling story of its own to tell and measures success exclusively through balance sheets – is now buying its own part of the Sme story and tarnishing it in the process.

Penta is set to buy a 50-percent stock in the Petit Press publishing house, using the SITA newswire as a middleman. They should have known that their attempt to enter the story of Sme would be the worst publicity gimmick they could ever get for the €15 million they are to pay to the Rheinisch–Bergische Verlagsgesellschaft (RBVG).

As far as the reputation, which Penta might have desired to buy, is concerned, so far it has only had a contrary effect, with Penta as the executioner of perhaps the best journalistic tradition in Slovakia.

Petit Press CEO Alexej Fulmek, who has been part of the Sme story from its very inception, continues to fight for the best possible outcome of the sale, which it seems, might yet take to the courts.

While the RBVG said it is selling its share package to a company represented by SITA because the Slovak shareholder Prvá slovenská investičná skupina (PSIS) did not exercise its pre-emptive right to buy shares in line with the Slovak law, PSIS announced it attempted to buy shares and insists it was a legitimate attempt to use that right.

Negotiations with Penta on the possibility of the group accepting a minority share in the company are still ongoing, with Fulmek making it clear that he will stay in the company only up to the moment he is able to guarantee editorial independence for his journalists.

The majority of the reporters of Sme did not wait for the outcome of the talks and submitted their resignation, with Sme Editor-in-Chief Matúš Kostolný announcing the intention to start a new project far beyond Penta’s reach – a response applauded by many.

“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,” the editors wrote.

Everything Penta has thus far stood for is incompatible with the best practices of journalism and the outcome of the fight of PSIS and Fulmek to guarantee editorial independence is still unclear.
If Penta cares about the quality of journalism and its public service role just for a second, it would back out from the deal instantly, because their presence in the media waters are a poison to public trust. If they wished to invest in media, they should have just bought advertising in these outlets.

Unfortunately, Penta tinkering with Petit Press risks meddling with another important story, that of The Slovak Spectator, a publication established nearly 20 years ago by four young Americans driven by the desire to tell stories with Western journalistic standards.

The Slovak Spectator, which is co-owned by Petit Press, with two of the original US founders still having a minority share, will celebrate its 20th anniversary next March and it should be noted that this team, which considers the interest of its readers and editorial integrity to be of utmost importance, would never settle for anything less than complete editorial freedom and oligarch-free operation of the newsroom.

The upcoming weeks will show how our story will continue.

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