Have you attempted to team up with a Russian propaganda outfit and are you worried that this might disqualify you from any serious media job in the country? Worry not! In Slovakia, you can still make it to the highest positions in the public-service media sphere.
Case in point: Jaroslav Rezník. His personal history is not very inspiring for those who believe – or hope, since we are in Slovakia – that the public-service media needs to be independent of political pressure. Achieving that aim is difficult, given that the post of general director of Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS) is elected by MPs voting in secret. But one can always try.
Václav Mika admittedly did, even though he too was elected by a parliament which at the time was controlled by Smer. And there were some eyebrow-raising moments during his term, like one in the week before the 2014 presidential election run-off, when the public-service TV’s Channel One aired a documentary about scientologists. In that election, candidate Andrej Kiska (who was ultimately elected), faced Prime Minister Robert Fico, who had repeatedly accused him of being a scientologist. People who hosted election meetings and other major party events by Smer also got their own shows on the public-service broadcaster under Mika.
But Mika’s stumbles fade into relative insignificance when his term is contrasted with the professional achievements of Jaroslav Rezník, who has now been elected to replace him. Rezník headed public-service radio broadcaster SRo (before it was merged with the TV broadcaster to become RTVS) under the government of Vladimír Mečiar, the least democratic administration this country has had in its 24 years of existence. And he has admitted to having been in touch with the top politicians of that government (receiving instructions on how to do his job?). True, SRo was nothing like the public-service STV under Mečiar, which was a standing rebuke to everything that an independent public-service television should aim to be. But Rezník’s subordinates from the news service of the radio at that time alleged this was not thanks to, but despite, Rezník’s management of the place.
Rezník displays a rare talent for buttering up politicians: he was later re-appointed by Mečiar’s opponent and successor as prime minister, Mikuláš Dzurinda. Producing a fawning TV profile of the prime minister – a format which continues to this day, known as the Saturday Dialogues, and now benefits Fico, as the omediach.sk website noted – cannot have hurt his chances.
The HZDS is no longer around (perhaps this is what Most-Híd chair Béla Bugár means when he says that he does not fear the times of Mečiar will come back under Rezník?), but that does not mean Rezník is now free from political influence. Quite the contrary. Rezník owes his job to Smer and the Slovak National Party (SNS). The cause-and-effect chain does not end there: Danko could well owe some of the (many) votes his party got in the election to Rezník, under whom the state-run newswire TASR went out of its way to inform us about virtually anything and everything that Danko did or uttered in the run up to the 2016 parliamentary election.
Nor was Rezník’s position at TASR threatened by an episode in which he decided to sign a deal with Sputnik, a Russian ‘news agency’ renowned as a purveyor of blatantly fake news, the kind used in propaganda campaigns which also seek to target Slovakia. Rezník only withdrew from the contract after other news media criticised him. Those who voted for him do not seem to mind that. Either they do not appreciate the gravity of the situation, or they know that a free media is essential for democracy to survive in this country but nonetheless choose to favour their own political and other interests over the country they have been elected to govern.
With Rezník heading RTVS, it will be up to all of us – the people who have, until now, been doing a good job at the RTVS news service, other media professionals, opposition politicians, political transparency and media independence watchdogs, and the audience of RTVS’s news service – to keep a close eye on what happens in Mlynská Dolina in the coming years, and to call out every disturbing move.