Public-service RTVS condemned for sacking a journalist critical of a story about Covid vaccine

Reporters Without Borders has expressed its support for the fired reporter. The broadcaster refutes claims, asking for an apology.

The public service broadcaster, Radio and Television Slovakia (RTVS), will lose millions of euros on licensing fees following the change approved by MPs.The public service broadcaster, Radio and Television Slovakia (RTVS), will lose millions of euros on licensing fees following the change approved by MPs. (Source: TASR)

Back in March 2021, the public-service broadcaster RTVS aired a report linking the death of a 38-year-old teacher to the first dose of the vaccine by AstraZeneca she received shortly before passing. An autopsy later confirmed no such connection.

The report was heavily criticised by the Health Ministry. Some RTVS reporters also voiced their internal criticism of the authors.

The broadcaster allegedly responded to their criticism by sanctioning several journalists. One of them, Elena Senková, even lost her job. This action has been recently condemned by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organisation.

Public service TV linked death with vaccination. Authorities claim there is no proof for that Read more 

“RSF condemns an editorial system that favours private and political interests at the expense of editorial independence, and calls for an enquiry by the media’s oversight body,” the organisation said.

Suing the broadcaster

Senková was stunned when she was told on April 30 not to come back the next day because of her “professional misconduct,” as she described to RSF. She had never received a reprimand from her superiors during the six years she worked for the broadcaster. However, she was suddenly fired after criticising the AstraZeneca vaccine story internally.

“Criticism [of the report] was expressed by several people during the editorial conference but I was punished the most severely,” she told RSF. “Other journalists and well-known RTVS faces have been punished in a more sophisticated way. Their possibilities of anchoring shows have been restricted without a credible explanation.”

Senková has decided to sue RTVS for unfair dismissal.

RSF expresses its support

RSF has expressed its support for “the principled and unjustly punished” journalist.

“By firing this journalist, RTVS has again displayed a failure to protect its journalists against private or political interests that conflict with its public service mission,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “We call on the RTVS Council – its oversight body – to examine the sanctions imposed on critical journalists. There is an urgent need to restore editorial independence and internal pluralism within RTVS.”

Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation. Press freedom in Slovakia has deteriorated Read more 

As RSF pointed out, the report criticised by Senková was quoted by disinformation sites and triggered a wave of vaccine scepticism in Slovakia. It also breached several ethical principles. The narrative was based solely on the statements of the victim’s father and its main author was a close friend of the young woman who manipulated the recordings of her statements made before her death to give the impression that the woman was suffering from multiple side-effects when in fact she was naming symptoms suffered by other people.

Alhough these faults were confirmed by the broadcaster’s ethics commission and its management said that the authors were sanctioned, the primary author now works as the main presenter of the investigative journalism programme Reportéri, RSF said.

RTVS asks for apology

RTVS has refuted Senková’s claim that she was fired because of her criticism of a report. In a statement the broadcaster published on July 27, it criticised not only the reporter, but also RSF, which published solely her version of the story.

The broadcaster described the meeting related to the report on the death of a woman and the alleged links to the AstraZeneca vaccine, and stressed that the broadcaster approached the report “responsibly.”

Moreover, the RTVS said that there are several falsehoods in the RSF report, including the fact that the broadcaster “penalised several journalists.”

“RTVS has never penalised its employees for expressing their opinion; it’s absolutely unacceptable,” the statement reads. RTVS adds that during staff meetings, journalists are encouraged to voice their opinions, including critical ones.

The broadcaster went on to say that the reason for not prolonging Senková’s contract was not her criticism of the story, but the fact that her job performance was not satisfactory and she lagged behind her colleagues.

“Of course, we understand that in a situation where somebody’s employment contract is not prolonged he/she can feel hurt, but on the other hand, we feel sorry that our former colleague chose this kind of communication,” the statement reads.

RTVS was also critical of RSF, claiming that the organisation should give enough space to both sides. Pavol Szalai, who is quoted in the press release, asked about sacking Senková, but did not mention any links to the story about the death of a woman in his questions.

“RTVS demands RSF to apologise for the incorrect and wrong statements in its report,” the statement reads.

Not the first controversy

Another investigative journalist leaves public TV broadcaster Read more 

This is not the first time RTVS has faced criticism for its actions.

Back in 2018, several reporters were sanctioned after signing an open letter denouncing threats to editorial independence and criticising the RTVS head, Jaroslav Rezník. About 30 journalists subsequently left the broadcaster. Some were fired, others handed in their notices in protest of several controversial steps made by the management.

This included the appointments of several former spokespeople of state institutions and ministries to top posts in the RTVS news desk, and the failure of the broadcaster to adopt mechanisms to rule out any potential conflict of interests.

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