‘Fake News’ Fights Back
Russian disinformation. A government attacking the media. A populace deeply skeptical of it. These Slovak journalists had seen it all — and decided to do something about it.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — In a cozy coffee shop in Bratislava’s Old Town, a well-preserved medieval district dotted with foreign embassies, Andrej Matisak sounds irritated. His eyebrows rise with his voice as he details the indignities of his day job. And they are extensive — Matisak has been a Slovak journalist for 14 years.
His Trump-era American counterparts may well sympathize. After all, they have been called “the enemy of the American people” by their own president, grappled with Russia’s disinformation campaigns, and been openly reviled by many readers — citizens and officials alike.
But for Central and Eastern European journalists, none of that is new. The region has grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years: Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, led by backbencher Jaroslaw Kaczynski, tried to restrict reporters’ access to parliament in December 2016, revoking the plan only after it sparked street protests. In Hungary, much of the country’s media have been bought up by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s cronies, meaning that there are few publications left that are willing to contest the government, which spent much of 2017 railing against migrants, Brussels, George Soros, and nongovernmental organizations in the runup to the 2018 elections.
Though Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, has hardly given the European Union or Western watchers the same cause for concern as either Orban or Kaczynski, he has made moves against the press both during his first stint in office from 2006 to 2010 and since his 2012 return. In 2016, he upped the rhetorical ante: In November of that year, the prime minister likened members of the fourth estate to prostitutes. In April 2017, he accused journalists of only publishing news that was unfairly critical of the government.
Yet Matisak doesn’t seem overly intimidated: He summed up Fico’s attacks on reporters, which have ranged from insults to lawsuits against cartoonists, as “a huge pain in the ass.”
Rather than Soviet-style information control, he describes the incremental deterioration of a healthy press. That process really began in the 1990s, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, an aspiring authoritarian alleged to have profited from privatization and had security services abduct the president’s son, used state media to get his own propagandistic message out. The crisis seemed to have been averted shortly before the new millennium, when a combination of NGO mobilization, Western funding, adult disappointment with the economy, and the first vote of those who came of age in the post-socialist period saw Meciar defeated in the 1998 election. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1999 and 2004. But with Fico’s election in 2006, the crackdown on media began anew.
“Of course, fake news, the spread of propaganda — it’s not a new thing,” Matisak says, sipping an espresso. But it was “really driven after 2014 — Russian aggression against Ukraine, annexation of Crimea.”
Russian propaganda organs Sputnik and RT “are heavily spread by alternative media here and by some parties,” he says. Matisak himself works at Pravda (an outlet with historic ties to — but now independent from — the Russian broadsheet). But he doesn’t just blame the Russians. During last year’s migration crisis, for example, bogus stories claiming that Slovaks make less than immigrants and that migrants collect free money were the result of “domestic production,” he says.
In Slovakia, fake news articles are often designed to inspire public skepticism of NATO and hostility toward the United States, according to Matisak. But Matisak blames Fico for encouraging such disinformation: “From the annexation of Crimea and the war on Eastern Ukraine, Prime Minister Fico never, ever said something like, ‘Russian soldiers are fighting against Ukraine,’” language that would have held Moscow, and not the West, to account for the crisis there.
“The responsibility of politicians should be to [tell] the truth,” he continues. “In Slovakia, a huge part of society is looking at the leaders. They are listening to him.”
One thing they heard from Fico in 2016 was that journalists investigating alleged corruption involving public procurement were “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes.”
“I am very happy to say that I am [a] dirty anti-Slovak prostitute,” Matisak says.
During an April press briefing, Fico railed against the media again, this time accusing journalists of intentionally avoiding publishing good news. “I’m sorry, but it pisses me off how you report the affairs of this state and what kind of image is created; it is impossible, even unacceptable,” he said.
To Matisak, this is far from a sober evaluation. “This is not about criticizing the media,” he says. “This is attacking media.”
Peter Susko, a spokesperson for Slovakia’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, denies that times are tough for journalists there. “Freedom of speech and freedom of expression (which includes media freedoms) are deeply rooted in the Slovak constitution as essential rights of people,” he wrote in an email. “Independence of the media could not be questioned in Slovakia.”
As the spokesperson added in another email, the country’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index “has been encouraging — in 2017 we’ve been ranked 17th, right after Germany.” The spokesperson didn’t mention that Slovakia has dropped five spots (it was ranked 12th in 2016). The latest index also noted the country’s steep eight-year prison sentences for defamation, the highest price for this crime in Europe, and that outbursts by politicians toward journalists there are recognized as “frequent” by Reporters Without Borders.
Still, with the United States ranked 43rd (down from 41st in 2016), there seems to be a gulf between official or expert perceptions of press freedom in Slovakia and the experience of some journalists. Asked to comment on this incongruity, Reporters Without Borders said in an email, “given a certain number of complaints from journalists about the press freedom and the fact that PM Fico … insult[ed] them publicly several times, nothing can guarantee that Slovakia will remain at the same place in the next index. The 2018 press freedom index released in April next year will tell whether Slovakia deserves such a ranking.”
One factor contributing to the perception gap may be Slovakia’s journalism-industrial complex. Two-and-a-half years ago, Vladimir Snidl left his job at the wide-circulation Dennik SME (WE ARE Daily) after the German conglomerate that co-owned it sold its shares to Penta Investments, a Slovak investment group. Matus Kostolny, the daily’s editor in chief, quit, and he was soon followed by more than 50 colleagues, including Snidl.
As Snidl explained over wine and nachos at a bar in Bratislava’s Old Town, he and his former colleagues created the Dennik N (Daily N) as an assertion of journalistic independence and standards. The “N” stands for nezavisly, the Slovak word for “independent.” The publication aims to provide rigorous, independent media for Slovak readers. But Snidl, in addition to his role as a reporter, goes to schools to teach children how to read with a critical eye. He also wrote a book intended as a primer for responsible news consumption, Truth and Lies on Facebook, and shows me a glossy magazine that Dennik N crowdfunded and sent out to schools to help readers filter and process fake news on social media.
“Young people getting more involved — this is the only effective pressure on the government,” says Daniel Lipsic, a former government minister-turned-activist. But how exactly should the young respond in a country awash in fake news generated by Russia, the Slovak alt-right, and People’s Party Our Slovakia (a neo-Nazi party with roughly one-tenth of the seats in parliament).
Snidl says that most of the schoolchildren he talks to believe the media is lying. And even if they were interested in seeking out serious media, they may not turn to outlets the state itself calls “liberal propaganda.” If legitimate reporting isn’t reaching students, Snidl says, he intends to put it on their radar and foster a new generation of discerning news consumers.
“Writing articles is not enough,” he says. “They don’t read us. They don’t trust us. We had to do something more.”
Emily Tamkin reported from Slovakia on a transatlantic media fellowship with the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.