Dispatch

Press Freedom Is Still Under Attack in Slovakia

A journalist’s murder shocked the country in February, but it hasn’t led to a more independent media.

Protesters hold a banner reading "Stand up for decent Slovakia" during a protest in Bratislava, Slovakia, on June 22, 2018, four months after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.
Protesters hold a banner reading "Stand up for decent Slovakia" during a protest in Bratislava, Slovakia, on June 22, 2018, four months after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee. (VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP/Getty Images)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia—It is hard to miss the headquarters of Slovakia’s public broadcaster. Shaped like an inverted pyramid, it’s one of those bizarre Communist-era buildings that leave you with a mixture of dislike and confusion. In keeping with its architectural style, the CEO’s office is hidden in the corner on the sixth floor. It’s gray, heavy-handed, dreary, as if time stopped 30 years ago—with only one thing that doesn’t fit: a colorful landscape painting hung behind the desk.

“I brought it here in the late 1990s to light the room up, but my successors removed it for some reason,” Jaroslav Reznik, a soft-eyed, bald 52-year-old, told me. “Now, I brought it back.”

Critics say he also brought back a management style from the 1990s, a dark period when the newly independent country of Slovakia was turned into semi-authoritarian state governed by Vladimir Meciar. For Reznik, then a literature graduate in his early 30s, a job with the public broadcaster was a career springboard. In 1997, he was unexpectedly appointed as a head of Slovakia’s public radio by the Meciar-controlled parliament, and he served two full terms, until 2005.

Then, in mid-2017, he was reappointed as the head of Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS). Reznik came under fire after hiring a group of senior editors who had previously worked as spokespeople for ministries controlled by the ruling coalition.

In January, he scrapped RTVS’s only investigative show, and in late April he sacked a radio editor and four experienced reporters who signed a critical open letter to management. This was followed by resignation of another 12 journalists in protest of what they called creeping political pressure and an environment of hostility.

Whatever Reznik’s intentions might be, there is a tangible fear that Slovakia is heading down the path of its illiberal neighbors, Hungary and Poland, where ruling right-wing parties have tightened their grip on public media institutions. Almost everyone has criticized his recent moves, including journalists from other outlets, academics, watchdogs, and even the country’s independent president, Andrej Kiska.

The problem, Reznik said calmly, was that the public broadcaster didn’t present all opinions, but only mainstream ones or those of “Bratislava cafe society.” Referring to a person he refused to name, he told me, “I was once told by our young journalist that she doesn’t have to look for the truth, because she knows the truth.” This, he added, “is not what I think journalism should be.”

Reznik’s critics think he has less noble objectives. Many viewers worry that under his leadership, the public broadcaster will seek “truth” by making common cause with dubious news organizations that act as conspiracy-mongers, legitimizing the latter.

After all, Reznik is a nominee of the right-wing, anti-NATO and pro-Russian Slovak National Party (SNS), a minority member of the governing coalition, and a former head of Slovak news agency TASR, which, during his tenure (from 2007 to 2017), signed an agreement on the exchange of information with the pro-Putin Sputnik news agency.

“When I was an intern at BBC,” he recalled, “I was told the good media are these who present different, sometimes strikingly different, worldviews, and have impartial journalists as moderators. This is what I want to introduce at the RTVS.” When it comes to Sputnik, he claimed many serious news agencies have agreements with it.

The 26-year-old Matus David, one of the four reporters who were fired, said that it’s still too soon to know whether Reznik will turn RTVS into a government mouthpiece. “The threat we’re facing now,” he argued, is having a “toothless, weak, servile public broadcaster with unprofessional staff and with hosts spreading fake news.”

Public broadcasters that bow to government pressure have always been a fixture of Central European politics, from Budapest and Warsaw to Bucharest and Prague. And yet, for Slovakia, there is an important distinction: This small, mountainous country is still riding a wave of activism inspired by the massive protests that erupted after the murder of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancée in February.

Many Slovaks hoped that Kuciak’s death would lead to a push for broader changes in the country. Thousands of people who poured into the streets this spring, in the largest demonstrations since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, created a nonpartisan movement “For a Decent Slovakia,” demanding an end to corruption, an end to clientelism, and, of course, a free and professional media.

Reznik, with his ties to both a party in the current ruling coalition and to the dark decade of the 1990s, symbolizes everything that people were protesting against this spring: He is seen as a creature of the ancien régime in its worst manifestations. What made the picture worse was the new management’s criticism of the #AllForJan badges worn by journalists on the air. Reznik argued the management’s anti-badge stance was a recommendation rather than a ban, but it was perceived as pressure.

“Memories of Kuciak are fresh, and moods are indeed revolutionary,” Miroslava Kernova, a journalist and media analyst at the website Omediach.com, told me. “I can hardly imagine anyone caring about Reznik or RTVS in general, if it wasn’t for Kuciak.”

One of the reasons so many journalists resent Reznik is that they have positive memories of his predecessor at RTVS. Vaclav Mika was a political nominee too, but he was also a professional media manager praised—by all sides of the political spectrum—for transforming the company into a modern, politically independent, and trusted broadcaster, while opening it up to young talent. He sought reappointment in 2017, but, in a move that surprised many, was rejected by the parliament.

“It was a pragmatic concession given to the SNS, which over the last year has a few times threatened to leave the coalition,” Grigorij Meseznikov, the head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs think tank, explained. Support for the ruling SMER-Social Democracy party had decreased over the last years from record high 51 percent in March 2012 to record low of 20 percent in March 2018. Thus, SMER couldn’t afford a snap election, and that meant satisfying the demands of its junior coalition partner.

“The situation at the RTVS reflects divisions within society,” Karol Farkasovsky, a former journalist who now serves as an SNS member of parliament, told me. “Some want to fire up the mood further, and some want to calm it down,” he added, arguing that Reznik belongs to the second category.

Even if the public mood is inflamed in Slovakia, the country’s government hasn’t actually transformed in any significant way since Kuciak’s murder, despite the many political changes that have been introduced. They included swapping long-term Prime Minister Robert Fico for the more technocratic Peter Pellegrini and ousting the two most controversial figures in the government: the interior minister and the head of the police. But the latter two were succeeded by their allies, and Pellegrini lacks political clout. Like Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Fico remains the dominant political figure, but he is now operating from behind the scenes.

And journalists don’t feel any safer. Marian Kocner, the controversial tycoon who a few months before Kuciak’s murder threatened him on the phone, has now declared that he wants to collect private information about another young investigative journalist, Adam Valcek. (Kocner has since been arrested on separate charges of forgery and has been released pending prosecution.)

All of this, however, doesn’t mean that the momentum caused by Kuciak’s death is lost. There is clearly still strong demand for a clean government and an independent media.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing that the media in my country has been always, more or less, influenced by politicians or business actors, and we have to live with that,” David, the fired reporter, said. In Germany, “No one has ever heard Merkel lashing out at journalists as Fico did,” he added. “For me and my generation, born after 1989 and raised in the EU and NATO, this is not normal. We deserve more than that.”

Dariusz Kalan is a Central Europe correspondent for international media and an analyst based in Bratislava. Follow him on Twitter: @Dariusz_Kalan. @Dariusz_Kalan

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