Journalists at public broadcaster RTVS say structural changes now allow the management to pressure journalists and influence coverage. Since last year, the public media management has scrapped positions of section editors, progressively let diminish an analytical unit and abandoned rigorous programming of news coverage. The removal of the “gate-keeping” measures allows the management to have a more direct influence on the news content. And those who disagree have to go.
Despite several attempts from RSF to comment on the situation, RTVS management did not respond to a written request from RSF for comment.
On 21 June, the contract of Jaroslav Barborák, one of the in-house critics of RTVS’s management, was terminated after 12 years. He has thus joined the ranks of some 30 journalists who have quit or have been forced to quit the public media house since 2018 due to disagreements with superiors over media freedom.
“RSF calls on RTVS’s management to ensure news coverage independent of any political pressures and lead a dialogue with journalists concerned about media freedom. They should be heard and not haunted,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF's European Union and Balkans desk. “Such attacks on media freedom contribute to make Slovakia, currently ranked 35th out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index after having fallen of 18 ranks, plunge year after year,” Adès-Mével added.
Bullying uncomfortable journalists
“We feel pressures in favor of the Slovak National Party (SNS),” Michal Katuška, chairman of the News Trade Union at RTVS, told RSF. Albeit a former TV correspondent in Brussels, Michal Katuška was moved to the radio broadcast and banned from reporting from abroad.
The sidelined journalists have been replaced by younger colleagues with little experience and many difficulties to resist the pressures. Journalists to whom RSF spoke and who want to stay in anonymity confirm this concern and fear mounting pressures ahead of the March 2020 parliamentary elections.
One notable example, according to them, is the outright ban by their superiors to cover RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index in the radio broadcast "K veci" (To the point) in mid-April. The reason was the presumed damage to Slovakia’s image, given its worsened score. RTVS did report on Slovakia's results in the regular TV and radio news, even though it failed to mention RFS's concern about the public broadcaster itself.
A outcry of a group of RTVS journalists was sparked when an edition of the radio broadcast "Z prvej ruky" (First hand) earlier in April was turned into a political tribune of Andrej Danko, Chairman of SNS and Speaker of the Slovak Parliament. Immediately after the broadcast, a group of 13 journalists signed a public letter refusing any responsibility for the edition and asked the management to avoid such cases in the future.
According to journalists interviewed by RSF, "all those who signed the letter are subject to bullying." For some of them, bonuses worth 50 - 150 euros were scrapped, others were strongly advised against taking side jobs or banned from travelling to report from abroad.
Concerns about upcoming elections
TV and radio anchors experienced pressures, the journalists interviewed by RSF say, most recently in June when Andrej Danko officially visited Belarus. A RTVS journalist who was accompanying him prepared a TV and radio coverage dominated by Andrej Danko’s positive view of the country. When anchors said on air the Belarussian regime is violating human rights, they were severely criticized by the editors-in-chief in charge. In March, a journalist specialized in defence issues was punished by being transferred to other subjects. The reason was his coverage of defence negotiations between Slovakia and the United States in which he included a remark by an analyst which was contrary to SNS's discourse. The defence negotiations were picked up as a campaign subject by SNS ahead of the recent presidential and EU elections in Slovakia.
The common feature of these cases is the perceived effort of the RTVS management to prefer SNS, a junior government party.
"We can see extra work in the favor of SNS everywhere," one of the interviewed journalists told RSF. "And it's June only." The journalist is concerned about pressures ahead of the Slovak parliamentary elections in March next year, which could possibly shake up SNS’s position in the government.
The reporters don't have a clear view on who guides the editors' decisions. There is usually not an outright censorship, but the techniques curbing media freedom are very sophisticated, eventually leading to auto-censorship.
In any case, the current RTVS Director General Jaroslav Rezník was elected by the Slovak Parliament in June 2017 as a nominee of SNS. In his previous capacity, he led the Press Agency of the Slovak Republic, which was accused - under his leadership - by Transparency International Slovakia of campaigning for SNS ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections.
"We have to undergo a fight for each issue we want to broadcast," the RTVS journalists say. "The institution is being ruined from inside.”