Slovak public TV fired journalist for criticising fake story about Covid vaccine

Slovak public radio and TV broadcaster RTVS sanctioned several journalists who voiced internal criticism of an RTVS report falsely linking a young woman’s death to AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine. Reporters Without Borders (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.

RTVS journalist Elena Senková was stunned when told on 30 April not to come back the next day because of her “professional misconduct.” In her six years at RTVS she had never received the least reprimand from her superiors. But now she was suddenly being fired for criticising the AstraZeneca vaccine story internally, within the broadcaster.

“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 the broadcaster for unfair dismissal.

When contacted by RSF, an RTVS spokesperson declined to comment on Senková’s dismissal but said the broadcaster “takes care to respect” the legislation in force regarding the start and the termination of work contracts. She added that several surveys showed that RTVS’s news and current affairs programmes are regarded as the most credible in Slovakia.

“We express our support for the principled and unjustly punished journalist Elena Senková, who acted according to our motto, which is that journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.“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. 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.

The report criticised by Senková, which was quoted by disinformation sites and triggered a wave of vaccine scepticism in Slovakia, was marred by multiple ethical breaches. The autopsy on the young woman denied that the vaccine was the cause of her death, but the RTVS report focused on a narrative suggesting otherwise, a narrative based solely on the statements of the victim's father.

The main author of the report, who was a close friend of the young woman, also manipulated the recordings of her statements made before her death to give the impression the woman was suffering from multiple side-effects when in fact she was naming symptoms suffered also by other people.

These serious faults were confirmed by RTVS’s ethics commission. Although the management said the report’s authors were sanctioned, its main author is now the main presenter of the investigative journalism programme Reportéri, and an RTVS executive told RSF that “in reality, the report was right.”

This is not the first time that RTVS employees have suffered reprisals for disagreeing with the management. In 2018, at a time of political tension following journalist Ján Kuciak’s murder, several reporters were sanctioned after signing an open letter denouncing threats to editorial independence. The letter’s target was the director-general, Jaroslav Rezník, who is still in charge. A total of approximately 30 journalists have been forced to leave RTVS since then.

The accounts of former RTVS journalists – which RSF has reported – show that the broadcaster’s independence has been undermined by a series of decisions including the appointments of several former government spokespersons to positions of editors-in-chief and the elimination of mid-level editor positions.

When RSF appeared before a culture ministry hearing on 8 July, it said editorial independence and internal pluralism should be the main criteria of the overhaul of public broadcasting recently initiated by the government. RSF also invited RTVS to join the Journalism Trust Initiative, which aims to promote reliable news media and was developed in cooperation with the European Broadcasting Union, to which RTVS belongs.

Slovakia is ranked 35th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

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Mise à jour le 26.07.2021