Unrest within Slovak public broadcaster over political pressure
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the resumption of political pressure on Slovakia’s journalists after a pause during the turmoil resulting from investigative reporter Ján Kuciak’s murder in February. RSF is especially concerned about threats to the editorial independence of the public radio and TV broadcaster RTVS.
In recent days, the attempts by the Slovak authorities to interfere in RTVS’s programming and management have met with resistance from journalists trying to defend its editorial policies.
The political pressure let up during the government crisis triggered by Kuciak’s murder but, after fear of possible early elections dissipated, the pressure resumed with even greater force, fuelling steadily mounting tension within RTVS in recent weeks.
Instead of trying to strengthen press freedom at a time of turmoil for the Slovak media, RTVS’s new CEO, Jaroslav Rezník, has been steadily undermining it. Rezník took over in August after being appointed by the Slovak parliament in June with the support of the SMER, the party that heads the ruling coalition, and the Slovak National Party (SNS), one of the coalition’s junior members.
Rezník immediately began poisoning the climate within RTVS by appointing ministerial aides and government supporters as senior editors. In January, he dropped “Reporteri” (Reporters), Slovakia’s only investigative current affairs TV programme, after it broadcast a report critical of a state-funded cultural organization linked to the SNS. Shortly thereafter, changes were made to the team that produces Dejiny.sk (History), another current affairs programme that the SNS had criticized.
In March, RTVS’s journalists were shocked to be told they were forbidden to wear badges with the words “#All for Ján” (Kuciak) on the air – a slogan that has become a symbol of solidarity among Slovak journalists. When some journalists defied the ban, Rezník referred to them as “revolutionaries.”
The start of April was marked by the widely-covered resignation of Oľga Baková, one of RTVS’s most experienced journalists, who refused an unjustified demotion. The head of programming, Tibor Búza, resigned a few days later – officially for “personal reasons” but some sources attribute his departure to disagreements with the management.
The conflict took a new turn on 4 April when 60 journalists signed an open letter to Rezník condemning the many disputes with their superiors, the conflicts of interest resulting from having editors who were government press officers, and the way critical journalists have been “sidelined, demoted or given new jobs.”
“We continue to work freely (...) but in a hostile climate” and “we do not think our superiors are capable of protecting staff from strong external pressure,” the letter added. The RTVS management has described those who signed it as “searching for inner and outer enemy.”
“It is essential that the RTVS management should effectively protect this public broadcaster from political pressure and restore an internal climate of confidence,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk.
“During the grave political crisis resulting from Ján Kuciak’s murder, Slovakia has more need than ever of an independent public service broadcaster. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the journalists at RTVS and with all other journalists who are fighting to defend their editorial freedom.”
Although in need of funding, RTVS enjoyed a great deal of editorial independence and credibility with the public when Rezník took over in August. Its TV news programmes were regarded as the most objective in Slovakia.
Although the eyes of the world have been on Slovakia every since Kuciak’s death, his murderers are still at large and the authorities have yet to take any measures to restore confidence to its journalists. Slovakia is ranked 17th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2016.