Denník N

A Very Short Report on Media and Politics in Slovakia in 2018

Slovak media and journalists played various roles throughout the 2018 year. This is a very short overview of relationships between media and politics in Slovakia in 2018.

On one hand, the tragic murder of Ján Kuciak, a data journalist, suggested that the media replaced, in part, state authorities in enforcing justice in special cases of collusion involving some quasi-businesspersons and politicians, political parties and public authorities. In other words, some journalists and media acted as independent agents of justice within a framework of what appeared to be a partially captured state. In this way, the media and journalists contributed to the rule of law and perception of justice in a society. This feeling was strengthened with a court trial of an infamous quasi-business person, Ladislav Bašternák. Bašternák confessed in late 2018 that, he cheated the state off two million euros in tax evasion. However, prior to that, although the media continuously questioned his business activities, he was publicly defended by Robert Kaliňák, the minister of interior at the time of the accusations. Moreover, Robert Fico, who was the Prime Minister at the time, stayed and is still staying in an appartment rented from Bašternák or his company, and that is located in an appartment complex built by Bašternák´s company. All these suggested collusions between some politicians and state authorities on one hand, and some quasi-businesspersons – in fact, thieves. Throughout 2018, especially after the murder of Ján Kuciak, more of such stories appeared (or were more clearly documented) and the connections between some politicians, state authorities and quasi-businesspersons were also revealed.

On the other hand, some media and journalists, especially after the murder of their colleague journalist, acted as independent political actors in their attempts to enforce political changes, and personnel replacement within authorities and public institutions. In this way, some media and journalists acted outside their traditionally recognised independent watch-dog role in a society. This is what is sometimes called “mediacracy“. Subsequently, it is not difficult to understand that the former prime minister, Robert Fico, would call this state of affairs, somehow expressively, as “normal terror, media lynch” at a party conference in December 2018.

Although both of these partly overlapping trends have been present to a degree in Slovakia for a long time, the political and media actors, and agenda mostly changed over time. Moreover, in some periods, the role of the media becomes more visible and important. Indeed the 2018 year is one period which will go down in history with an exceptional (mostly positive) role of the media and journalists in Slovakia. In short, the 2018 year was a revolutionary period for Slovak media and journalists, as well as the Slovak society and politics. Nonetheless, this story of relationships between media and politics, and the general political background, is radically different from what was observed in Hungary and Poland, and only similar to that of the Czech Republic to a very limited extent.

In general, Slovakia shows some similarities in terms of the media and journalism, macro- and long-term developments with many countries such as the Czech Republic (including the oligarchisation of the media). At the same time, it evinces some striking long-term developmental differences from many other countries of the region. For example, there is a lack of high and clear political and ideological parallelism in the mainstream media, but at the same time there is a high presence of “alternative” news and current affairs web portals (similarly to the Czech Republic). Yet, as mentioned, although the main newspapers show some ideological preferences, or even more importantly, bias towards either left or right (in particular, liberal-right newspapers Denník N and Sme, and left-liberal Pravda), there is, as a different issue, no open political support for some political parties or political movements among the major media. Only the newspaper Pravda, can be seen as partially setting political party agenda. However, it is true that, the already mentioned liberal-right newspapers played key roles in supporting some radical, and not always substantiated, suggestions for political changes in 2018. Suggestions included the call for early parliamentary elections, replacement of some allegedly corrupted politicians and changes in management of public service media. In the latter case, in contrast to Poland and Hungary, but similar to the Czech Republic, public service media in Slovakia are not politicised propaganda tools of governing parties or governments in power.

In general, it can be said that while major print media are strongly, and perhaps sometimes excessively, committed to watch-dog functions with some ideological bias and ignorance of facts (e.g. the above mentioned liberal-right dailies continuously claim that it was Russia that attacked Georgia in 2008), the rather widespread “alternative” news and current affairs portals are, in general, more ideologically neutral regarding local political parties, but with lots of conspiracies and fake news/hoaxes, with no independent investigative work. Thus, the higher popularity of conspiracy and fake news/hoax based web portals in Slovakia (as well as in the Czech Republic) may be explained, in part, by ideological (not necessarily political) bias and negligence of some facts by the major media.

Making inferences from the observation that part of the media became highly politicised throughout 2018 as a consequence of the murder of Ján Kuciak in early 2018, the murder can be seen as a turning point in modern history of Slovakia. The murder itself suggests that so far, an unknown criminal or criminals were more afraid of a young, independently working data journalist than officials actually entrusted with enforcing justice in the country. It should be mentioned that Slovakia has one of the most liberal legislations on freedom of information (access to public data). In other words, the media or, indeed, isolated (a lone -wolf) data- and investigative journalists, seemed to be more serious threats to gangster-type “enterpreneurs” and businesses than state authorities. Certainly, the majority (58%) of the population appreciates the role of journalists in Slovakia (a journalist is put here, in levels of trust, somehow ironically, between a shop assistant and a judge). The main criticism towards journalists is their lack of impartiality of news reporting and “manipulation” (probably understood as manipulation with a public opinion), according to an opinion poll carried out in November 2018.

There have been many attempts to improve the quality of journalism in Slovakia. The year 2018 was not devoid of this long-term tendency. The most visible attempt followed immediately after the murder of Kuciak. An international consortium of journalists was established to explore the unfinished work of Ján Kuciak. However, this cooperation did not last long enough to show a visible impact of investigative journalism on society and politics in Slovakia or abroad. Finally, it should be mentioned that journalist Ján Kuciak became “person of the year” in many annual ad hoc surveys in Slovakia. He became, post-humonously, the most known journalist in Slovakia; he, together with other local investigative journalists, received other awards and prizes in Slovakia and abroad. Numerous articles and even books on Kuciak’s work, life and murder, have also been published. Although journalism and media in Slovakia have not changed much structurally or internally since the murder (except those changes described above), it is clear that this murder has fundamentally changed politics and society. It is unexpected, and probably ironical, that what Kuciak and other journalists could have hardly imagined achieving before the murder, was achieved after the murder. In other words, sometimes history is fair – bad intentions of bad individuals may result in positive change for a society, although perhaps at an ultimate individual cost.


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