Slovakia’s public TV and radio broadcaster has come under fire for sacking four reporters last week who had signed an open letter warning of creeping political pressure in state media.
The firings – coming after the murder of an investigative reporter in late February that sparked the largest protests in Slovakia since communism ended in 1989 – have spurred new concerns over media control in the central European country.
The broadcaster RTVS, which is funded by taxpayers, declined in a statement to say why it had sacked the journalists but said it valued freedom of speech and plurality of opinions.
The biggest Slovak opposition party SaS called the RTVS firings “a gamble with public trust”, and a group of academics at Bratislava’s main university and the international group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also criticised the move.
Situation in public TV/Radio #rtvs is getting worse and worse. Admirers of conspiracy theories are promoted and quality journalists fired. After ban on badges #allforjan another clear sign that #Slovakia is going downhill as recent #RSFIndex showed. https://t.co/LBLjs6nq5w
— Mirek Tóda (@jeemine) April 27, 2018
Slovakia has sought to stand out as the most pro-European in a eurosceptic region and has avoided rule of law disputes with the European Union, unlike Poland or Hungary, where governments have been criticised for tightening their grip over state media.
Two weeks ago, @RSF_inter wrote about political pressure on Slovakia’s journalists and threats to the editorial independence of the public radio and TV broadcaster #RTVS. Now the situation has escalated.
— Filip Struhárik (@filip_struharik) April 27, 2018
In their open letter in April, 59 RTVS staff said they “work in a hostile climate… and face pressure to include in their stories people who flirt with disinformation media, lack expertise or have political ambitions”.
#Slovakia not like #Hungary & #Poland yet, but going that way. Lost 10 places in @RSF_en's #WorldPressFreedomIndex 2018, ranked 27th. Third biggest drop in EU. #JanKuciak is dead, public media @rtvs in threat and reporters regularly attacked by politicianshttps://t.co/w3xYU8KNfj
— Pavol Szalai (@pavolszalai) April 25, 2018
They also said new editors who had previously worked as spokespeople for ministries controlled by the ruling coalition parties had not introduced any mechanism to deal with possible conflicts of interest.
The director of RTVS is chosen by parliament. Its current chief, Jaroslav Reznik, came under criticism in his previous job as head of state news agency TASR for signing a deal with Russian news agency Sputnik, which the European Parliament has said is a tool for spreading propaganda and fake news. Sputnik denies the accusations, but Reznik later cancelled the contract.
— SME Komentáre (@SME_Komentare) June 16, 2017
“It is up to the serious media, especially public media, to combat fake news,” Reporters Without Borders said in an emailed statement about the sackings. “We have doubts about Mr. Reznik’s competence to combat fake news.”
RTVS also fired a senior radio editor last month. Three radio reporters quit in protest.
Slovak public anger with the authorities and their failure to tackle graft erupted after the killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who was shot at home with his fiancée in February by an unknown assailant. Kuciak had reported on graft allegations involving politically connected businessmen.
Weekly protests attracting tens of thousands of people in March led to the resignation of long-serving prime minister Robert Fico, who once called journalists “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes”.
His three-party coaliton remains in power, led by Fico’s former deputy Peter Pellegrini.