Commercial TV stations and digital-born news portals remain the dominant news sources for Slovaks, whose media use has been influenced by three key events in 2020: the Coronavirus pandemic, a change in government, and the ongoing trial of those suspected of involvement in the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak. During the year pressure grew on the Director General of the public service broadcaster, while many media outlets were accused of bias by the new Prime Minister.
2020 saw increased public interest in information provided by audiovisual and internet media, driven by the pandemic. Rolling news channel TA3 saw its viewership rise significantly. Aktuality.sk, a paywall-free, digital-born news website associated with murdered investigative reporter Ján Kuciak, remains the most widely read online brand.
The centre-right coalition government which took office on 21 March 2020 was immediately faced with a public health crisis. Its communication policy on the pandemic has been criticised as chaotic in a country which won praise for its successful containment of the first wave with a pre-emptive hard lockdown, and pioneered mass testing in the autumn. However, by winter the country succumbed to a catastrophic second wave, during which Slovakia briefly had the world’s highest per capita death rate from Coronavirus.
Sections of the media had operated in a state of mutual hostility with the previous Smer-Social Democracy-led government, but politicians’ attacks on the media for alleged bias only briefly subsided post-election. Gone are media boycotts and bans from press conferences, but Prime Minister (until 1 April 2021) Igor Matovič denounced the press in striking language. In September he wrote on Facebook that the main media organisations are ‘in the hands of oligarchs’ paying journalists to ‘carpet-bomb’ him and his party. Matovič had proposed a state fund to support investigative journalism, an idea most news organisations rejected: state ‘meddling’ in journalism is viewed sceptically given Slovakia’s history of political interference. Our data imply that the idea was unlikely to be welcomed by the public: just 26% of respondents supported government subsidies for commercial news organisations.
The government proposed several other media-related policy initiatives, none of which, however, has yet been implemented. A policy document on combating disinformation was undergoing interdepartmental review in early 2021: the proposals envisage cooperation with the media and NGOs and a public alerting system. Another law is planned to strengthen protection of journalists and their sources. Controversial plans for a monthly government newspaper with a distribution of up to two million were reported to be ready for public tender in March 2021.
Public service broadcaster RTVS had a difficult year, with Director General Jaroslav Rezník facing accusations of political favouritism and financial mismanagement. The broadcaster was criticised for reacting slowly to the first wave of the pandemic and underestimating its newsworthiness. Commercial rival Markíza, which has a higher audience share than RTVS, devoted more of its news programming to Coronavirus and was first to introduce a regular prime-time slot on the pandemic. This became the preferred outlet for politicians and experts. However, RTVS (along with TA3) seems to have won the battle of trust according to this year’s survey.
Legislation is planned to establish an independent ethics committee at RTVS, justified by the need to expand public oversight from programme content to relations between management and staff. As reported in the 2019 Digital News Report, complaints that management fails to protect journalists from political pressure led to several resignations. RTVS management, by contrast, views the proposal as a threat to its independence from political influence.
Slovaks are highly exposed to Coronavirus-related fake news, with 64% declaring they had encountered misinformation concerning COVID-19. They cited concern about politicians and political parties as a source of false or misleading information (37%) followed by ordinary members of the public (18%). Only 12% believed the news media spread misinformation on COVID-19. Politicians, including far-right leader Marián Kotleba and former PM Robert Fico, used social and mass media to challenge measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus and the vaccination campaign.
Newspaper sales continue to decline, but the pandemic did not really accelerate the trend. Some brands increased their digital subscriptions, though not by enough to make up for the fall in advertising receipts. Major publishers expected the impact to be more severe than it was, but lack of funds has meant existential issues for some left-wing, conservative, or local media outlets not under the wing of large corporations.
Andrea Chlebcová Hečková
Constantine the Philosopher University, Nitra
and Simon Smith
Charles University, Prague
Slovaks are increasingly reliant on smartphones for access to news. Print is used as a news source by fewer than one in five adults; just four years ago nearly one-third relied on newspapers or magazines.
Pay for online news
Share news via social, messaging or email
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
While overall trust in news recovered slightly from last year’s low-point, almost all surveyed brands saw their trust score fall. The biggest decline (-5pp) affected the country’s leading news source, TV Markíza, praised by media critics for its pandemic response. Median’s survey results on perceived objectivity confirm this trend.