In a year that saw the collapse of the centre-right coalition government elected in 2020 and the scheduling of a new poll for September, the media scene is equally turbulent, including continued attacks on journalists by politicians, incidents of professional and ethical failings, and even espionage.
The long-awaited systematic reform of Slovakia’s media legislation was finally completed in 2022. Along with the adoption of the law on publishers and publications which improves ownership transparency, parliament approved a platform-neutral law on media services to replace the existing broadcasting law. Designed to adapt the state’s regulatory instruments to a digital media ecosystem, it obliges anyone who uses content-sharing platforms for profit-making purposes, including influencers, to apply to a new Council for Media Services for authorisation.
The blocking of the controversial, pro-Russia news website Hlavné správy under the powers of the amended cybersecurity law shortly after the outbreak of war in Ukraine was lifted in July 2022. While it was blocked, Denník N published video footage from 2021 showing a Hlavné správy journalist receiving a bribe from a Russian embassy employee to set up a spy network. Having pleaded guilty in court, he was given a three-year suspended sentence and a €15,000 fine. Hlavné správy reacted to the verdict by accusing several NGOs of being ‘foreign agents’ indirectly financed by the US government.
More than 30 years after the fall of communism, Slovakia’s PSB RTVS still struggles to balance critical political reporting with its duty to inform people about political institutions.
Parliament elected Ľuboš Machaj as RTVS’s new Director General in summer 2022. Machaj’s appointment was seen as a fresh start after the era of Jaroslav Rezník, which coincided with the difficult period following the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and complaints by RTVS journalists that management didn’t protect them from political pressures. His first months in charge, however, have also been hit by controversies.
On the anniversary of 1989’s ‘gentle revolution’ RTVS broadcast former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s party conference speech live and uninterrupted, which many interpreted as an act of propaganda. Machaj reacted by dismissing the head of news and current affairs and several other managers. Then the presenter of a political discussion programme ‘Under the lid’, investigative journalist Marek Vagovič quit RTVS just months into a production contract when TV bosses wanted to remove the programme from the main channel. They deny this was in response to political pressure. In 2023 there is a new state-funded system of financing for RTVS after the liberal SAS party succeeded in abolishing the licence fee. Opposed by RTVS management and its supervisory council, the move only adds to fears about independence from political interests.1
Verbal attacks on journalists by politicians from opposition and government parties continue. While some politicians defend press freedom, journalists and media organisations have been compared with organised crime syndicates and accused of corruption, media criticism has been likened to the Nazi propaganda machine, and female reporters are labelled prostitutes. Early this year the female presenter of an RTVS political discussion programme received credible death threats following verbal attacks against her by a leading politician.2
Media coverage of a double murder outside a Bratislava gay bar,3 which Slovak police (for the first time ever) classified as a terrorist crime, revealed ethical shortcomings. The tabloid Plus jeden deň was found in breach of the Journalists’ Ethical Code by the Press and Digital Council when it placed images of the victims’ bodies on its front page. The report by the Council for Media Services concluded that journalists sometimes lack the experience or skills to communicate effectively about such incidents and highlighted serious problems with the monitoring and moderation of online content by digital platforms: it accused Twitter and Facebook of failing to promptly remove inaccurate and hateful posts after the attack.
In response to the war in Ukraine and the resettlement of about 110,000 refugees during the first year of conflict, many Slovak media launched or expanded Ukrainian news services. RTVS already provided minority-language programming for the Ukrainian-speaking community (concentrated in eastern Slovakia) but it added a special information service for refugees during the first months of the crisis. TA3 runs a weekly ten-minute news service in Ukrainian and the newspaper SME has a Ukrainian version of its news portal. Denník N produced a special print edition in Ukrainian and ran a podcast about Ukrainian culture and history and ties with Slovakia.
Andrea Chlebcová Hečková
Constantine the Philosopher University, Nitra
Charles University, Prague
The list of top brands is relatively stable. Among those who say they actively avoid news (37%), Ukraine, health (including COVID-19), and race or gender issues are (probably for very different reasons) the biggest turn-offs.
Pay for online news
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Very low trust (27%) in news in general reflects decades of interference by business and political leaders. TV stations, including the public broadcaster RTVS, tend to enjoy relatively high levels of trust, whereas digital-only brands are less trusted, even when they have high reach (e.g. Topky). However, one digital-only brand, Aktuality, stands out for its high reach and relatively high trust.