Journalists in Slovakia don’t want to fight a war with politicians. Mainstream politicians once again try to redefine what journalism is and change the Press Code.

 This April, at the International Journalism in Perugia, Visegrad/Insight interviewed Beata Balogova, editor-in-chief of SME, about the political issues facing Slovakia and the new president. Wojciech Przybylski sat down with the head of the most important daily in Slovakia to talk about significance of recent political changes, new directions and tensions between decision makers and media.

After the cementing her victory in the March elections, president-elect Zuzana Čaputová will take office on 15 June 2019. Her victory sends a very positive signal not only for Slovakia but across the region. However, it seems that Slovakia is at a crossroads: it’s not so rosy as it might seem from the outside. What are the challenges you’ve noticed?  

Zuzana Čaputová will have to function in a context and she cannot set all the rules by herself.

Of course, she can try, and I hope she will, to keep her discourse and keep her manners: reasonable, calm, making good use of arguments, avoiding populism. But she is entering in a very tense political environment: where Robert Fico is fighting for survival, where fascists feel encouraged, and the political conspiracy theories flourish.

We cannot forget that Štefan Harabin had considerable gains in the presidential elections, and he is the darling of “conspiracy media”. So now we have a group of anti-system politicians and we have Robert Fico; these two elements are still forming the environment in which Čaputová will have to operate.

Robert Fico

Is she going to play an important role in the V4, or are we expecting too much from her?

The murder of Ján Kuciak and this past year of investigation really shows how deep the rabbit hole is, how many people – politicians, businessman, journalists – were involved. Slovak society feels completely frustrated and disappointed by politics. And now the general public sees a ray of hope in Čaputová.

We need a substantial change, and she is associated with this change. But it means that expectations towards her are much higher than towards any other politician, including her predecessor Andrej Kiska. When we measure those expectations with her real authority and powers, we may find out that they are unrealistic.

However, as you said, she might set new standards and actually she might represent the hope for voters in Poland or voters even in Hungary.

So yes, I think that she plays an important role but till now she has only written the very first line of the introductory chapter: she was elected. Many things will depend on how she will perform and whether she will be able to be a counterbalance to Robert Fico.

As editor-in-chief of SME, you were attacked by Robert Fico. What is the line of his arguments? What are the effects that you see?

I think that it would be a mistake to see any logic or reason in what Robert Fico is doing now. I believe that he feels that his political power is weakening.

For him, and politicians like him, the only way to counter the criticism is to attack journalists. I’m sure you have very similar trials in Poland and around the region, and in the USA as well.

Fico has chosen the populist type of rhetoric and he really wants to picture the press as his enemies. And paradoxically this is the only thing Robert Fico is doing since he is not the Prime Minister.

The fact that he personally attacked me is intended to scare other journalists. He actually told us that it is a war, that we are in a war now (with journalists).

He also said that the media has caused more damage to the country than anything else …it really shows his anger and his frustration that he had to step down.

The Washington Post editor Marty Barton in response to Donald Trump said in a similar situation “this is not war, this is work”.

Fico accused SME and me in particular of abusing the trust of the people who went into the streets. So, he indirectly implies that we organised the protests that forced him to resign.

This really shows how self-centred he is and how this affects the way he looks at the situation and even understands the state.

This is why he said that by criticizing him and by giving an interview to the Austrian newspaper I was defaming the state. He accused me of saying things that I didn’t actually say, and he also accused me of arranging with the Austrian editor for the story to be published on the election day, which is also not true.

We did an interview with the author of the story, who explained which were the things that I had said and what was based on his own research.

This also shows how little politicians with autocratic tendencies understand how journalism works. They really think that foreign journalists talk to limited sources or one source and that they base a report completely on the will of local journalists.

Apparently, they measure things by their own standards.

In the interview, I said that Slovakia is at a crossroads where we have to decide whether we want to be a democratic country or a state ruled by the rules or manners of the mafia. I have said that many times before that interview, and Fico had never reacted like he did that time.

Beata Balogova

But Fico’s attacks on you trigger the response of some people who are actually trolling you right now.

I don’t feel that I am at war with Robert Fico, and I don’t think that my colleagues feel that way either.

I do think he is really emotionally involved and desperate to keep power. For the media, it’s bad news because the situation will pump so much aggression into the public discourse, and this aggression somewhere will have an effect.

It is his responsibility because he makes people feel that their frustrations can be blamed on the press, that they can shoot the messenger.

Ideologically, it places him much closer to Orbán now. I also think that he is frustrated about not being able to control media in a way Viktor Orbán can.

So, his partner or competitor in crime – Victor Orban – is doing much better…

I would say that autocrats learn fast from each other. Robert Fico was able to observe how Orbán managed to downplay any claims about corruption by attacking media or referring to George Soros.

He convinced himself that it might work in Slovakia as well. He still thinks that if he attacks credible and critical media and says to people that the journalists are enemies of the nation, that they are working on disintegrating the state, that they are paid by foreign agents and so on, he can weaken the criticism.

Tell me more about the situation of media in Slovakia. You said that there is a very difficult environment with a lot of hate bubbling just beneath the surface, and some new draft of a Press Code…

Some politicians are trying to redefine what journalism is. They suggest that good journalists are those who are working on projecting a positive image of the country, cooperating with the government, writing about issues that – according to them – people care about.

That’s how they imagine good journalism, and they put considerable effort in telling people that journalists are not here to control them.

Essentially, they are trying to deny the role of the press as one of the most important estates of democracy; this has become clearly visible now.

In Slovakia, they are trying again to change the Press Code, giving the so-called “right of reply” to politicians. It is outrageous because it’s even not a year after the murder of the journals when they promised to give more protection to journalists and instead of that the only proposal on the table is about protecting politicians.

The good news for democracy is that critical media in Slovakia still have a considerable influence and that we can still make corruption cases very visible to the public.

It’s surprising that the parliament is again considering to put into law regulation of obligatory “right to reply” for politicians. The law that has been previously stopped with intervention from the European Commission and international pressure…

A decade ago, Fico tried for the first time to put it into law. It was actually Miklós Haraszti – the then-OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media – who blew the whistle, and here we are again.

The OSCE just published an analysis and recommends Slovakia not to pass the law. The paradox is that now Slovakia is a country cheering on the OSCE, so it will be a very interesting situation.

Will Miroslav Lajčák offer his resignation letter again?

We don’t know, but it’s going to be interesting. What has happened so far is that they delayed the adoption of the law, but this draft law really shows the mentality of that political representation.

We should remember that Robert Fico has refused to answer questions from media for years, and we have several politicians like him, and now they want to have a tool in the law which would give them the “right to reply” in order to re-write the story in a way they want to.

They also want to change the wording of the law. It means that anyone who feels that his reputation has been damaged can request a reply. And as we know, any investigative story can damage someone reputation…

They are trying to convince public opinion that they want to change the law so that in case of incorrect or false statements one can request a reply. But for those casse, you already have the right of correction!

No matter from what side you are analysing this move or rookery, you come to the conclusion that it’s nonsensical, it’s not necessary and it is only to show a raised finger to journalists: “be careful”.

Zuzana Čaputová can veto the law but if it goes back to parliament they can pass it again and then it goes without the signature of the president.

Basically, you’re saying that we are entering in Slovakia in a kind of battle, not really between parties but between society and political elite?

I think that we are entering a stage when there is really a fight for the character of the country. It’s not a fight between conservatives and liberals, not between leftist and rightist, but between how people imagine politics, whether they look at it as a public service or whether they look at it as a venue for privileged few who basically will give crumbs or just little presents in the form of a 13th pension or some other social packages they are passing. And I think that a lot of people start to understand this.

However, we are also entering a stage where political forces like SMER or the Slovak National Party believe that the only way for them to stay in politics is to be in tune with extremists, fascists and conspiracy followers.

We shouldn’t forget that the turnout of the last elections was not even 49% in the first and 42% in the second round. It means that there is a black box of voters, and we don’t know exactly who they are.

Fico believes that there are huge groups of voters with sentiments for a Slovak wartime state, with their frustrations, fears of foreigners, fears of otherness, and he is going to actively seek them out and use them. He is simply appealing to the basest instincts of the voters.

In Central Europe, we already have a laboratory: it’s Hungary. It worked for Orbán, so Fico hopes it will work for him too. Furthermore, he won’t appear like the biggest autocrat in the region, he is just a student. And that makes this situation even more problematic for the country.

Consequently, Zuzana Čaputová will have to operate in a very difficult environment and it will be a tough challenge for her and for the whole of Slovakia.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.

Editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and president of board at the Res Publica Foundation. His expertise includes European politics and political culture. Previously, he has been the editor-in-chief of Eurozine - a Vienna based magazine with a European network of cultural journals, and a Polish quarterly Res Publica Nowa. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017. Twitter: @wprzybylski

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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