The Media Today

Back to the future in Slovakia

September 26, 2023
Former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico arrives for an election rally in Michalovce, Slovakia, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Fico, who led Slovakia from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018, might reclaim the prime minister's office after the Sept. 30 election. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

A year ago, Igor Matovič, a top government minister in Slovakia, wrote a lengthy Facebook post attacking Matúš Kostolný, the editor in chief of Denník N, a leading newspaper, after Kostolný published a critical op-ed. Matovič called Kostolný a “disgrace” and accused him of lying, legitimizing the mafia, and “fascist practices.” Kostolný wasn’t surprised by the attack, he told me; after Matovič came to power, initially as prime minister, following elections in 2020, Kostolný had predicted that it would only be a matter of time before Matovič started to bash the press. “I’ve been in this business for more than twenty-five years, and that was my experience with all the prime ministers,” Kostolný said. Whenever one started losing ground politically, “journalists were always the ones who took the blame for it.”

If this was not a particularly surprising turn of events in today’s deteriorating global climate for politician-press relations, it was, perhaps, a particularly disheartening one. In 2018, Ján Kuciak, a Slovakian journalist who had been investigating corruption and organized crime in the country, was murdered at his home alongside his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. The murders came as a huge shock to Slovakia and its press, which as recently as 2016 had stood as high as twelfth place out of a hundred and eighty countries worldwide on Reporters Without Borders’ global press-freedom index. Street protests—the biggest since the fall of communism in the country—swelled, and major political change soon followed. Less than a month later, Robert Fico, the press-bashing populist prime minister, was forced to resign. The following year, Zuzana Čaputová, a liberal outsider, was elected president (which is largely a ceremonial post in Slovakia). Then, in 2020, a coalition led by Matovič swept to power on an anti-corruption platform. Matovič was himself a former regional newspaper baron. He pinned a photo of Kuciak and Kušnírová to his Facebook page. Their deaths, he said, “woke up Slovakia.”

After Čaputová was elected, sparking a wave of international headlines foreseeing the emergence of a regional counterweight to the authoritarian governments of neighboring Poland and Hungary, I spoke with observers including Kostolný and Beata Balogová, the editor in chief of the independent daily SME, who told me that the country’s media and wider democracy were at a crossroads. Four and a half years later—ahead of elections, this weekend, that could usher Fico back into power—I checked in with them again, at what looks like another, far less hopeful turning point for Slovakia. Since we last spoke, “it almost feels like the country has done a complete turn,” Balogová told me. “Now we are in a completely different situation,” Kostolný said. “Four years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that people would really forget that fast.”

Back in 2019, there were reasons to worry for Slovakia’s journalists beyond the murder of their colleague: there were concerns about the independence of the public broadcaster; oligarchs had bought into the press (including what Balogová described as a “toxic” group that took a minority stake in SME); the prime minister who first succeeded Fico was seen by many as Fico’s puppet. Since then, there have been some improvements in their situation. Relatively quickly, four individuals either pleaded guilty to or were convicted of involvement in the murders of Kuciak and Kušnírová. (A fifth defendant, Marián Kočner, a wealthy businessman whom Kuciak investigated, was accused of orchestrating the crime but has twice been acquitted. He is serving a separate nineteen-year sentence for forgery.) After the elections in 2020, Parliament passed new laws that, among other things, improved access to public records and increased transparency around media ownership. According to Kostolný and Balogová, Čaputová lived up to her promises to treat the media with respect. The oligarchs who held a minority stake in SME sold up. This year, Slovakia was back up to seventeenth in RSF’s press-freedom index.

Still, any progress has been checkered. In general, oligarchs still hold power over the media landscape; Čaputová may have been a “voice of reason,” as Balogová puts it, but she has decided not to run for reelection to the presidency next year. Politicians quietly loaded the new press laws with at least one provision boosting their interests, mandating that they be given a right of reply in certain situations. Physical threats to journalists have continued: in 2020, Peter Sabo—who covered the investigations that followed Kuciak’s death for, the news site where Kuciak worked—found a pistol cartridge in his mailbox; earlier this year, Marta Jančkárová, an anchor for the public broadcaster, was given police protection after receiving death threats. (According to RSF, Fico had pledged to “go after” her employer after her show refused to let his party swap out a guest.) 

And, as Kostolný experienced, politicians from different parts of the political spectrum have bashed the press rhetorically. “I am just sorry that the new government sees the media as its enemy, just as the previous government did,” Peter Bárdy, who was Kuciak’s boss at, told the Committee to Protect Journalists in February 2021. Soon after that, Matovič—who had already proposed the establishment of a state-run newspaper—stepped down as prime minister amid a controversy linked to the procurement of COVID vaccines from Russia; he was installed as deputy prime minister and finance minister instead, but blamed the press for his fall from the top job, according to Kostolný. “The murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová brought hope to Slovak society,” Michal Vašečka, a sociologist, told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project last year. “It existed for two years. But the new prime minister and the COVID situation flushed the hope down the sewer.”

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Late last year, the coalition led by Matovič’s successor started to fall apart, with a technocratic caretaker government taking its place in the run-up to this week’s elections. In a fractured political landscape, Fico’s party is leading in the polls, making it a live possibility that he will return to the office he lost amid the popular, anti-corruption outcry that followed the murders. A possibility, but not a certainty. Grigorij Mesežnikov—the president of Slovakia’s Institute for Public Affairs, who once said that the murders and their aftermath would come to be remembered as one of the most significant moments in the country’s entire history—told me last week that the legacy of Kuciak and Kušnírová lives on with parts of the electorate and put Fico’s odds of returning to power only at fifty-fifty, describing the election as hard to predict. (One reason for this: pro-democracy forces are splintered into different parties, making it harder for them to maximize representation under Slovakia’s electoral system.)

Still, the political atmosphere in the country has turned toxic again, and not only against journalists. Unlike in 2019 and 2020, Western media have framed the coming election (when they’ve paid it heed at all) less as a referendum on liberal values including press freedom, and more on European support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia; many Slovaks, led by Fico and others, oppose supporting the Ukrainian cause, and the country has, in some ways, become a battleground for Russian propaganda. Fico is now “more aggressive toward the press than ever,” Balogová says; he has also claimed that the current government is trying to steal the election from him and bashed Čaputová, who recently sued him. “It’s distressing to see that politics in Slovakia has turned into a circus,” Balogová told me. Rather than being a counterpoint to Hungary, Slovakia, she now fears, will follow its path. “I hope that another journalist will not have to die for people to realize that they might lose democracy in democratic elections,” she said.

Recently, on the campaign trail, the circus-like atmosphere hit its nadir when Matovič crashed a news conference for Fico’s party in a pickup truck and ended up in a fistfight with Robert Kaliňák, a former interior minister under Fico. For Kostolný, the incident was further proof that “from aggressive language, it’s only a question of time before it turns to aggressive physical attacks.” Slovakia’s journalists, of course, knew this all too well already.

Other notable stories:

  • Over the weekend, Donald Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform that Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, committed treason that would have been punished in the past with execution; Trump also accused NBC News and MSNBC of treason, and threatened retaliation should he return to the presidency. Yesterday, the Biden White House issued a rare on-the-record response denouncing the latter threat; meanwhile, The Atlantic’s Brian Klaas noted that the Milley post, and Trump’s wider incitements to violence, have ceased to be front-page news, a sign of a dangerous numbness to his rhetoric. CNN’s Oliver Darcy writes that the media is facing a familiar dilemma: whether to “give Trump’s ridiculous threats attention” or ignore them, at the risk of leaving “the public shrouded in darkness about how deranged Trump really is.”
  • Earlier this year, Jake Kemp and Dan McDowell, talk hosts on the Texas radio station KTCK-AM, resigned amid a contract dispute and started a podcast, titled The Dumb Zone. Cumulus Radio, which owns KTCK-AM, ordered Kemp and McDowell to cease producing the podcast, which the company said violated noncompete clauses in their contracts; when the pair ignored the demand, Cumulus sued. In the past, the company would likely have prevailed, the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reports—but a Biden appointee to the National Labor Relations Board recently argued that overly broad noncompete clauses may violate federal labor law, and the suit could now become a test of that proposition. (The Dumb Zone’s case, one expert said, is not dumb at all.)
  • According to the Denver Post’s Sam Tabachnik, the sheriff’s office in Weld County, Colorado, has mandated that people requesting public records from the agency sign a form attesting that they are not seeking the documents for pecuniary gain—and then have that form notarized. Colorado law allows law enforcement agencies to request that records-seekers sign the form and prove their identity; the sheriff’s office has said that notarization is a more consistent and secure method of accomplishing this. The executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, however, dismissed the requirement as making people “jump through another hoop to get public records.”
  • Recently, reports that exiled Russian journalists including Galina Timchenko—the founder of the independent news site Meduza, which is based in Latvia—had their phones targeted with the potent spyware tool Pegasus sparked concerns about Kremlin surveillance of reporters beyond Russian borders. Researchers who investigate Pegasus attacks, however, do not believe that Russia is a client of NSO Group, the Israeli firm that makes Pegasus—and Timchenko has now pointed to circumstantial evidence suggesting that an EU member state executed the attack. The Guardian has more.
  • And—after Michael Wolff reported in his new book on Fox and the Murdoch dynasty that Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate, shoved Tucker Carlson’s dog—Carlson dismissed the claim as absurd, adding that DeSantis “never touched my dog, obviously.” Now Wolff has revealed his source for the claim to Mediaite’s Diana Falzone and Aidan McLaughlin—claiming that it was Carlson himself. (I wrote about Wolff’s book—and taking his claims with a grain of salt—last week.) 

ICYMI: Is Murdoch sticking around or bowing out? Yes.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.