Journalists Tell Slovakia’s PM-Elect: ‘No Thanks’

Ed Holt reports on journalists’ reaction to Igor Matovic’s plan for them to serve as publicly funded  watchdogs.

(Ed Holt/IPS)

By Ed Holt
in Bratislavia
Inter Press Service

Plans announced by Slovakia’s prime minister-elect to fund investigative journalists to act as corruption watchdogs on government and state bodies have been dismissed as “a road to hell” by local journalists.

Igor Matovic, whose OLaNO party won Slovakia’s elections at the end of last month on the back of a strongly anti-corruption campaign, last week said investigative journalists were the best people to keep a check on the use of public funds by ministers and state officials.

But the idea, which comes just two years after Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were shot dead, has been met with almost universal antipathy by the country’s journalistic community.

They say it could compromise journalists’ independence and fear it could be a way for political leaders to absolve themselves of responsibility for rooting out corruption.

Instead, they say, the incoming prime minister would be better off concentrating on introducing legislation to ensure they can do their work more efficiently and safely.

“It’s nice that Mr. Matovic is thinking of us, and this idea may be well-meant, but it’s is a road to hell,” Arpad Soltesz, head of the Jan Kuciak Centre for Investigative Journalism, told IPS.

Matovic said just hours after he won the elections that he wanted a special unit set up to root out public sector corruption.

He suggested the unit be made up of investigative journalists working across the country who could investigate corruption in central government and ministries as well as regional authorities and state bodies.

State Funding

The fund would receive 10 million EUR per year from the state – Matovic has suggested legislation could be brought in to guarantee the funding – and that a yet to be established journalists’ organization would decide on allocating the financing from the fund.

Igor Matovic (Wikipedia)

Slovakia has seen a slew of corruption scandals, some involving people at the highest levels of government, in recent years. The story Kuciak was working on when he and his fiancée were shot in his home east of the capital Bratislava, exposed links between the Smer party and the Italian mafia.

Matovic told Slovak media the work of the fund “would [act as] the best independent arbitrator on the transparency of the use of public funds.”

However, journalists said it could raise serious questions over media independence.

Marek Vagovic, head of investigative reporting at the online news outlet, for which Kuciak was working when he was killed, said in a Facebook post: “As one of the key pillars of respectable media is its independence, it is not appropriate to take any financial support from the government/state. Not now, not in the past, nor in the future…. It could lower public trust in us.”

The work investigative reporters do is widely recognized as a vital part of any free democracy in many states. But it is often expensive and not all newspapers can afford to do such reporting.

Because of this, funds are available in many countries, some with state financing, for investigative journalists.

However, many are clearly independent from governments which finance them, such as the Dutch Journalism Fund and the Dutch Fund for Journalism, which receive millions of euro per year in funding from the Dutch Education Ministry, but which are also funded from other sources and which decide on grant applications using independent experts.

Hungarian Caution

Matovic’s plans so far suggest money for the Slovak fund would come solely from the state – something which worries local journalists who point to neighboring Hungary as an example of what can go wrong when government funds the media.

Populist Hungarian Prime Minster Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party are estimated to be in control of up to 90 percent of the country’s media, having used policy and public funding to essentially wipe out critical and independent news outlets.

In 2018, 467 media outlets alone, some of which had been created using public funds, were ‘given’ to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) – run by people close to Orban – by their pro-government owners. This effectively brought them under the control of the regime.

Viktor Orban (Wikimedia Commons)

Beata Balogova, editor in chief of the Slovak daily Sme, was quoted in Slovak media as saying: “Forgive me if, in a region where Viktor Orban created KESMA, I’m a bit concerned about similar initiatives.”

Balogova and others have also questioned journalists’ powers to deal with corruption.

Matus Kostolny, editor in chief of the Dennik Ndaily, wrote in his paper: “Investigative journalists can uncover dozens of scandals, but they have no chance of uncovering everything and, unlike the state, they do not have the options to investigate, follow, and use documents that the police, prosecutors and secret service do.”

He added: “It is tempting to leave it to journalists to do, but, in reality it is the prime minister and his coalition partners who must be responsible for the government’s performance.”

Senior figures at Slovak newspapers have urged the incoming Prime Minister to instead focus efforts on making it easier and safer for journalists to investigate corruption.

Before his death Kuciak had told police he had been threatened by prominent local businessman Marian Kocner, whom Kuciak had written about. Kocner was later arrested and is currently on trial for ordering Kuciak’s murder.

“The government should not be paying investigative journalists. It should let them do their work freely and protect them if someone attacks them, or, wants to kill them. And then the government should act on what they uncover,” said Balogova.

Public Denigration & Attacks

In recent years journalists have also faced public denigration and personal attacks by politicians, especially from the Smer party and its leader Robert Fico.

Local journalists have said these repeated attacks by Fico – he called reporters “anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiots,” among other things – and others helped create a hostile atmosphere towards society which emboldened Kuciak’s killers to carry out his murder.

They say Matovic must ensure politicians in his government do not do the same.

Peter Bardy, editor in chief at,said in a Facebook post: “We thank Igor Matovic for his well-meant [idea], but rather than a fund we would welcome the creation of an environment in which we are able to do our work without attacks from politicians turning us into targets for hate attacks.”

But they also want concrete legislative action on key issues which they say makes their work sometimes impossible.

Current libel laws allow for massive fines to be meted out to media for stories about individuals and organizations. Critics say that for some publications these fines would essentially put them out of business, which can deter them from running stories containing corruption allegations.

Meanwhile, journalists often complain they are unable to investigate misuse of public funds properly.

“Ministries hide information about their business activities, using legislative exemptions or claiming business confidentiality. This needs to be changed,” Zuzana Petkova of the Zastavme Korupciu (Stop Corruption) NGO, wrote in a blog in the Dennik N daily about the fund proposals.

Soltesz said he also wanted to see legislation ensuring the effective protection of sources.

“I would like to see legislation introduced whereby any journalist revealing their source against their will would face a legal sanction, in the same way that a doctor or a lawyer is required to adhere to rules of patient/client confidentiality,” he told IPS.

Matovic has defended his plans, saying he sees no reason why the fund would necessarily affect journalists’ independence, pointing out public broadcaster RTVS is financed by the state.

However, in the run up to the elections Matovic’s party attacked the very same broadcaster for a lack of independence, claiming it was censoring negative reports connected to the outgoing ruling coalition.

It is unclear whether Matovic will be able to implement his plans. While there appears to be tentative support among politicians in the four-party coalition government he is set to lead, it is hard to see how it could function given the clear lack of support among the wider Slovak journalism community.

“No one in any serious media is positive about this plan. We say thanks but no thanks. Journalism should remain independent,” said Soltesz.

Ed Holt is a correspondent for Inter Press Service.

This article is from Inter Press Service.

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4 comments for “Journalists Tell Slovakia’s PM-Elect: ‘No Thanks’

  1. Sam F
    March 14, 2020 at 02:12

    The Slovak press should study the means by which public organizations can safely accept external funds without becoming dependent on the sources:

    1. Funds can be from individual contributors who designate recipients of state funds.
    2. Funds from external organizations to officials of a public organization, or the organization itself, can be Seized into its endowment and used only as that generates income, so that threats of withdrawal of funding to create dependency have no effect upon current operating budget, merely some part of budget growth.

    Such organizations must financially monitor their officials continuously (and ideally their associates, ideally for life). Where bias is crucial, officials should give all of their resources permanently to the organization, and agree that it may seize all future benefits they receive, as potential bribes or paybacks, in return for which they are salaried and pensioned for life. So of course they must be pre-evaluated over a long period.

    These are proposed safeguards for trustees of the College of Policy Debate that I am designing, that will conduct moderated text debate protecting and challenging all viewpoints in all policy areas worldwide, producing commented debate summaries for public access with mini-quizzes and discussion groups, and a dramatized lower level for those unwilling to study the issues. The key problem is always the creation of an incorruptible administration.

    Other structural issues of incorruptibility include the use of triple-redundant boards in each administrative area, which vote on each issue and dissolve biased boards; rotation of trustees among the boards; etc. These require a fairly large organization. Attempts to simplify this in the US federal government “checks and balances” scheme did not work.

  2. Mark Stanley
    March 13, 2020 at 00:05

    I still think that the consciousness on much of the planet now allows the Sociopaths to take control in any given situation and then we end up with this. Cirque de Soleil could only hope to be as dramatic as the politics that goes on. Am I glad to know we are not alone in the U.S. with our deranged politicians?
    I like Tulsi

  3. Tom Kath
    March 11, 2020 at 20:47

    The old question, “Who shall guard the guardians?” has never been satisfactorily answered.

  4. Guy
    March 11, 2020 at 12:30

    If the state has control over the media,this would be very much like the USSR days with the media controlled by the state. Of course in the long run it becomes a joke and people laugh at this type of infiltration and control of what is termed as news , but can be done about it once implemented .Much like the media in the Western world all sing from the same hymn book .Excepting news reporting from CN and like organizations of course .
    So the bottom line was delivered very well to Slovakia’s president.No .

Comments are closed.