Media Independence at Risk as Slovak Lawmakers Tighten Grip

(Bloomberg) -- Lawmakers in Slovakia approved an overhaul of public media, effectively putting broadcasters under government control in a move criticized by the opposition and international organizations for undermining press independence.

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As of July, the ruling coalition will nominate its own candidates to the governing bodies of Slovak public television and radio after legislators in Bratislava backed the measure Thursday.

The main opposition party said it will challenge the law in the Constitutional Court. Lubos Machaj, the current head of public media who will be automatically ousted once the law takes effect, said it was “a black day for the media landscape and for civil society in Slovakia.”

Anti-media sentiment has intensified after an assassination attempt last month on Prime Minister Robert Fico, which he blamed on a hostile atmosphere fueled by the press and the opposition. His administration has consistently criticized coverage in the European Union member state, calling it biased or anti-government.

“The public media are not objective because they are in direct conflict with the Slovak government,” Fico said in April when proposing the bill. He claimed that “the basic right of Slovak citizens to access objective information is violated.”

The minister responsible for media has criticized the public broadcaster for unbalanced reporting, particularly regarding the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, alleging that they present only the mainstream view.

At the same time, Fico and his allies praise “alternative” media that avoid critical coverage and echo the premier’s main narratives, including criticism of pandemic measures and vaccines during Covid-19, as well as spreading conspiracies about the war.

The administration has also faced criticism for using financial pressures to soften private media outlets, mirroring policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Slovak journalists have cautioned against the “Orbanization” of media. The host of the most-watched private television channel recently accused the management of political pressures in favor of the ruling coalition in an unexpected on-air comment.

Reporters Without Borders has also warned the law could violate the European Media Freedom Act, which entered into force last month to secure media pluralism and independence within the EU bloc.

Slovakia’s premier has drawn scrutiny from Brussels since his return to office in October, while his decision to overhaul the criminal code and ditch a special prosecutor’s office sparked public protests.

Fico’s previous government stint ended five years ago when he was forced to resign amid national outrage over the murder of an investigative journalist.

Slovakia has dropped from 17th to 29th place in the press freedom index since Fico’s return to power. Pavol Szalai, head of the EU-Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders, sees the risk of further decline.

“A battle is taking place in Slovakia over whether the media will remain pluralistic and impartial,” Szalai said in an interview last week.

(Updates with opposition, media reaction in third paragraph.)

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