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Vol 2, No 14
10 April 2000
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Hot issues on Slovak Television Tune in, Turn Off
Michal Frank

The calm waters of the Slovak media scene have been stirred-up recently by two issues. This time, it is not political or economic questions that are being discussed day after day. The first topic in question is the public funding of Slovak Television (STV). Peter Breiner, a well-known Slovak pianist and composer, currently living in Canada, has his own talk show on STV called Do You Have Something Against That?

Peter Breiner has plenty of experience with talk shows. He was the co-host of famous Slovak satirist Milan Markovič (whose appearances on STV were stopped under the previous government of Vladimír Mečiar), first on Slovak Radio and later on STV. He has also contributed witty weekly articles to various publications under the rubric "Maple Leaves."

For his recent talk-show episode, Peter Breiner chose the theme, "What is publicly funded television good for?" This question of the public funding of STV is truly worthy of discussion. STV is in financial crisis. It has too many employees; the previous management left behind huge debts; and in the media marketplace, the commercial station TV Markíza is the clear winner.

Meanwhile, STV is funded practically from three direct sources. First, from advertising revenue; second, from the licence fees payable by all TV set owners; and third, from the state budget. This third source of funding is the main problem, for it is it that gives the station a direct connection with the state. Politicians, primarily those from the governing coalition, are literally fighting for airtime and trying to interfere with the news service in various ways. This is why, media experts, and the not just them, say that, in reality, STV is state television rather than publicly funded television.

So how is this connected to Breiner's talk show? Hardly at all. Except that he started the debate and let loose a media avalanche. His talk-show episode on "What is publicly funded television good for?" was not broadcast. Programme Director Jozef Filo justified his reasons for pulling the show by claiming that "the presenter was not handling his job" and the show was "of a low professional standard." What ensued was the opposite of what he intended when he took this decision: the majority of journalists stood behind Breiner, and STV was thus forced to broadcast the show at a later date.

The broadcast, in turn, set off a series of discussions with experts on the subject of the public funding of Slovak Television but also of Slovak Radio. Filo's position in the organisation was threatened and he stands on shaky ground to this day.

What is even more interesting is that following the events surrounding the controversial talk show, the ground began to also shake beneath the general director of STV himself, Milan Materák. As the highest controlling body of the publicly funded station, the Board of Slovak Television voted to dismiss the General Director. The majority of Board members were in favour of the dismissal but were lacking the necessary two-thirds majority stipulated by law. Thus, for now, Materák has survived the shake up, if only barely.

What were the reasons given for his proposed dismissal? "Destabilisation of relations between the station's management and the Board of STV, questioning of the Board's jurisdiction, repeated inadequate or nominal fulfilment of its resolutions and invalid enforcement and violation of mandatory regulating norms of the station, programming code 9 and other rules, which regulate the activities of STV."

The second hot topic in Slovakia of the past few weeks came courtesy of the commercial television station Markíza. The most watched Slovak television station ran an interview with one of Slovakia's most successful singers, Richard Müller. Müller has put out more than ten albums and is the best-selling Slovak artist in both Slovakia and neighbouring Czech Republic.

It was a "public secret" that Müller was somehow involved with drugs, and it was the interview on Markíza that stirred up the unusually, for a hot topic such as drugs, calm surface of public opinion. Until now, the subject of drugs in Slovakia has been taboo. Newspapers have run tearjerker stories of ruined young lives but haven't dared to write much else on the subject.

Such as that 42 per cent of secondary school students have experience with marijuana or hash (according to the results of a poll conducted by ESPAD in 1995). Despite the fact that under Slovak law, these people are criminals and drug addicts.

In more civilised countries the Dutch model and the question of the legalisation of marijuana are common topics of discussion, seriously taken up by doctors, psychologists, politicians and journalists. In Slovakia, however, these subjects are still taboo. Thus it was a positive sign that after the Markíza interview with Richard Müller, the subject of drugs started to be discussed.

As for the actual interview, it was neither exclusive - Müller himself said during the course of it that he had given two other such interviews - nor was Markíza the first to tackle this subject, as it is today claiming. The issue of drugs appeared sporadically in several media and Müller himself, whose drug phase has lasted six years already, was not too resistant to giving interviews, as evidenced by the interview that appeared in the weekly Dominofórum, for example. In that particular interview, Müller even admitted that he was addicted to marijuana.

Several observers have claimed that the Markíza interview was primarily Richard Müller's own promotional campaign, pointing out that only a day later Fun rádio was already playing a single in which he sings about cocaine and pervitin [an ephedrine-based drug, common on the drug scene in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, ed].

Nevertheless, the interview provoked controversy. Members of the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting, politicians, a large part of the media and others began claiming that by airing this interview Markíza violated the law and that the interview was a promotion of drugs. This is, of course, nonsense but is a sign of how large a taboo the drugs issue still is in the Slovak Republic.

Paradoxically, the man behind the largest drug scandal in Slovakia thus far is Fedor Flašík, head of the Donar agency, which received extraordinarily lucrative contracts during the Mečiar era and organised a megalomaniacal pre-election campaign for Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and which has since gone under. Today, Flašík is acting as head image-maker for the young, ambitious politician Róbert Fico and his Smer party.

Fico was elected to the Slovak National Council on behalf of the post-Communist Strana demokratickej ľavice (Party of the Democratic Left), in which he occupied the post of first deputy chairman. He left the party, which is currently part of the ruling coalition, and formed his own: Smer, which is, according to recent polls, the second strongest political party in Slovakia. Its slogan is "Kradlo sa za Mečiara, kradne sa aj za Dzurindu." (There was stealing under Mečiar and there is stealing under [current Prime Minister] Dzurinda).

The drug scandal surrounding Fedora Flašík, however, did not concern drugs or the fight against them but rather a billboard with the slogan "I love life - not drugs" which counted the days remaining in former President Michal Kováč's (the thorn in Mečiar's side) term in office and was placed so that the President could see it every day from the window of the presidential palace.

The interview with Richard Müller set the Slovak media scene in motion. The majority of people condemned Müller (who, incidentally, faces possible criminal charges), although it is clear that problems such as his are common to many - not exclusively - Slovak singers. The positive aspect of this media bubble is the fact that the issue of drugs is beginning to be discussed even in Slovakia.

Michal Frank, 31 March 2000

The author is a reporter for the Korzár newspaper in Slovakia and studies at the University of Prešov.

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