Slovaks consume news more frequently and in bigger amounts than ever before. They have access to a plethora of publications, news portals, radio and television stations. However, much of that is in the hands of a few powerful financial corporations, closely linked with political groups. Policymakers and regulators lack vision and have little interest in strengthening journalism. A handful of foreign players are still investing in news, but they are increasingly favoring investments in entertainment or are raring to exit the market completely. The Slovak public broadcaster has garnered kudos for its journalistic output in recent years, but a new management is poised to put an end to that.
Still, not all is gloom and doom on the Slovak news market. A new generation of professionals is shaking up the status quo, launching new political platforms and funding media start-ups.
Slovakia is a voracious news consumer, with almost two thirds of people reading news portals, newspapers or news magazines. Much of this news appetite was stirred by technological advancement. Mobile penetration has topped 130% in 2017. Over 80% of people use the internet, which is a big leap from less than 30% in the beginning of the 2010s. With mobile data services getting cheaper than ever before, an increasing number of Slovaks are roped in.
The biggest impact of technology was experienced by the publishing industry. The number of print media publishers in Slovakia more than halved between 2009 and 2015. Some large publishers such as Ringier Axel Springer and Petit Press changed tack, increasingly focusing on digital. Smaller ones, down on their uppers, are clutching at straws.
Nonetheless, a lucrative business model for quality journalism, anchored in subscriptions, is slowly emerging. A news portal established by a group of journalists who left the daily Sme, DennikN broke even in 2016, two years after its launch, with some 23,000 paying subscribers. Sme, the most popular, non-tabloid, daily in Slovakia is also heavily investing in a subscription model to offset losses from print. That seems the way to go.
Television remains the most dominant news medium. Slovaks watch nearly four hours of TV a day, more than the European average. The largest private broadcast operator, Markiza TV has significant influence, particularly among politicians, thanks to its popularity. It is also a financial powerhouse, its revenues dwarfing the sales of all other television broadcasters.
Seemingly, Slovaks have access to a wealth of news sources. In reality, though, the market is concentrated in the hands of a few large players. Powerful financial groups such as Penta Investments and J&T, and a handful of magnates including Ivan Kmotrik and Andrej Babis (who is also Czech Republic’s prime minister) exert decisive influence in the ownership of most major media companies. They are also close to politicians (if they are not themselves one), which gives them big leverage in regulatory affairs.
The industry is a second tier in the power dynamic that influences the Slovak news media market. Its interests are though aligned with the ownership. The Antimonopoly Office of the Slovak Republic known as PMU is much responsible for the growing corporate and oligarchic power in the Slovak media market. It has been the PMU that approved a spate of merger cases allowing the expansion of some big groups. Decisions by the PMU in 2015-2016 allowed Penta Investments to take over several major publishers. It was one of these deals that prompted journalists from the daily Sme (acquired by Penta) to leave and set up DennikN. (Journalists were not comfortable with the involvement of Penta in a major corruption scandal that shook the Slovak political and business life)
There is not much opposition to this corporate and political power in media. Civil society exerts little influence. International groups are not effective either. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a Vienna-based intergovernmental group, has some political leverage, but that does not materialize in any earth-shattering policy changes or palpable improvements for journalists. For example, in early March 2018, Harlem Desir, the head of media at OSCE, called on Slovak authorities in a meeting in Bratislava to investigate the killing earlier in February, by unknown assaulters, of the Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak. Instead, two months later, Slovak police began to harass Pavla Holcova, a Czech journalist who was trying to help with the police investigation.
Besides regulation, tightly controlled by authorities and highly politicized, the government is directly involved in the Slovak media market. It uses funding from license fees collected from all Slovak households and money from the state budget to finance the public broadcaster RTVS, the largest player in the country’s media with a budget in excess of €115m. However, that support is not necessarily bad. In the past five years or so, the Slovak public got its money’s worth. The station earned a feather in its cap for improved programming. Viewers and experts heaped praise on its news output. However, a new management installed at the RTVS’ helm in 2017, is likely to ruin this reputation. Jaroslav Reznik, RTVS’ new head, has made since his appointment a series of controversial decisions that seem to rather please friendly politicians than serve the public.
Technology had both a positive and negative impact on Slovak journalism.
Some policies and decisions of the global technology juggernauts raised hackles among the Slovak news media. A 2017 experiment by Facebook to remove posts by Slovak news media from its main feed crippled a string of news portals as their readership collapsed overnight. Some saw the volume of their interactions down by 60% in a single day. In contrast, disinformation websites suffered much less. That is worrying in a country where disinformation and hate speech portals are mushrooming and commanding increasing audiences, particularly young ones. An online disinformation industry is thriving. Zem a Vek, one of the most popular bogus sites, pulled in revenue of over €404,000 in 2017.
On the other hand, a cadre of professionals and visionaries is gradually changing journalism and politics. Many come from the IT industry.
A social-liberal, progressive and pro-European political party, Progressive Slovakia (Progresivne Slovensko), was established in 2017 by a group of businessmen, innovators and IT professionals. Rasto Kulich, a Harvard-educated Slovak who now manages the Google office in Slovakia is one of the party’s main supporters. Google is the sole foreign technology company that funds journalism in Slovakia. It has awarded some €1.16m to local journalism projects. That is a pittance, but it helps, journalists say. In a separate development, Eset, a local software manufacturer, plunked down €1m to set up DennikN.
Technology-savvy groups also lead the battle against disinformation websites. A posse of people working in digital marketing run Konspiratori.sk, a website that keeps tabs on fake news websites operating on the Slovak market. With the support of the local publishing industry, they discourage companies from buying ads on fake news websites.
There are strong signs that the Slovak news media market is going through further consolidation with dominant financial corporations likely to bulk up their existing media portfolio. Eyes are on Markiza TV, which its American owners are planning to sell.
Big changes are expected in internet regulation. There are no legal provisions specifically governing online content, but the Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission known as RVR is increasingly extending its remit to the internet. Local journalists argue that, while rules for privacy or use of personal data floated online are needed, the government should not meddle with online content.
Authorities began a couple of years ago to design laws targeting technology companies, especially foreign ones. New fiscal rules are likely to force Google and Facebook to pay more taxes, matching the actual revenues they generate on the Slovak market. Upcoming provisions are also expected to make it difficult for companies without a local office to operate in Slovakia. Facebook, which runs its Slovak operations from the company’s Warsaw and Dublin offices, is a case in point.
There are no signs that politicians and policymakers are going to actively promote independent journalism. No major investments in new independent media are on the horizon. However, the subscription-based sustainability model tried by several outlets is likely to provide a lifebuoy to Slovak journalism.