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Slovak journalists fear govt. repression after Fico shooting

Tim Gosling in Prague
June 15, 2024

In the wake of the shooting of Prime Minister Robert Fico, Slovakia's government appears to be accelerating efforts to wrest control of the media landscape. Some say the attack is being used to curtail press freedoms.

Bratislava castle and two apparent blocks seen against an orange evening sky
Many have suggested Fico's legislative tweaks and informal mechanisms will be used to put pressure on the mediaImage: David Ehl/DW

Although quick to forgive the man who pulled the trigger, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is seeking to lay the blame for the attempt on his life last month on what he perceives as his political opposition — including critical media.

The nationalist populist Fico has never hidden his contempt for journalists, famously branding them "dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes" in 2016. However, since his return to power in October, his bid to "reform" the country's public media has raised concerns both at home and abroad.

Fico now appears keen to use the shocking attempt on his life by 71-year-old Juraj Cintula on May 15 as another stick with which to beat the press.

Signs that read 'violence is not the way' and 'no violence' are seen on the steps of a memorial
After the attempt on Fico's life, demonstrators left signs that read 'Violence is not the way' and 'No violence'Image: Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

In his first public statement since leaving hospital, he called on the "anti-government media" to refrain from "downplaying ... the evil and political hatred" that he claims have been stoked by his political opponents and ultimately led to the assassination attempt.

Politicians call for 'reconciliation'

"Reconciliation" has become a buzzword since the attack, with voices on all sides expressing shock at the shooting and the deep polarization of Slovak society.

Many in the media suggest this narrative is being abused by the parties in power.

"The governing coalition is trying to use this shocking incident to its advantage, to help them complicate the work of journalists and gain influence over the media landscape," a journalist at a major Slovak broadsheet told DW on condition of anonymity.

The government was already working to increase its influence on the media ahead of the attack and is planning to push a reorganization of public broadcaster RTVS through parliament in the coming weeks.

Fico — who in 2023 called the commercial TV station Markiza and the Dennik N, SME and Aktuality outlets "enemy media" — claims that RTVS is no longer objective. Critics have warned that the planned reorganization will put the broadcaster under political control.

Andrej Danko stands in front of a large screen, Bratislava, Slovakia, May 16, 2024
Andrej Danko, leader of the junior coalition partner Slovak National Party, has said 'a political war has begun'Image: Vaclav Salek/CTK Photo/IMAGO

But, in the immediate aftermath of the failed assassination attempt, Fico's governing partners were quick to assert that even greater oversight would be implemented in order to prevent such horrors from recurring.

"A political war has begun," declared Andrej Danko, leader of the junior coalition partner Slovak National Party. "Changes" would be made to the media sector, he promised: "The era of insolence is over."

Government's 'Lex Atentat' set to amend media laws

The tone of the rhetoric remains charged, with the ruling parties continuing to blame the opposition and media for whipping up hatred and polarizing society.

Amid a raft of legislation that ministers have suggested they are planning in response to the shooting, it is understood there are proposals to amend laws on media and access to information.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico addresses the nation for the first time after he was shot on May 15, 2024, screen grab taken from a social media video released on June 5, 2024
In a video released on June 5, PM Robert Fico called on the 'anti-government media' to refrain from 'downplaying … the evil and political hatred' he claims led to the attempt on his lifeImage: REUTERS

"They are talking about what they call Lex Atentat," or an "assassination law," Radoslav Stefancik, of the University of Economics in Bratislava, told DW. "However, no one knows what it contains because, despite the calls for reconciliation, the government is not yet responding to calls to cooperate, even though the opposition have condemned the attack in unison."

Many have suggested these legislative tweaks are less of a worry than the informal mechanisms being used to put pressure on the media.

"It's our duty to cover issues such as corruption or nepotism and we'll continue to do that," said Lukas Fila, CEO of the N Press house, which publishes Dennik N. "Some coalition politicians are using the situation to claim that it's such reporting that led to the attack. Many that are calling for 'reconciliation' are really demanding the media refrain from any criticism. But that obviously can't happen."

Not every media outlet is as determined to stay the course.

In late May, Markiza, the country's most popular commercial TV station, canceled its popular weekly political talk show "Na Telo" after host Michal Kovacic told viewers that "a war over the Orbanization of our television stations" has begun.

Fico and like-minded leaders around Europe often appear to view the taming of domestic media by Viktor Orban's government in Hungary as a model to emulate.

RTVS employees and co-workers stand beneath umbrellas in the rain as they stage a protest in Bratislava, Slovakia, June 10, 2024
Staffers at Slovakia's public broadcast staged a warning strike on Monday to protest planned changes to the serviceImage: Jaroslav Novák/TASR Slovakia/AP/picture alliance

Keenly aware of the way in which public media has been captured in Hungary, journalists and management at RTVS are seeking to overturn the plan. On June 10, with the blessing of management, staff went on strike and rallied in Bratislava, demanding that the government maintain the public broadcaster's independence.

It's an issue that has also alarmed large sections of the public and may have helped to mobilize liberal voters in last weekend's EU elections, with the centrist Progressive Slovakia leading with 27.8% and a record turnout of 34%.

But supporters of Fico's Smer party — which came in second, with 24.8%, up from the 23% it won in last year's parliamentary vote — don't appear to be bothered.

Slovak media increasing self-censorship

Journalists at Markiza are attempting to fight back, threatening to strike as they support Kovacic's claim that management is interfering in the station's editorial coverage. However, they may be fighting an uphill battle.

In response to a demand from the International Press Institute that it should "defend and support free journalism," Markiza's owner, the Czech conglomerate PPF, said Kovacic had "violated editorial guidelines."

Slovak PM in stable condition after surgery

And Markiza isn't alone in being spooked by the government's rhetoric. TV stations Joj and TA3 have also cancelled their political programming.

"Self-censorship is taking place," said economist Stefancik. "First, government politicians stopped going on talk shows, then the owners of some media outlets started to restrict political broadcasts and are now favoring nonpolitical news."

He noted dryly that the high water levels in the Danube have become a hot topic.

Hungarian journalists warn of 'Orbanization'

Amid the pressure, newsrooms are becoming despondent, the anonymous broadsheet journalist told DW. "We've certainly toned down our coverage," the journalist said. "What the journalists at Markiza are complaining about is happening here. I'm considering leaving."

Not everyone is so worried that the government will be able to use the attack on Fico to launch Slovakia on a fast-track to Orbanization.

Fila, of Dennik N, pointed out that Fico, who said he could be back at his desk by early July, enjoys significantly less political leverage than his Hungarian counterpart.

Still, the anonymous broadsheet journalist said, "Hungarian journalists tell me the situation in Slovakia now reminds them of what was happening in their country 10 years ago."

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Headshot of a bearded man (Tim Gosling) with gray hair and glasses in a red rain jacket
Tim Gosling Journalist covering politics, economics and social issues across Central and Eastern Europe