You can’t buy everyone in Slovakia

Good news for the world: Amidst all the stories about captured states, apathy, and unfinished business of the CEE transition, we have once again learned that not everything can be bought. This Tuesday Penta, an investment group with a clearly anti-democratic political philosophy, bought a 50% share in SME – a leading Slovak daily. SME’s core team resigned.

Photo: We buy therefore WE ARE (In Slovak, the daily's title SME stands for "WE ARE")

After 25 years of momentous changes in Central Europe, one is again reminded that not all the struggles were won. Journalists do not end up in jails today, borders are open and you do not read exactly the same thing in all the newspapers. What happened in SME however also suggests that some of the debates taking place in our society since 1989 – like whether we want a small or a big state, are shifting attention away from a much more important question.  One that was inadmissible for many fans of democracy and the free market: how to limit the influence of too big business. Determination and courage to face concentrated power are as needed as before.

When the rumors transpired that Penta was interested in buying decisive shares in the paper’s publisher, editor in chief accompanied by over 60 editors, commentators and reporters said they’d resign. And so they did.

Why so much ado about a new owner? Penta is big. Its total assets in Central Europe are over 1/3 of Slovakia’s annual budget expenses. For several years, Penta’s business intelligence was taken care of by one Alojz Lorenc, a leading man of the pre-1989 secret police and among else author of the Warsaw Pact’s coding system. That is though not the thing that made Penta really famous. In the fall of 2011 Slovakia saw the biggest public mobilization since 1989 – the so-called Gorila Protests. Gorila was the name of a file allegedly produced by the Slovak Intelligence Service that pointed to very close connections between business representatives and the highest echelons of national politics.

It is still not certain whether that file – or which portion of it – is true. Mr. Haščák, Penta’s co-owner, is recorded having said: ‘Democracy is a shitty system. The voter does not know about anything, the voter is a shit. The voter perceives mere surface’. We might wonder whether Mr. Haščák really said those words – in the end, he did all he could to stop SME’s publisher from publishing a book on the Gorila case. The book was eventually published and when you read it, you may in fact reach Mr. Haščák’s conclusions. If the conversations between Penta and top politicians really happened the way they are described in the file –   voters really don’t know much and do not matter much. But while one might concur with this observation, it is more troublesome to agree with the course of action Penta is taking.

Just consider the nature of the ongoing transaction (in detail here): de iure, SME publisher’s shares are bought by a daughter company of SITA, a Slovak private press agency. This daughter company was established this summer and its co-owner is director general of SITA. SITA’s basic assets are little over 2 million EUR, while SME publisher’s assets are over 12 million EUR. Penta allegedly did not conduct any significant due dilligence before buying the shares. SME was intended to become a tool of political influence, or basically an acquisition to secure other interests.

The transcation is not complete before the Anti-monopoly Agency approves it, and things can change course if the owners of the other 50% take legal action stating that their right to buy shares was not respected.

Yet one thing is clear: Penta has lost, because without SME‘s key staff, it only has a “brand”. Yes, that is another important part of Mr. Haščák’s political philosophy. When he commented on the decision of editors and journalists to leave SME, he said ‘journalists are an important part of the value of the brand‘. Earlier he said that while ‘journalists often talk as if they were special…. media market is just like any other sector‘[here].

But Mr. Haščák has completely underestimated the possibility of people being motivated by other goals beyond their salaries. In its two decades of existence, the SME daily did what journalism is supposed to do: it spoke truth to power and it defended those who could not defend themselves. SME was a key voice opposing Mečiar’s authoritarian government, and closely followed also Dzurinda’s and Fico’s steps. SME took up violations of human rights and led the battle against victimization of various Slovak minorities – the Roma, the Hungarians, the gays. No other newspaper in Slovakia has such a track-record as SME in exposing both the government failures and weaknesses of society in coming to terms with its diversity.

Sure, SME was not the picture of perfection – one can find plenty of objectionable stuff. There was the disregard for the Palestinian angle when reporting and commenting on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the perhaps all too stubborn and blind defense of “market over state”.

The left-wing commentators are today asking why the SME journalists are so surprised that their publishing house has been acquired by people whose only interest seems to be profit. That’s what capitalism is all about in the end, they say. Yet this critique misses a fundamental point: the editors are leaving exactly because they believe there is more to work than a stable salary and more to ‘free market’ than profit. They took a clear stance and led by personal example.

The SME’s editorial team has refused to be a tool of power of someone, with whose ideas and activities they disagree. They did not want the results of their ‘intellectual work to help (Penta’s) goals, be it profit, influence power or image’, to use the words of Lukáš Fila, Deputy Editor in Chief. I wish luck to those who left SME and embarked on a journey towards more independent journalism. It is not going to be easy.

While independent journalism is crucial for survival of democracy – as a government of the people, by the people and for the people – the departing editors opened a much broader theme of relations between labor and investors in a market-based society. Let us hope that the new medium the SME’s departing team will establish will tackle this with fervor.

Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.