Charles University, Prague
Slovak journalism — already tested by questions about institutional independence and the growing popularity of websites publishing fake news — was drawn into a political crisis following the murder of an investigative journalist. Meanwhile a Facebook experiment fuelled debates about the power of dominant social media platforms to influence news consumption in unpredictable ways.
In March 2018 Slovakia was shaken by the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, an event that triggered a series of mass demonstrations and forced the resignation of the Prime Minister and Interior Minister — symbols of the institutionalised corruption that Kuciak was investigating. Kuciak worked for the news portal aktuality.sk, which had only recently taken the risky decision to support investigative journalism. The climate of hostility between sections of the media and the government, mentioned in last year’s report, worsened during 2017, and is seen as a factor contributing to a situation in which journalists, especially investigative ones, feel vulnerable.1 It remains to be seen if the recent wave of support for journalists after Kuciak’s death will have a lasting effect on public trust in the profession.
Media advertising spend grew overall by 4.6% in 2017 according to Unimedia, but fell by 6% in print, which now accounts for less than 10% of the total advertising market, dominated by TV and online. With stagnating print sales, Slovakia’s established daily and weekly news titles need to boost their online sales income, so even the slight decline in consumer willingness to pay for online content indicated by this year’s survey is a worrying sign.
The last year saw two significant ownership changes. In November 2017 Ringier Axel Springer announced the sale of Slovakia’s market-leading daily, Nový Čas, together with several magazine titles, in a reorientation towards digital publishing. Ringier owns aktuality.sk and recently bought its smaller rival aktualne.sk. The buyer of Nový Čas is businessman Anton Siekel, head of the Slovak Olympic Committee, with no track record in the news industry. In March 2018 Slovakia’s number three national daily, Pravda, also changed hands, acquired by the Czech group Our Media, which runs several regional TV stations and the news portals parlamentnilisty.cz and parlamentnelisty.sk, which have a dubious reputation on transparency and objectivity.
Facebook tested its Explore feed in Slovakia (and five other countries) from October 2017 to March 2018, removing posts from pages (including news organisations) from people’s newsfeeds. Interaction on the posts of top news sites halved overnight. However, even in a country where Facebook is significantly more important as a news access channel than in most other markets, the change had surprisingly little effect on traffic to news portals themselves, suggesting that organic sharing among friends may be the key mechanism driving traffic to news sites from social media.2
2017 was marked by the contentious election in Parliament of a new DG of Slovak public TV and radio (RTVS), followed by resignations at the head of the news and current affairs department amid fears over threats to journalistic autonomy. Jaroslav Rezník, former head of the state-owned news agency TASR, is perceived to have close ties to the Slovak National Party: 60 TV and radio staff expressed their discontent with the new leadership in an open letter of protest in April 2018. Despite this, our data on brand trust show that the public service broadcaster is the most trusted brand by those who use it and the second most trusted among those who have heard of it. Figures from Median show RTVS is still perceived as the most objective TV news source, just ahead of the leading commercial station Markíza.3
Propaganda, distortion, and conspiracy theories are seen by many commentators as major threats to Slovak democracy. In the recent political crisis, the then Prime Minister Róbert Fico had been accused of resorting to conspiracy theories to discredit opponents, prompting some media to warn they would no longer publish government statements automatically. Recent efforts to counter these threats include SME’s weekly review of fake news stories and konspiratori.sk, an initiative set up by the advertising industry which maintains a blacklist of websites publishing untrustworthy material. It is striking that one self-styled conservative, and much criticised, online news site, Hlavné správy4 (with an audience reach of about 6%) is more trusted by those who have heard of it than any other of the country’s newspaper or digital-born news websites.
Though still below average, trust in the news increased in 2017. Given concerns about partisan news sites, we might have expected a rise in the discrepancy between overall trust and trust in ‘news I use’, but the difference held steady, suggesting tendencies to seek refuge in self-confirming public bubbles have not increased.
- Nonetheless Slovakia was still rated by Reporters Sans Frontières as having the strongest press freedom in the East Central Europe: https://rsf.org/en/slovakia ↩
- https://medium.com/@filip_struharik/what-facebook-taught-us-when-it-destroyed-our-organic-reach-cadac9c3216 ↩
- http://www.median.sk/pdf/MML2017/MMLOmnibus_2017_IV_Najobjektivnejsie_TV_spravodajstvo.pdf ↩
- http://www.mediawatch.dog/hlavnespravy-sk-opat-siria-fake-news-opat-ucelovo-klamu-svojich-citatelov; https://dennikn.sk/521950/kto-riadi-prorusky-web-hlavne-spravy-muz-ktory-neodmieta-ani-eurofondy-2 ↩