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Eastern Europe’s Richest Family Targeted in Slovak Media Row

In World
April 05, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Eastern Europe’s richest family is coming under attack from Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico as he tries to wrest control of the nation’s media.

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TV Markiza, a popular broadcaster controlled by billionaire Renata Kellnerova’s PPF Group conglomerate, has been on the receiving end of Fico’s vitriol over critical coverage. The station was among outlets that the premier labeled as “hostile,” threatening to halt state advertising revenue.

“Instead of journalism, they do politics,” Fico said weeks after taking office of a number of media groups, including TV Markiza. “They would rather poison us with rat poison in our coffee.”

The attacks coincide with an effort by Fico’s coalition to effectively place public television and radio under government control, borrowing from the playbook of Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orban. Slovakia’s prime minister has drawn scrutiny from Brussels since his return to office last October on a campaign challenging the European Union’s aid to Ukraine. His decision to overhaul the criminal code and ditch a special prosecutor’s office sparked public protests.

The standoff has thrust PPF, which also has business in Slovakia’s toll road and public transport, into the fray of Fico’s media wars, with independent outlets facing mounting pressure from the government.

Media control has become a central issue in Saturday’s presidential election. The contest will determine whether Fico can tighten his grip on power with an ally as head of state — or whether a pro-EU candidate will act as a check on his agenda.

Presidential Race

Polls show that former Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, a critic of the prime minister, has closed the gap with Fico’s coalition partner Peter Pellegrini ahead of the run-off. While Pellegrini downplays public concern about the fate of Slovakia’s public media, Korcok opposes the government’s plans.

Traditionally, the Slovak president has a largely ceremonial role, but in the confrontational atmosphere following Fico’s election victory last year, the head of state’s power to veto legislation and appoint government officials like judges and central bankers could be a crucial constraint on the prime minister’s power.

While TV Markiza is a private company, the turmoil could have an impact on its flagship evening news program, which regularly draws half a million viewers in the nation of 5.4 million — often seen as a surrogate for the public broadcaster.

News staff have already accused the station of pursuing a softer line in government coverage. In an internal letter published by local media, reporters and editors accused news management of seeking to interfere with critical reporting and promoting a more positive portrayal of government officials.

Central European Media Enterprises, PPF’s media unit, said a review by its editorial board concluded that TV Markiza adheres to the principles of objectivity, impartiality and factual accuracy. “CME is firmly committed to top journalism standards across all markets where it operates,” editorial board member Hans Mahr said in a statement.

The targeting of TV Markiza has prompted a public appeal — drawing the support of thousands of citizens, a former prime minister, diplomats and other prominent figures — urging the Kellner family to stand firm against what they call an attack on democratic standards.

In an open letter, Fico’s opponents say that the government threatens to withdraw state-funded advertising from Markiza — and that its critical news coverage could also pose risks to other PPF business in Slovakia. In addition to its media activities, PPF operates Slovakia’s road toll system through its SkyToll unit. It also owns Skoda Transportation, which supplies public transport vehicles.

Read more: Eastern Europe’s Richest Woman Pivots Her Empire West

While PPF hasn’t responded to Fico’s threats, it insisted TV Markiza’s independence is in line with other media holdings under CME.

“Media freedom is the cornerstone of unbiased, impartial, and factual news coverage,” PPF spokesman Leos Rousek said in a statement.

(Updates with comments from CME in 11th paragraph.)

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