Introduction

The main source (63 percent) of information about national political issues for Slovak citizens is television broadcast. The second most relevant source of information is the Internet. As many as 23 percent of respondents considered the Internet as their primary source of information about national political issues in late 2015 (Eurobarometer 84, p.9). Considering newspaper-centric and television-centric media systems, Slovakia belongs to a group of countries that are below statistical range in both television and newspaper consumption (such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Ukraine).

Traditionally, the most trusted source of information has been radio broadcast, in recent years closely followed by television broadcast. Yet, interestingly, radio broadcast was almost always a bit more trusted than television broadcast. Public radio broadcast was usually less politicised (or at least resistant to political pressures for longer, in the case of private radio, as it provided less biased news in the 1990s) and public radio broadcast had traditionally a higher quality of programmes. Curiously enough, sources on the Internet were more trusted than their ranking among primary sources of political information would suggest. Moreover, public trust in the media in Slovakia has constantly been above the EU average.

There is a difference in the contribution to democracy shown by private and public media respectively, but there also is a difference in the contribution to democracy between printed media and electronic/digital media, etc. This is evident from a survey done by INEKO, a non-governmental organisation including some 80 local experts. Although this is not a representative survey, it is still a much better overview about the actual roles of different types of media than the opinion of a single expert. The printed media were seen as contributing most to democracy, followed by PSM radio, while PSM television broadcast seemed to be still contributing to democracy while being considered almost at a neutral (medium) standpoint. Similarly, private broadcasting was seen as “neutral” but with a slight tendency to damage democracy, while the contribution of social media to democracy was seen as slightly negative.

There are two additional issues that can be interpreted from this survey. First, a politician, in this case the President of the state, can be seen as playing a more positive role than the media. Secondly, social media are seen as having a rather negative role in democracy. This issue will be discussed later on in detail.

From the perspective of social and political impact, the Slovak public agora is influenced mainly by the major private television channel Markíza, the public television Rozhlas a televízia Slovenska - RTVS (Radio and Television Slovakia), and some of the key daily newspapers, especially Sme and Nový Čas. For example, the economic/business weekly Trend does not serve as an inter-media agenda setter. In other words, although it publishes a lot of scandals and corruption stories, these normally have no socio-political impact unless they are taken by some of the above mentioned agenda-setting media. For example, a major 2016 scandal nicknamed after its main negative hero, Bašternák, was brought to the public attention only in joint efforts by Denník N and weekly Trend. The media usually prefer the exclusivity of their news reports and only occasionally cooperate - in case of very sensitive issues - before making some scandals public.

Yet this is still not enough – first, there must be implicit cooperation among key agenda-setting and other inter-media agenda-setting media (a situation when media adopt each other's agenda of issues). Second, this public/media pressure must last for a few days at least. Finally, politicians (ideally both from the opposition and coalition) must take this public discussion seriously.

In general, there seems to be a rather low inter-media agenda setting function in Slovakia. This claim is not invalidated by the occasionally present herd-instinct (a mentality characterized by a lack of individual decision-making or thoughtfulness, causing people to think and act in the same way as the majority of those around them) among the major media regarding major popular scandals.

The traditionally (or theoretically) understood strong or clear-cut media/political parallelism is by and large missing among major media in Slovakia. There is presence of a weak ideological affiliation among the majority of the key media. In other words, it is possible to detect whom the media or journalists dislike more or more consistently. It is possible to detect that the majority of the media and journalists show liberal-right or centre-right attitudes. However, there are no typical media/political affiliations with specific political parties, save for one exception.

Moreover, there seems to be a specific type of media/political parallelism emerging. This media/political parallelism is probably based on a rather atypical, meta-structural level. On one hand, Šlerka (2016) describes a sample of online supporters of (right-wing) Slovak National Party (SNS) and (self-declared or not really typical left-wing) Smer-SD “likes“ among users of news and other online portals - most frequently television news (this was especially present in the case of news television TA3 among supporters of Smer-SD) and partly tabloids. On the other hand, supporters of at the time (and by and large still) opposition parties most often “liked“ printed media. In other words, it appears that a “nationalist-leftist“ group of voters prefers different media types than a “liberal-conservative“ group of voters. We can only speculate that this has something to do partly with sociological characteristics of each group of supporters and partly, especially in the case of TA3, with its (until recently) biased coverage (including non-coverage of certain topics by TA3). Perhaps even more importantly, the majority of serious newspapers can be seen as centrist or liberal-right orientated by a majority of supporters that belong to the “nationalist-leftist“ group of media content consumers.

As mentioned, the occasional occurrences of traditionally understood media/political parallelism are more nuanced in Slovakia than in many other countries. Indeed, an older study by van Kempen (2007) has shown that media/party parallelism varies considerably among countries. In fact, one can see relatively more often weak and occasional media instrumentalization in Slovakia than just typical media/political parallelism. Similarly, Štětka (2012) observed that “there seems to be a prevalence of ideological bias over clear-cut political ties in the Slovak media...“

Indeed, our available hard data and a case study based on revelations as well as other studies (Piško, 2016) suggest that only one newspaper (Pravda) has shown some political/ideological bias since 2010, while reporting by television news station TA3 is probably more influenced by commercial and indirectly by political factors (who is in power rather than which ideology it represents) than by ideological factors (Šípoš, 2013).

However, it is also true that there is strong evidence that newspapers Sme and Denník N reported on Robert Fico (prime minister at the time as well as today) more frequently than other newspapers did and on the Smer-SD party (key governmental party at the time as well as today) as well as on members of the government (Struhárik, 2015, Školkay, 2016c). There were almost twice as many mentions in absolute numbers for the Sme newspaper and sightly more in relative numbers in the case of Denník N. However, this does not mean that either newspaper can be associated with any right-wing or centre-right political party.

In other media, there is a random evidence of occasional hidden weak individual pressure (mostly incidentally revealed in late 2016) in the case of PSM RTVS and TV JOJ. It is more than likely that this occasional pressure and in some cases editorial bias can be present from time to time in almost all the media. However, this bias is often individual and personal, usually based on long-term established contacts. This bias occasionally takes the form of short-term or long-term preference (resulting in more frequent or more favourable coverage) for a certain politician. It should be mentioned here that sometimes there also is an indirect impact on the owner's commercial interests which is revealed in addition to the direct impact on said commercial interests.

The Prime Minister Robert Fico has expressed his vision of media/political parallelism in late 2016. He divided journalists in two groups. In his view, there is a group of journalists who “deliberately cause damage to the interests of the Slovak Republic“. More specifically, the prime minister named among those who belong to this group “journalists from tabloid media, journalists from newspapers Sme, Denník N, from public Slovak Television, public Slovak Radio.“ It is certainly interesting that even PSM can be seen as anti-governmental media. The prime minister partly referred to the case discussed below (on wiretapped SMS and e-mail communications among various journalists and some spokespersons and politicians), partly to other recent scandals, and partly he explained his opinion by ownership structures. In the latter case, it was according to the PM Penta, a multinational investment company (of local origin), that was allegedly behind some scandals (especially those scandals related to public procurement in new state-owned hospital, since Penta has interest in this sector). That is why, in the view of the PM, the weekly Trend has paid attention to one of these scandals related to public procurement. This was an absurd accusation since the scandal was brought to public attention by anti-corruption NGO jointly with weekly Trend. In fact, weekly Trend joined the effort of the Foundation Stop Corruption later on.

On the one hand, there certainly is a long-term consistency in the PM´s perception on the role of part of the media (by and large intention to cause a damage), but on the other hand also, as it was pointed by some observers, this was equally or even more importantly a cover-up or distraction from governmental scandals, as well as a negative message to potential whistleblowers and/or a new communication strategy that builds upon decreased trust in and importance of traditional media and, finally, a reaction to losing popularity. Ironically, the verbal attack on the journalists contributed to R. Fico’s party Smer-SD losing popularity, (sociologist Slosiarik in Krbatová, 2016b). Juščák (2016) has suggested that part of the public may have interpreted the words of the PM correctly – as their opposite meaning than was their official meaning. Indeed, one can notice contrast between the (by and large positive) perception of the roles of the majority of the media as expressed both by the experts and lay public, especially in contrast to the negative roles of the whole category of politicians. Even opponents of the PSM RTVS found it difficult to detect and especially to categorise any political/ideological bias of RTVS according to typical and clear political/ideological categories (see interview with Anton Hrnko, MP, in Krbatová, 2016a).

The 2016 case of the overpriced (and probably related to indirect financing of a political party’s activities) opening ceremony of the EU Presidency by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs also demonstrated once more that the cost of scandals must be easy to understand for an average citizen (i.e. not a too abstract amount).

Be that as it may, some politicians from different political parties/ideologies may occasionally get hidden preferential treatment (or set agenda) in the same medium. It is, inevitably, a mostly unofficial deal – exclusive information and/or personal friendships for more frequent or better coverage (or they get coverage damaging reputation of their political enemies). Yet a majority of the key editors and journalists seem to be able to maintain their impartiality even when making such moral compromises with controversial or close sources.

It is also true that some media can be ideologically identified as liberal-right (Sme, Denník N, Hospodárske noviny). However, again, this does not mean necessarily that they show significant or any political parallelism. Yet when we come back to newspaper Pravda, it openly declares its liberal-left ideology. No other newspaper in Slovakia defines its ideology so openly in its mission. Matúš Kostolný, former editor-in-chief of daily Sme and current editor-in-chief of newspaper Denník N, defined his liberal editorial policy only in an interview as “freedom – internal inside the newspaper as well as freedom outside, promoted by the newspaper“ (in Hlavčáková, 2016). Indeed, newspaper Denník N was not established as a result of ideological disagreements inside the former editorial office of Sme, but in reaction to the indirect attempt of Penta, to what was seen as an unfriendly takeover of “their“ (at the time) publishing house. The fact that liberal newspaper Denník N is not ideologically closed can be seen in its decision to allow Milan Krajniak, a rather controversial MP, present his openly anti-liberal opinions on its editorial pages.

In contrast, some online media form closed cultural/ideological sects (eg moderately conservative, de facto Christian portal such as the online daily Postoj.sk or the leftist Noveslovo.sk). In addition, there are ethnic Hungarian language online portals which seem to be rather sharply divided according to pro-Orbán and anti-Orbán, or the SMK (Hungarian Coalition Party) versus the pro-Most–Híd political party. These are discussed in a special section below.

There are also some printed media that openly declare their ideological preference (eg the monthly Extra Plus itself declared a “pro-Slovak and social focus...with majority of readers of national and leftist worldview“) and, in addition, selectively support some politicians in return for higher subscriptions from an institution representing a particular politician/public figure. Interestingly, after public criticism, subscription in this particular case was cancelled.

All nuances related to media/political parallelism can be seen in case studies of Pravda (Školkay, 2017, 2016), but also in a scandal that erupted in October 2016. A controversial businessman pointed to a newly established website lipsicovestado.info (of unknown origin, and blocked shortly afterwards, discussed in the section on accountability).