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Slovakia: Independent Study Finds State Media Bias In Elections

Bratislava, 29 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A veritable media war raged throughout the campaign prior to Slovakia's parliamentary elections last week.

The war was not so much for audience share but rather over restrictions placed by the authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar on the electronic media.

Disputes erupted over state-owned TV and radio having a monopoly on campaign party broadcasts, as well as over ownership of the pro-opposition, privately-owned TV Markiza, and broadcasts during the 48-hour "quiet" period before the polls opened.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appointed an Italian media watchdog organization with extensive experience in monitoring the news media in Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina to monitor the Slovak election campaign.

Osservatoria di Pavia, which is financed by the Italian Foreign Ministry, monitored three television stations (the two state-owned channels STV1 and STV2 and TV Markiza) for 18 hours a day, as well as the popular Czech broadcaster TV Nova, which is available to Slovak cable viewers.

The Italian group also monitored Slovak state radio and private Radio Twist, and five newspapers: Sme, Pravda, Slovenska republika, Novy Cas and the Hungarian language paper Uj Szo.

A report which the Italian monitors issued after preliminary election results became known concludes that state TV "gave clear preference to the ruling parties and to government officials." It says "this partisan attitude led to a significant bias" on both STV1 and STV2, despite what it says was the fair distribution of campaign spots by the competing parties.

On the other hand, it says private TV Markiza devoted 73 percent of its campaign coverage to the opposition, of which the monitoring group says "no coverage was negative."

TV Nova, having an audience overwhelmingly in the Czech Republic, devoted just eight minutes of broadcast time to Slovakia during the entire campaign with what the Italian observers term "a slight negative coverage for the Slovak government".

The study said state radio consistently favored the government, including the speaker of parliament and the ruling parties, with the government receiving 82 percent of the broadcast time. An Italian diplomat told RFE/RL the observers had never before encountered such overwhelmingly one-sided coverage.

Privately owned Radio Twist, according to the observers, "showed a balanced attitude, slightly in favor of SDK," the Slovak Democratic Coalition, but distributing the total air time equally among the contesting parties.

In the print media, Osservatorio di Pavia says the dailies Sme and Uj Szo gave positive coverage to the opposition and were critical towards the ruling parties and the government. It says Pravda and Novy Cas were more balanced but gave preference to the opposition, while Slovenska Republika was "clearly in favor of the government" and Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).

A separate multinational observer mission of the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) was even more outspoken in its criticism, saying the campaign was severely handicapped as the result of actions of the Meciar government.

IRI says these actions included "late amendments to the Slovak election law that complicated and slowed the campaigns of major opposition coalitions and intimidated private media."

The group says campaign coverage in the state news media constituted "clear and persistent bias." IRI noted that in spite of these factors, opposition parties made a strong showing in the elections, taking 93 of the 150 seats in parliament. The 15-member IRI monitoring team, led by former U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Burt, also included election and political experts from Britain, Turkey and seven central and east European states.