Former SME journalists start new Slovak independent website

By bne IntelliNews October 21, 2014

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A week ago, the editorial team at respected Slovak daily SME walked out in protest at a deal handing control of their owner, publisher Petit Press, to powerful financial group Penta. On October 20 they launched a new website that they plan to build into a fully independent media operation, saying they must move quickly to make public support concrete.

Editor in Chief Matus Kostolny and his team announced their departure from SME and their plan to set up an independent journalism outlet on October 14 via an announcement on a temporary blog (www.opentat.sk). That came as it was confirmed that Penta has reached a deal to buy the publisher. They claim that Penta - with which SME has had several run-ins over recent years - is not acting primarily as a financial investor, but instead wants to use the influential SME to exert political pressure. 

Penta's acquisition of Petit Press is part of a trend in Central Europe over recent years in which foreign media owners have fled falling revenue. Local business interests, keen to influence politics, have picked up the baton, provoking no little consternation among journalists and analysts. 

Slovaks share that concern when it comes to Penta's acquisition of SME, claims Tomas Bella, former deputy editor at SME, who spoke to bne 20 minutes after launching a new site: www.projekt-n.sk

Pointing to reports the same day that financial group J&T is in talks to buy Ringier Axel Springer (RAS) Slovakia, he says that will mean there is now no major publishing house in Slovakia free from powerful local business groups with strong political connections.

However, the team knows time is of the essence. "We plan to build a strong online centre for independent journalism," Bella says. "There's a huge demand for that in Slovakia - we got 10,000 emails pledging support on the Opentat blog inside the first hour - but we know we have to move fast to grasp that support while it lasts."

While for the moment the site features only a form for potential readers to sign up for news of the project, the full site should be live within two weeks. 

"We've been pledged subscriptions, and offered help including financing and free office space," Bella says. "People tell us that with the Penta deal, they now understand the importance of paying for independent journalism online."

Responding to reports in the local press on October 20, RAS Slovakia - the country's largest publisher which includes titles and portals Novy Cas, Azet, and Aktuality.sk amongst others - denied it is talking with J&T. The Czech-Slovak financial group owns several Slovak media assets, including TV stations, and bought RAS Czech Republic last year.

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