(Bloomberg) -- Newsroom staff at Slovakia’s most-watched private broadcaster accused the outlet of caving to political pressure as tension over media independence in the country intensified in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Prime Minister Robert Fico. 

The host of two leading Slovak political talk shows surprised viewers on Sunday by going off-script and denouncing the suspension of his popular programming, which gained a reputation for its tough grilling of both ruling and opposition officials. 

Michal Kovacic complained of the “Orbanization” of Slovak media, a reference to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s record of wresting control over the media landscape. A letter signed by 95 TV Markiza employees and collaborators and seen by Bloomberg backed the host.

“This struggle is happening everywhere, quietly and stealthily,” Kovacic told Markiza viewers. “If we do not stop it, it will have devastating consequences for Slovak democracy.”

The standoff at TV Markiza, a popular broadcaster controlled by billionaire Renata Kellnerova’s PPF Group conglomerate, underscores escalating tension since the May 15 shooting that’s left the prime minister recovering in intensive care. The attack has galvanized political debate in one of the most polarized nations in the European Union, with Fico allies bluntly pointing the finger at critical media coverage of the premier.

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Markiza rejected the accusation, saying the company embraces “objective and independent” news, and rebuked Kovacic for violating broadcast standards. In a statement Monday, it said the host had misused airtime to present personal opinions, a violation of the Media Services Act and the journalist’s code of ethics in Slovakia. 

The government excoriated the comments, with Fico’s top lieutenant, Defense Minister Robert Kalinak, calling the claims “dangerous” and accused the host of bearing a “clear motive to incite public hatred.”  

“It is precisely this activity that led to the assassination attempt on the prime minister of the Slovak Republic,” Kalinak said in a video message Tuesday.

The exchange lays bare the political fight over the role of the media under Fico, a populist leader supported by nationalist allies whose rhetoric has included fierce attack against journalists. His allies have latched on to 71-year-old shooting suspect’s political sympathies, saying he was motivated by political animus against Fico fed by critical stories. 

Lashing Out

Slovakia’s opposition and media have derided the accusations, warning the ruling party not to exploit the shooting to pursue critical voices. While popular in Slovakia, Fico’s administration has faced accusations over rewriting the criminal code to weaken corruption-fighting tools and seeking to take control of the country’s public television and radio. 

Kovacic said the decision to suspend his shows next month was the culmination of weeks of giving way to political pressure by management, a process mirrored by other media organizations, which have seen the departure of top talent. 

The letter from staff described the move as “clearly against the interests” of the station and warns of action if the decision isn’t reversed. 

“We consider it unacceptable for the moderator of the most successful political show in the country to face pressure, not only from politicians but also from the management,” the letter said. 

Markiza was particularly targeted by Fico, who attacked the broadcaster for alleged bias as he boycotted several independent outlets since his return to power last October. The absence of politicians from the ruling coalition created a dilemma for political programming seeking views from both sides of the political spectrum.  

Last month, Fico lashed out at the media for what he called hostility to his government as his cabinet moved forward with a proposal to tighten control over public broadcasting and radio. Draft legislation is expected to be approved in June. 

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Fico critics have made reference to the media policy of Orban, who has built up a formidable information machine during his 14 years in power, with party loyalists running state media and an array of publications and broadcasters that reprint his talking points. 

Dozens of outlets once under separate private ownership now hew to pro-government headlines and use similar programming, while the few remaining independent media groups struggle for access to ministers. 

The Hungarian leader gave an interview over the weekend, in which slogans touted by Orban — “No Migration! No Gender! No War!” — were displayed in neon lights as a studio backdrop. 

--With assistance from Andras Gergely and Mark Sweetman.

(Updates with government comment in seventh paragraph.)

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