Many journalists, academics and analysts expressed regret after the Slovenian Constitutional Court late last month put on hold parts of a new law on Slovenia’s public broadcaster RTV that the center-left government contends would limit direct political influence in the broadcaster’s work.
The court said parts of the law, prepared by the center-left government, could not be enforced until the court ruled whether they were in line with the Constitution. It did not say when it would rule on the matter, but such rulings often take months.
Meanwhile, the viewership of RTV’s television unit, TV Slovenia, has been falling, and many journalists report continuous pressure on their work by RTV management, which was put in place while the previous center-right government was in power.
There is less and less room for independent reporting at TV Slovenia, while a fall in viewership last year is worrisome, a senior anchor of the evening news, Tanja Staric, told VOA.
She is one of 38 staffers who in October received warnings that they faced dismissal if they breached their contract again. They had entered a studio during a live broadcast to show support for two colleagues they said were under pressure from the director of the TV unit.
Although Staric still has her job, she said the number of news slots she anchors had about halved since October.
Although none of the 38 staffers has been dismissed so far, the warnings, issued by RTV CEO Andrej Grah Whatmough, are still in place. Whatmough was in the group of managers who asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the new law, saying that the law should not change the managers before their mandates expire.
If the law is enforced, it would end the practice of parliament nominating members of the RTV program council.
At present, parliament nominates 21 out of 29 members of the program council, a body that names the broadcaster’s chief executive and approves production plans. The council is not allowed to directly influence editorial decision-making.
The law got the support of 62% of voters in a November referendum, which was demanded by the opposition center-right Slovenian Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Janez Jansa. The party contended that the changes would impact RTV’s independence because they were aimed solely at replacing the current management.
The Constitutional Court did not say what its final ruling could be, but stated that the position of RTV “demands as fast a decision of the Constitutional Court as possible so the Court will immediately proceed” in dealing with the matter.
The European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) expressed concern regarding the fact that the law was put on hold and might not be enforced.
“It is critical that the disproportionate influence of all forms of politics on the RTV governance structures and editorial line is curtailed sooner rather than later and, in that sense, this latest development is worrisome indeed,” Laurens C. Hueting, senior advocacy officer of ECPMF, told VOA.
“The current directors and management at RTV have been accused by staff of unduly pressuring journalists and attempting to engineer a political shift in news and current affairs programming,” he added. “These clashes have already damaged both credibility and viewership, jeopardizing the public broadcaster’s journalistic mission.”
Several popular TV programs have been canceled, shortened or moved to a less prominent channel since the program council appointed Whatmough CEO in 2021.
New TV unit director
In July, Whatmough named Uros Urbanija as director of the broadcaster’s TV unit, a move that sparked protests from staffers and the Slovenia Association of Journalists. Urbanija was director of the government communication office under Jansa until June 2022, when the new center-left government took over after the general election.
Whatmough and Urbanija both deny pressuring journalists and say they are acting in line with professional standards.
However, on March 1, TV Slovenia for the first time broadcast a public street protest live, a change from its tradition of providing only basic news reports about such demonstrations.
The thousands of protesters demanding a 20% increase in pensions had been organized by the Voice of Pensioners initiative led by Pavel Rupar, a former parliamentarian aligned with Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). Rupar told reporters, however, that the protest was in no way connected to the SDS.
RTV did not reply to VOA’s question about why it opted for a live broadcast of the protest. It also did not reply to VOA’s request for the latest viewership ratings.
Most analysts say that ruling parties from both sides have pressured the public broadcaster since Slovenia gained independence in 1991, but that interference has never been as intense as when the SDS was in power from 2020 to 2022.
Although Prime Minister Robert Golob, who took office June 1, 2022, had said that enabling the independence of RTV would be one of the main goals of his government, nothing has changed so far.
“The law on RTV was poorly prepared, so I was not surprised by the Constitutional Court’s decision [to put it on hold],” Dejan Vercic, a professor in the University of Ljubljana’s faculty of social sciences, told VOA.
“Maybe the government wants this conflict at RTV to continue in order to keep the attention of the public away from important matters, which include the health, tax and pension reforms,” he added. “The fact is that the position of media and journalists in Slovenia is rapidly worsening.”
Meanwhile, nominations of RTV’s new program council continue in line with the new law, although the new council cannot take over until the Constitutional Court approves the law.
Looking for a solution
Culture Minister Asta Vrecko, who oversees the media, told reporters that the ministry was “intensively working” on how to resolve the situation at RTV and that she hoped the court would soon approve the new law.
The 8th of March Institute, a civil society group that actively supported the new law in a referendum campaign, said people were asking the institute what could be done to improve the situation at the RTV.
“We are looking into what we … can do for our public medium at this moment. We are in contact with other organizations and are looking for options,” the institute told its supporters in a statement.
Staric said that RTV would survive the present limbo but added that its role in society would be reduced because it might lose even more viewers.
TV Slovenia runs a 24/7 operation and is one of the most popular TV channels in the country. The public broadcaster is financed predominantly by subscriptions that most households in Slovenia are obliged to pay.