Focus On Slovenia: Reflecting on a difficult year for public media

13th October 2022
One year ago, the Public Media Alliance condemned threats targeting an RTV Slovenija (RTV SLO) journalist and the ongoing attempts to intimidate media workers. Unfortunately, the situation facing the public broadcaster today is still a cause for concern.
RTV Slovenia
Building of RTV Slovenia (Television's part). Credit: Pv21/Creative Commons

In this Focus On report, we reflect upon the challenges which RTV SLO and media more generally have faced over the past year – from continued instability to undermined editorial independence.

Public media reforms stalled

While new leadership for Slovenia brought hopes of a public media reset, the influence of the former government continues to undermine change. RTV SLO staff have continued to push back against management, even as they face threats to their livelihood.

Disappointingly, the pressures on public broadcaster RTV SLO not only remain unabated but have intensified. While there had been hope that new Prime Minister Robert Golob – who assumed office in early 2022 – would follow through on promises to safeguard RTV SLO, the political newcomer has faced difficulties.

During the first sitting of Parliament, the fresh government filed a proposal for a new law on RTV SLO which would stop Parliament from appointing members to the Supervisory Board and the Programme Council (RTV SLO’s management bodies), and stop politicians from influencing most staffing and financial decisions. Currently, Parliament names 21 out of 29 members of the RTV Programme Council, the body that names RTV SLO’s chief executive officer and backs production plans.

Depoliticising the public broadcaster was particularly important given its history of political appointments, particularly under the previous Prime Minister, Janez Janša. Politically appointed management bodies have gone on to undermine RTV SLO, whether through firing independent employees or making controversial changes to RTV programming.

But even after the proposal for an amendment of the RTV SLO law was submitted, another political appointment was made. In July 2022, Uroš Urbanija was appointed as the Director of TV Slovenija. The news of his appointment was met with widespread opposition from RTV journalists and the public, largely due to Mr. Urbanija’s hostility towards public media while he served as the communications chief in Janša’s administration.

“Although the government changed in the meantime, the national RTV is still in the clutches of the former ruling coalition,” wrote the International Press Institute. “The parties of the former coalition are still in control of the national RTV bodies, which is clearly illustrated by the recent appointment of Uroš Urbanija.”

The draft law on RTV SLO was eventually adopted after a lengthy delay, but SDS (the party of Janša) has further stalled its progress. On 12 October, SDS submitted 52,669 collected signatures for its RTV referendum. The referendum was among two others put forward by the opposition. A date for voting on the referendums is yet to be set. The government’s proposed law cannot be enforced before the results of the referendum are announced and, if it is rejected by voters, a similar legislative proposal cannot be implemented for at least a year. While a previous law to depoliticise RTV was already rejected in a referendum years ago, the political climate has changed, IPI noted.

“Although the government changed in the meantime, the national RTV is still in the clutches of the former ruling coalition.” – International Press Institute

In the meantime, RTV SLO journalists have continued to push back against RTV SLO’s decline and have gone on strike regularly over the past several months. The strikes began in May with RTV SLO employees staging a one-hour demonstration against the corporation’s management. They emphasised that they were not striking against the public or the government, but demanding greater journalistic and editorial autonomy and an end to public media’s politicisation.

Since then, the strikes have only intensified. On September 26, the employees of TV Slovenija, Radio Slovenija, and MMC RTV Slovenija returned to strike, this time with planned programme disruptions in the form of no news broadcasts, sports, culture, and live broadcasts on TV Slovenija, and no new reports on the website of the Multimedia Center (MMC). The plan was partly foiled, MMC reported, after the management of RTV Slovenija intervened and broadcast some news about the strike and other important news of the day. The editor of the MMC RTV SLO editorial office, Igor Pirkovič, also removed the article about the strike from the entry page and sub-portals without the knowledge of the daily editor.

The strike action has resulted in intensified pressures on journalists and threats of firings. For instance, 38 RTV SLO employees who entered a studio during a live broadcast received warnings about possible terminations in the event of a repeat violation. The employees were accused by management of using the programme “for personal expression of opinion and thereby impermissibly interfered with the programme scheme”, among other alleged violations.

Watch: Staff at RTV SLO go on strike in May

“The situation is even tougher today after the 12th round of negotiations, said Helena Milinković, the President of the Confederation of Journalists’ Unions of RTV SLO, on the 110th day of strike action. “We got nowhere with the strike negotiations, we are still at the first paragraph of the first strike demand, which is journalistic, editorial and institutional autonomy.”

Ms. Milinković outlined intensified pressures on individual journalists, editors, and other programme creators, and accused RTV SLO’s management of engaging in bullying, mobbing, and interference with editorial and journalistic work. The employees have received support, with the Slovenian PEN Center calling on RTV SLO’s management to stop harassing media workers.

Meanwhile, the ongoing pressures on RTV SLO have resulted in declining public trust. The latest Ogledalo Slovenije survey – a Slovenian survey that measures trust in institutions and professions – showed a 10-year low in the public’s level of trust in the media. Notably, RTV SLO’s trust stood at -38 after losing 24 points, taking it to the level from the end of 2019.

The European Commission hopes that its proposed European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) will offer additional safeguards for Slovenian public media. Responding to a question about Slovenian public media, European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová said the act stipulates safeguards or guarantees for public media funding. She added that while the Commission is not prescribing any specific funding method, it will insist that funding must be sustainable, and that public service must have sufficient resources to execute high-quality public service. Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, added that the act provides, for the first time, a legal basis to act against infringements, such as political appointments and dismissals.

“We got nowhere with the strike negotiations, we are still at the first paragraph of the first strike demand, which is journalistic, editorial and institutional autonomy.” – Helena Milinković, President of the Confederation of Journalists’ Unions of RTV SLO

Wider landscape

Credit: Slovenian Press Agency (STA)
Media freedom in Slovenia has not seen notable improvements in the past year, though promised legislative changes – both locally and in the region – signal a potential turning point.

It has not just been RTV SLO which has experienced a decline in trust, but the wider media landscape also. Unfortunately, this has been the consequence of a persistent state of affairs.

The European Commission, in its 2022 Rule of Law Report on Slovenia, said that media freedom and pluralism in the country had not improved since the 2021 report. “The independence of the audiovisual media services regulator is ensured by law, however challenges remain regarding the commitment to strengthen its independence, particularly through the proposed amending legislation,” the European Commission said.

Reporters Without Borders similarly noted in its 2022 World Press Freedom Index that “a climate of hostility toward journalists fostered by Prime Minister Janez Janša has led to physical assaults and online attacks”, with the media still subject to political pressure and strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). The country was ranked 54 out of 180 states in the 2022 index – a decline of 18 spots from 36/180 in 2021. It must be noted that the 2022 index was compiled before Prime Minister Golob assumed office and improving Slovenia’s media freedom was one of the goals of Mr. Golob’s Freedom Movement (GS) party.

Meanwhile, a suitable legal framework, ownership transparency, and a ban on the dissemination of hate speech in the media are seen as vital approaches to guarantee media freedom. These sorts of reforms have been called for by public figures such as Ombudsman, Peter Svetina. The ombudsman said he expects the new government to take on changes to the media law as a priority.

“For several years, we have been calling for amendments to the media act to provide for ways to protect the public interest, measures to remove illegal content or hate speech, and sanctions for media outlets that condone such speech,” Mr. Svetina said. “I expect the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) and the public broadcasting service [RTV Slovenija], which usually fall hostage to the winners of each election, to be able to work autonomously and without disruption.”

Others have called for measures to improve media viability, especially following the impact of COVID-19. In an interview with IPI, Marko Milosavljević, Chair of Journalism at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana, said the pandemic caused a decline in advertising, problems with the distribution and sale of print media, and greater concentration of digital advertising on global platforms. IPI reported that the pandemic revealed the necessity to adopt a comprehensive media law. But Mr. Milosavljević said there is still hope, as “the Slovenian media are in fairly good condition, given their eagerness to survive.”

“I expect the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) and the public broadcasting service [RTV Slovenija], which usually fall hostage to the winners of each election, to be able to work autonomously and without disruption.” – Peter Svetina, Ombudsman

It is further hoped that the EMFA – aimed at strengthening free and pluralistic media, protecting journalists, and safeguarding editorial independence within the European Union – will have a positive impact on Slovenia’s media freedom. Speaking at the launch of the act, Věra Jourová revealed that Slovenia was considered in the act’s development. She noted the unstable and uncertain funding situation that faced STA, the Slovenian Press Agency.

“We are getting the message to all journalists that they might be better protected, hopefully in the near future, against the attacks and different barriers which could prevent them from doing their job freely. This is a message for all the member states and journalists – I think that we owe it to the media and journalists to add some more safeguards to our European rules.” Several Slovenian Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) welcomed the proposed act.

The proposed act comes at a time when Slovenian journalists face continued journalist safety concerns. Mapping Media Freedom has reported several attacks on journalists, including social media insults against journalists, death threats on Twitter, and physical assault.

The Public Media Alliance reiterates its call for better protections for public media, independent media, and Slovenian journalists as a whole. Further, the culture of impunity towards those threatening and committing crimes against journalists must end. It is disheartening that there have been no significant improvements in media freedom in Slovenia within the past year. The situation remains bleak, especially with the former administration still demonstrating its legislative power and public support from some corners.  Though there is hope on the horizon with proposed legislation, it is going to be an uphill battle for public media, even with the new government’s good intentions. There is certainly more hope for change with a more media-friendly government in office and the proposed EMFA, but it is yet to be seen if, how, or when planned changes will come to fruition, and whether they will actually have the desired impact. After years of abuse and pressure, public media must be safeguarded and allowed to freely continue their vital work informing the public and holding power to account.