PMA Secretariat

RTVS journalists strike over proposed bill

12th June 2024
PMA joins other press freedom groups and journalists at the Slovakian public broadcaster in calling for the proposed changes to be dropped.
Logo of RTVS, the Radio and Television of Slovakia (Rozhlas a televízia Slovenska) on a door of a car.
Logo of RTVS, the Radio and Television of Slovakia (Rozhlas a televízia Slovenska) on a door of a car. Credit: naszalyg93 / Shutterstock.com

IN BRIEF: 

  • The Public Media Alliance joins calls on Slovakia’s parliament to reject the public broadcasting bill.
  • Journalists at RTVS have staged a three-hour strike over a proposed bill which would see a dramatic shakeup at the broadcaster.
  • Press freedom groups also outlined their concerns the proposed bill would see the government take more control over the public broadcaster.
  • The Bill is expected to go through its final reading in June.

IN BRIEF:

Journalists and other staff members at Slovakia’s public broadcaster, RTVS, held a three-hour warning strike, demanding the government’s proposed public broadcasting bill which would see a drastic shakeup of the organisation, be dropped.

“The planned legislative changes will threaten the editorial and creative independence of RTVS employees and collaborators,” the broadcaster’s strike committee said on Facebook, reported Reuters.

Read more: Slovak government pushes ahead with move to replace RTVS

They were supported by the organisation’s General Director, Ľuboš Machaj, who said in a statement, “Many demands of the strike committee are identical with the opinions of the RTVS management, especially in the area of ​​planned legislative changes, financing the institution and ending attacks on journalists by politicians.”

Monday’s strike action coincided with the final reading of the bill. A number of press freedom groups, including IPI, RSF, and CPJ also outlined their opposition to the bill. The statement was also signed by the EBU, of which RTVS is a member.

How the bill was developed

Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, returned to power in October 2023, and his administration immediately set about pressuring RTVS.

He has not shied away from accusing the public broadcaster of not being impartial or balanced. “The situation in RTVS is unsustainable”, he said in April. “[It] cannot be objective because it’s in permanent conflict with the Slovak government. … The fundamental human right of Slovak citizens to objective information is therefore being violated.” The Culture Minister, Martina Simkovicova, accused RTVS of “political activism”.

Slovak public broadcaster building
Header Image: Slovak Public Radio Building in Bratislava. Credits: Thomas Ledl/Creative Commons

A bill was introduced in March 2024 which attracted significant opposition from the public as well as leading politicians such as the European Commission’s Vice-President, Vera Jourova.

The initial version of the bill was lambasted due to several stipulations including:

  • Replacing the current General Director and Board;
  • Giving the board the power to dismiss the General Director without having to prove any grounds;
  • Creating a new Programme Council, responsible for coordinating the programming, with nine out of 11 positions filled by the government.

RTVS would also undergo a name change, from Radio and Television Slovakia to Slovak Television and Radio (STVR).

“The Ministry of Culture’s draft law includes drastic changes to the appointment and competence of oversight bodies, which would set up a government control and effectively end the public broadcaster’s independence,” said a group of civil society organisations when the bill was first announced.

However, when the bill appeared in Parliament in April, it took a different form. Contentious policies such as firing the General Director without grounds, plus the creation of the Programme Council, were dropped.

The bill also outlined that a new nine-member council would be responsible for appointing the new General Director. According to a BBC News report, the General Director is currently chosen directly by Parliament.

Members of the council would be selected through various mechanisms: three from the culture ministry, one from the finance ministry, and the remainder chosen by Parliament.

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Opposition to the bill remains

Despite the watering down of the bill, there remains fierce opposition to the bill.

On Monday, journalists from RTVS went on strike, and marched in front of the Culture Ministry to demonstrate their opposition to the plans. According to the AP, they demanded that RTVS maintains its current system, that it should be well-financed, and called for an end to threats and attacks targeting RTVS journalists by politicians and other groups.

“Many demands of the strike committee are identical with the opinions of the RTVS management, especially in the area of ​​planned legislative changes, financing the institution and ending attacks on journalists by politicians.” – Ľuboš Machaj, General Director of RTVS

Despite the government dropping the controversial Programming Council, they instead proposed an Ethics Commission. Staff at RTVS reported they were concerned this body could be used as a tool of censorship.

In a statement, press freedom organisations also iterated their concerns with the bill as it stands. The appointments process for council members (tasked with appointing the General Director), for example, would “hand the ruling majority effective control of the Board and, therefore, the Director General, leading to the likely rapid politicization of the new public television and radio channels.”

Council members would also be appointed with the same terms at the same time. Many public media instead adopt a staggered approach, to prevent one government being able to stack the board with political allies.

Rebranding RTVS to STVR is also perceived as an expensive and unnecessary exercise, particularly at a time when the broadcaster’s funding is already under the microscope. In February 2023, Slovakia’s previous government decided to abolish the licence fee funding model in favour of direct funding.


ANALYSIS:

The Public Media Alliance joins calls on Slovakia’s parliament to reject the public broadcasting bill. The proposed governance and the appointments process pose serious risks that could lead to the politicisation of STVR. With the firing of the current General-Director and council members, it also potentially stands in conflict with the European Media Freedom Act, which prevents the firing of executive members without cause.

PMA is also concerned at the motive behind these reforms. Comments from government politicians indicate the bill is a form of retribution against coverage they deem as “political activism”. Independence is crucial for public service media to attain and retain the highest levels of trust. This means that assurances and protections should be in place to ensure that their journalists have the freedom to report and hold power to account without fear or favour.