Slovenia’s new center-left government is facing obstacles as it seeks to usher in reform that it says will shield the public broadcaster RTV from interference.
The newly elected government led by the Freedom Movement party proposed changes to reduce political pressure on RTV Slovenia. But those legal amendments are being challenged by the former ruling Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), which has demanded a referendum.
Separately, RTV chief executive Andrej Grah Whatmough in July named Uros Urbanija as director of the broadcaster’s TV Slovenia unit, a move that sparked protests from staffers and the Association of Journalists of Slovenia.
Urbanija was director of the government communications office under former Prime Minister Janez Jansa. During that time, his department alleged bias at RTV and temporarily stopped financing for the state press agency STA.
Whatmough himself was nominated as CEO in 2021 by the RTV Program Council, a body made up of members predominantly nominated by the then-center-right parliament.
Appointment seen as not 'appropriate'
“I do not think Urbanija's appointment is appropriate, considering his hostility to the concept of public service broadcasting in his previous role. Let's recall that as Jansa's government communications chief, he was a central player in undermining of the Slovenian Press Agency [STA],” Laurens Hueting, senior advocacy officer of the nonprofit European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, told VOA.
“Moreover, at a time when RTV needs effective leadership to turn the trend on declining public trust, it is highly worrisome that Urbanija was appointed in the face of strong opposition by employee representatives, as well as civil society and media experts,” he said.
In 2021, Urbanija's communication office stopped financing STA for almost a year, saying it had not provided documents needed for a new contract.
Payments resumed only after the STA director resigned and a new head struck a deal.
Urbanija's communications office also posted articles to its website titled “Analysis of Reporting of RTV Slovenia.” The articles listed RTV content that the office believed showed bias or content that failed to seek a government response.
Several professors at the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Social Sciences, including Dejan Vercic, told VOA they viewed the articles not as analysis but rather some sort of political commentaries.
Urbanija has dismissed criticism of his appointment, telling VOA he is not a member of a political party nor has he ever worked for one.
"Director of the government's communication office is a professional position," Urbanija said. He added that he did not need to review TV ratings “to know that there are quite a few steps that need to be taken in order to get TV [Slovenia] on a level that would be in line with professional journalistic standards.”
Ruling parties have pressured public broadcasters ever since Slovenia’s independence in 1991, academics including journalism professor Slavko Splichal have told VOA. But most say the pressure was never as heavy as under Jansa’s government.
The new center-left government, led by Prime Minister Robert Golob, has pledged to change legislation to try to reduce political interference.
Under a law passed in July, Parliament will no longer nominate members of RTV’s leadership. Currently, Parliament names 21 out of 29 members of the RTV Program Council, the body that names the broadcaster’s chief executive and endorses production plans.
A new leadership was due to take over within 60 days of enactment of the legislation.
Most journalists and analysts who spoke with VOA believe the law will ease pressure on the broadcaster’s journalists.
But efforts at change were put on hold after Jansa’s SDS party demanded a referendum, saying the amendments were solely aimed at replacing the current management and that they could impact RTV’s independence.
The SDS must collect 40,000 citizen signatures by October 5 to force a referendum. The vote is not expected to overturn the law, but it will delay enforcement.
Threat to credibility seen
Many academics and journalists warn that RTV's credibility and viewership could decline further while waiting on the results.
The politicization of RTV under the previous government has hurt the station’s ratings, according to Marko Milosavljevic, a professor of journalism at the Faculty of Social Sciences.
Milosavljevic told VOA he had obtained unofficial data showing that viewership of TV Slovenia fell by 15% to 20% year-on-year as of April 2022. He believes the members of the Program Council should be dismissed because of the poor performance.
RTV Slovenia did not reply to VOA's queries regarding TV Slovenia’s ratings.
Milosavljevic believes the nomination of a former government spokesperson to head public TV risks further damaging the reputation of RTV.
Research from polling agency Valicon in April 2022 already showed trust in RTV had deteriorated over the past year, with a majority of respondents saying they did not trust the station.
Helena Milinkovic, head of the coordination of trade unions of journalists of RTV, told VOA that since Urbanija’s appointment, “pressures on journalists and journalists' autonomy are increasing.”
Anchor, editor under fire
Earlier in August, Urbanija ordered TV anchor Sasa Krajnc and news editor Vesna Pfeiffer to be reassigned after Krajnc introduced a report on the daily news program by saying that it was being broadcast on the direct instruction of the chief news editor.
The report featured TV Slovenia’s response to an editorial in the local weekly paper Mladina that said RTV should sack everyone hired over the past two years to regain viewers.
In a response to Urbanija's demand, the station’s staff issued a statement protesting “all forms of pressure of director Uros Urbanija.”
“We see his actions as inadmissible interference in our work," the statement read.
Krajnc and Pfeiffer so far remain at their jobs.
Urbanija told VOA that journalists should not broadcast complaints against him during news programs. Instead, problems should be discussed at editorial meetings, he said.
Milinkovic said that independent reporting is still possible at RTV, mainly because of editors who resist pressure, but she said that the cancellation of or changes to several popular programs have already hurt RTV's popularity and credibility.
Over the past year, the weekly news shows Studio City and Globus, the economic program Tocka Preloma and others have been altered or canceled in spite of protests from journalists and viewers.
TV Slovenia runs a 24-7 operation and is one of the most popular TV channels in the country. It competes with several privately owned channels, including POP TV, owned by the international investment group PPF, and Nova24TV, established in 2016 by members and supporters of the SDS.
Milosavljevic believes that in the past 18 months, RTV’s leadership has not paid enough attention to changes in media, including digitalization and new technologies. These, he said, should be addressed urgently to ensure the development of public radio and television.