Viewers of Slovenia’s public broadcaster RTV had an unexpected interruption to the evening news show last month, when journalists entered a studio during a live broadcast to show support for their colleagues.
The protest came after Uros Urbanija, the director of RTV's TV Slovenia unit, ordered anchor Sasa Krajnc and news editor Vesna Pfeiffer to be reassigned, after Krajnc introduced a segment as being broadcast on the direct instruction of the chief news editor.
The response from RTV’s CEO was swift. In October, he issued letters to all 38 staffers involved, warning they face dismissal if contracts are breached again.
The actions come at a time when the public broadcaster is in the middle of claims of political pressure and editorial interference, with the former ruling center-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) gathering momentum to derail a law that the government says will protect RTV.
Media associations and trade unions say the warning letters are troubling.
One letter, viewed by VOA and signed by RTV's chief executive Andrej Grah Whatmough, states that the employee entered the studio “without authorization.”
By doing so, the employee used the show “for expressing a personal opinion and thus inadmissibly intervened in the program.”
Any future breaches of contract in the next two years may result in termination, the letter said.
VOA has not identified the person addressed in the letter to avoid possible retaliation.
Journalists at RTV and their trade unions say the letters were issued illegally and should be annulled.
Pfeiffer told VOA she was demoted from being editor of a prominent evening show to working on a morning news program. Krajnc has so far not been reassigned.
Media associations, trade unions and academics view the developments as another worrying step for the public broadcaster.
“Nobody who would want to lead a group of journalists effectively could issue such warnings,” Slavko Splichal, a professor of communication at the University of Ljubljana's Faculty of Social Sciences, told VOA.
Public broadcaster targeted
The academic described the warning as “clear proof that the management of RTV wants to destroy” the public broadcaster, adding, “If they actually fired all those journalists, its TV news program would collapse.”
Splichal until September was a member of RTV's Program Council, a body that names the broadcaster's chief executive and endorses production plans.
Splichal told VOA he resigned last month to signal that he disagrees with developments at TV Slovenia.
International rights groups, including the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), are also troubled by the action.
“This situation seriously undermines RTV's journalistic mission and poses threats to its independence,” IPI Europe advocacy officer Jamie Wiseman told VOA.
Wiseman said the letters “pose further concerns about the actions of management, who have already been accused by editorial staff of axing shows, removing editors, pressuring or reassigning individual journalists, and attempting to engineer a political shift of editorial content.”
Independent and professional reporting is increasingly difficult at TV Slovenia, and will not be possible in the long run, unless the situation is resolved, said senior TV Slovenia news anchor Igor Evgen Bergant.
Bergant was in the studio as an anchor on the day of the protest and has not received a warning.
“These warnings are scandalous, they are an absolute abuse of the ... power of the management against people who are fighting for an independent and autonomous medium,” said Bergant.
Whatmough however, dismissed criticism over the letters.
He did not respond to VOA’s request for further comment but in remarks published on RTV, Whatmough said, “Those are not threats. There was simply a violation of our house rules regarding entering the studio.”
Whatmough said the warnings were issued on the initiative of Urbanija, who was appointed in July.
Urbanija was previously a director of the government communication 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 named chief executive in 2021 by the Program Council, which is predominantly made up of members nominated by the-then center-right parliament.
Since his arrival at RTV, a number of popular shows were shortened, moved to less prominent channels, or scrapped.
Urbanija and Whatmough both deny pressuring editors and journalists. They say the changes are necessary to improve ratings and the quality of reporting.
Protection plan stalls
Under a law prepared by Slovenia’s new center-left government, parliament would no longer nominate members of RTV's Program Council.
Currently, parliament nominates 21 out of 29 members.
But former Prime Minister Jansa’s party is challenging that plan with a November referendum.
His SDS party has collected more than 40,000 signatures to force a referendum on the law passed by parliament in July. Demands for a referendum blocked the legislation from being enacted.
Most analysts say they do not believe the referendum — scheduled for next month — will be successful. But it does bring uncertainty.
“Passing the referendum and enacting the bill would help safeguard the broadcaster's independence and represent a boost for the (ruling coalition’s) media freedom credentials,” said Wiseman.
“The changes enacted under the previous government have left RTV in the most challenging situation in decades,” he said, enabled by “the disproportionate influence of politics on RTV's governance structure.”
The law is a move in a positive direction but does not necessarily ensure political independence of RTV's leadership, said the academic Splichal.
The government for instance, will still control the subscription that most households pay for RTV, and which is a main revenue source, Splichal said.
Splichal welcomed the European Commission's proposal last month of a European Media Freedom Act to safeguard media independence.
The proposal, in part triggered by increased political pressure on media in Slovenia, lays out rules to protect editorial independence and pluralism, including for public-funded outlets.