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Journalists at Slovenian Public Broadcaster Push Back at Government Critics

FILE - A portion of the home page of public radio and television broadcaster RTV Slovenia is seen in this web screenshot.
FILE - A portion of the home page of public radio and television broadcaster RTV Slovenia is seen in this web screenshot.

A nearly year-old rift between journalists and managers at Slovenia's public broadcaster has been widened by disagreements over coverage of the war in Ukraine.

Journalists at Radiotelevizija Slovenija, or RTV, held a press conference outside the broadcaster's building in the center of the capital, Ljubljana, this week to air concerns over changes implemented recently under a director installed last April who, staff say, has reduced in-house news programming.

Staff say they are feeling political pressure, including from the government's communications office, which publishes regular posts accusing RTV of bias in its reporting.

"We are being attacked because we are critical, are asking questions and are not in line with expectations of a certain political option," senior journalist and anchor Erika Znidarsic said at the news conference Monday.

A breaking point came when RTV managers decided to use the BBC rather than its own staff in the early days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The broadcaster streamed a total of four hours of BBC reporting during prime viewing hours, over two days.

RTV managers say they used the BBC to better inform viewers of developments.

But journalists say that decision and other programming changes are damaging the station's reputation.

RTV is one of the country's most popular channels, with a monthly combined audience of about 700,000, according to station data.

But Prime Minister Janez Jansa and his administration and supporters have accused it of bias, saying the station favors opposition parties. The appointment of RTV's supervisory board chair Andrej Grah Whatmough as director general last year, while ostensibly made by an independent board, was seen by the staff as an effort to ensure more favorable coverage of the prime minister and his party.

The European Parliament, the European Union's directly elected branch, in December passed a nonbinding resolution condemning Slovenia's government for verbal attacks and attempts to discredit both public and privately owned media outlets. It called on EU member Slovenia to ensure RTV has sufficient funding and to "cease all political interference in its editorial policy."

The use of BBC footage to cover the Ukraine war has particularly angered the journalists in RTV's foreign policy editorial office, who are calling for the resignations of acting TV Director Valentin Areh and news editor Jadranka Rebernik.

By streaming the BBC, "management showed that it wants to completely devalue and marginalize the work of the foreign policy editorial office of TV Slovenia (RTV)," a February 28 letter signed by 25 journalists read.

Grah Whatmough defended the decision, saying RTV was unable to prepare similar programs when Russian forces suddenly began moving into Ukraine at the end of February.

The broadcaster's communications office told VOA it has previously streamed foreign TV with simultaneous translation.

"The same was done in 2003 when American forces attacked Iraq, so we used identical approach in similar war conditions," RTV said in a statement sent to VOA.

But critics say most Slovenians already have access to BBC programs though internet or cable, albeit without translation into Slovenian, and see the decision as undermining the station's own reporting.

RTV also sent one reporter to Ukraine and several journalists to neighboring countries at the start of the war, and their reporting has been used extensively since.

Retired journalist Tone Hocevar, who used to work for the broadcaster, believes RTV used the BBC footage "to humiliate TV Slovenia journalists who are doing a very good job."

Hocevar had worked as a foreign correspondent, news editor and foreign policy journalist at the broadcaster for over 10 years until 1992, when he left to work for print media.

"What is happening to TV Slovenia is tragic," Hocevar said. "There is no doubt that the government wants to curb critical reporting."

Bias claims

Slovenia's Government Communication Office welcomed the move to stream the BBC. "Maybe @RTV_Slovenia could for some time only transmit @BBCWorld on its second channel — so that Slovenian journalists could learn at least a bit about the basics of journalism and journalistic standards," GCO Director Uros Urbanija tweeted on February 26.

Urbanija's office in recent months has posted articles to its website titled "Analysis of Reporting of RTV Slovenia." The articles list RTV content that the GCO believes shows bias against the government, includes hate speech or fails to seek a government response.

Laurens Hueting of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), says the GCO articles "fit an ongoing pattern of sustained political pressure on RTV."

In recent years, that has "included relentless disparaging smears and attempts to discredit their work by elected politicians," Hueting, a senior advocacy officer, told VOA.

Dejan Vercic, a professor at the Ljubljana University's Faculty of Social Sciences, shared a similar view.

"The GCO analyses "are not analyses but some sort of political commentaries, which is improper and undignified," Vercic, who specializes in public and media relations, told VOA.

The GCO told VOA in a written statement that it "does not understand how public and transparent analyses concerning the breach of journalistic standards could be seen as pressure."

No one has dismissed claims flagged in the analyses, the statement said, adding a list of cases in which the GCO says the previous center-left governments put pressure on RTV and other media.

RTV Director General Grah Whatmough was cited by the broadcaster as saying Monday that he supports all employees and "will not allow any political pressure."

But Vercic and other analysts say that pressures have only increased since Grah Whatmough took over last April after being appointed by the 29-member Program Council, which is mandated to act independently.

Twenty-one of the council members, however, are appointed by parliament, and Grah Whatmough, who has denied being under any pressure, has rejected claims from critics that his appointment was political.

Election coverage

The ECPMF has raised concerns that changes at the public broadcaster could affect its coverage of the run-up to parliamentary election, which is scheduled for April 24.

Several polls show Jansa's center-right Slovenian Democratic Party is likely to emerge as the strongest party but will need to form a coalition.

The ECPMF believes changes at RTV Slovenia will marginalize public interest reporting and jeopardize the broadcaster's core mission to provide professional and informative reporting on domestic and foreign affairs.

"Especially around election time, fair and balanced public service media are of the utmost importance for citizens' informed participation in the democratic process," Hueting told VOA.

"RTV Slovenia has historically ranked among the best and most independent public service broadcasters in the region," he added.