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Law Protecting Independence of Slovenian Public TV to Take Effect

FILE - A web screenshot shows a portion of the home page of the public radio and television broadcaster RTV Slovenia.
FILE - A web screenshot shows a portion of the home page of the public radio and television broadcaster RTV Slovenia.

A new management team could be announced at Slovenia's public broadcaster RTV in the coming weeks, as a new law takes effect.

On Monday, a newly formed RTV Council — which has the power to name RTV SLO's chief executive and approve production plans — met for the first time.

The body was unable to meet until the Constitutional Court issued its ruling on some parts of the law, the Act on RTV Slovenia, that were being contested.

Passed by Slovenia's center-left government, the law is designed to protect public media from political interference. The reform also restructures the management of RTV from two governing councils into a single, 17-member decision-making body.

The changes were proposed when Slovenia's center-left government took power in 2022, after journalists and media analysts warned that political interference in RTV under the last administration risked damaging the broadcaster's credibility.

Prime Minister Robert Golob said in May that enforcement of the law means "that politics is withdrawing from managing RTV Slovenia and giving its employees the necessary autonomy."

The Vienna-based media group, the International Press Institute or IPI also welcomed the enforcement of the law.

Calling it a "long overdue and positive step forward for a troubled public broadcaster," IPI Europe Advocacy Officer Jamie Wiseman told VOA that it "finally creates the legal framework for RTV to depoliticize its management structures, limit interference and slowly regain its independence."

He pointed out, however, that several challenges at RTV remain "that will take sustained and systemic efforts to address, including a staffing crisis, serious financial problems, internal division and public distrust."

Many journalists and academics agree with that assessment.

The European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution condemning Slovenia's previous center-right government for attempts to discredit public and privately owned media. It called on Slovenia, which is part of the EU, to "cease all political interference in (RTV) editorial policy."

However, the leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister Janez Jansa responded to the court's ruling on RTV via Twitter, saying, "If such obvious cheating is possible even at the Constitutional Court, then no one can expect a just trial."

Jansa had repeatedly accused the broadcaster of bias, and his center-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) had unsuccessfully challenged the law at a referendum in November, arguing that it was passed solely to change the leadership of RTV.

At the referendum more than 62 percent of voters supported the law.

On May 31, a group of protesters led by Pavel Rupar, a former member of parliament for the SDS, gathered outside the broadcaster's main office to protest the change of management, saying RTV should represent "plurality."

And last week the outgoing head of the RTV Council, Peter Gregorcic, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, saying that the Constitutional Court failed to protect the legal position of RTV leadership.

Government pressure

Slovenia's RTV has come under pressure from ruling parties since the country gained independence in 1991.

But Slavko Splichal, a professor of communications at the University of Ljubljana, said, the pressure was never as bad as under Jansa's administration.

The implementation of the law, said Splichal, will end "a catastrophic situation" at RTV in the past two years which had turned the broadcaster into "a propaganda tool of the SDS."

During that time, the former RTV Council, nominated mostly by then center-right parliament members, elected Andrej Grah Whatmough as the RTV Slovenia CEO.

Under Whatmough's leadership, a number of programs were cancelled, shortened or moved to a less prominent channel. In July 2022, he named Uros Urbanija as director of the broadcaster's TV unit, a move that sparked protests from staffers and the Association of Journalists of Slovenia.

Urbanija was director of the government communication office under Jansa and during that time his department alleged bias at RTV and temporarily stopped financing the state press agency STA.

In August, Urbanija told VOA that he was not a member of any political party, nor has he ever worked for one, adding that his position at the government's communication office was purely professional.

Whatmough too has dismissed claims of political interference under the previous government, saying in interviews he is not connected to the SDS and is acting solely as a professional.

Staffers warned of consequences

During the changes last year, 38 staffers at RTV received warnings of possible dismissal if they breached their contracts.

The warning letters came after staff entered a studio during a live broadcast to show support for two colleagues, including anchor Sasa Krajnc, whom they said were under pressure from TV director Urbanija.

Krajnc has remained in his position as anchor of the main evening TV news program but says the number of his slots have almost halved.

"We hope that after the new management takes over professional standards will be reinstated, that respect of employees will return and that that program will be improved so that viewership will rise," Krajnc told VOA, adding that in his 20 years at RTV he has never seen such a decline of standards as under the outgoing leadership.

Krajnc said that viewership of most news programs has fallen over the past two years, although the exact numbers are not publicly available.

The management of RTV did not respond to VOA's request for the latest viewership figures.

Splichal said that the new RTV leadership will need to address digitalization and find ways to attract younger viewers. He added too that the new law may not prevent the possibility of political pressure in the future.

"The new RTV Council is not nominated by parliament directly, but parliament still has most say in it indirectly," he said, explaining that some institutions that nominate council members — such as National Council for Culture — are nominated by parliament.

"So, the risk of political interference in the program is still there," said Splichal.

Wiseman said that if the new system at RTV is properly implemented "this would represent a much-needed boost for independent journalism and media freedom in Slovenia."