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Referendum Shows Slovenian Support for RTV’s Independence, Journalists Say

Journalists at Slovenia public broadcaster RTV gather during a live broadcast to show support for colleagues who had been reassigned after an anchor introduced a segment by saying it was being broadcast under the instruction of the chief news editor. (Screenshot TV Slovenia/RTV)
Journalists at Slovenia public broadcaster RTV gather during a live broadcast to show support for colleagues who had been reassigned after an anchor introduced a segment by saying it was being broadcast under the instruction of the chief news editor. (Screenshot TV Slovenia/RTV)

Journalists at Slovenia’s public broadcaster RTV have expressed relief at the results of a referendum aimed at protecting them from political interference.

The results show “citizens support us and want a professional, independent and quality public (broadcaster),” Helena Milinkovic, head of the coordination of trade unions of journalists of RTV, told VOA.

Marko Milosavljevic, journalism chair at the University of Ljubljana’s faculty of social sciences, sees the support of the law as a boost for media freedom in Slovenia.

“It enables public RTV to free itself from direct interference of politics and political parties,” Milosavljevic told VOA.

The referendum Sunday centered on reforms proposed by Slovenia’s newly elected government to protect RTV from political interference. More than 62 percent of voters were in favor of the law.

The referendum was requested by the former ruling center-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) after the country’s new government in July endorsed changes that would end the practice of parliament nominating members of the RTV program council.

At present, parliament nominates 21 out of 29 members of the program council, a body that names the broadcaster's chief executive and endorses production plans.

In challenging the reforms, the SDS said the legal changes would impact RTV's independence because they were aimed solely at replacing the current management.

“Our media space is strongly leaning to the left and does not allow pluralism. RTV as a public broadcaster, which is paid by all, should show diversity and represent all segments of the Slovenian society,” Alenka Jeraj, a SDS member of parliament, told reporters after the referendum result.

“By manipulative statement that politics will be removed from the RTV, the government politics is in fact entering the RTV through a side door,” Jeraj said, adding that she believes the result shows “we are strongly moving away from democratic media standards.”

But most journalists and academics disagree.

Seven international media freedom groups, including the International Press Institute, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, and Reporters Without Borders last week issued a joint statement backing the reform.

“The new system of governance would significantly limit the ability of any government, current or future, to use its parliamentary majority to fill the councils with allies and interfere in the work of public media,” the statement read.

Most analysts say that ruling parties from both sides have pressured the public broadcaster ever since Slovenia's independence in 1991. But, they say, the interference has never been so intense as when the SDS was in power from 2020 until June this year.

The SDS leadership claimed media bias at the broadcaster, and appointees at RTV made changes that critics say adversely impacted the station’s ability to report.

In 2021, the Program Council appointed Andrej Grah Whatmough as the head of RTV.

A few months later, the director of the broadcaster's TV branch, Natalija Gorscak, was dismissed and many popular shows, including a weekly political segment, “Studio City,” were cancelled.

In July 2022, Whatmough appointed Uros Urbanija as the new director of the TV branch —a move that sparked protest from staffers and the Association of Journalists of Slovenia.

Urbanija was the 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 news agency STA. [[

In October, Whatmough issued letters to 38 staffers, mainly TV journalists, after they entered a studio during a live broadcast to show support for two colleagues they said were under pressure from Urbanija.

In his letter, Whatmough warned that the staff face dismissal if they breach their contract again.

Urbanija and Whatmough have denied any pressure on journalists. Whatmough said in remarks published on RTV that the warnings were issued solely because journalists had violated rules regarding entering the studio.

‘Party politics’

Prime Minister Robert Golob and his ministers welcomed the referendum result.

His center-left government had promised to free RTV of political pressures and adopted the amendments on RTV less than two months after taking power.

“The people clearly showed that they do not want interference of party politics in the managing of RTV Slovenia. Our government had promised (to stop) that, passed the law and this was now confirmed by people,” Minister of Culture Asta Vrecko, who is also in charge of the government's media policy, told TV Slovenia.

However, Peter Gregorcic, the chair of the RTV's Program Council, told Radio Slovenia he plans to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on whether the law is in line with the constitution.

He believes it is illegal to replace the management of the broadcaster by amending a law.

Any appeal could further delay the introduction of the law, which is due to come into effect in January.

The management of RTV Slovenia did not directly respond to VOA's queries regarding the appeal, but referred VOA to a statement that read, “RTV Slovenia will continue to act in line with legislation and in the broadest public interest.”

Most TV journalists still wary

Most TV Slovenia journalists welcomed the result but are wary of any further delay in implementing the law.

“We are happy and relieved by the referendum result,” Milinkovic, of RTV, told VOA. But, she said, until the legislation takes affect, "We expect pressures on staffers to continue."

TV Slovenia runs a 24-7 operation and is one of the most popular TV channels in the country. The public broadcaster is financed predominantly by subscriptions that most households in Slovenia are obliged to pay.