Programming shifts at Slovenia's public broadcaster could curb critical journalism and benefit the center-right government in next year's elections, say journalists and free press advocates who sense politics behind the moves.
The changes, adopted by the program council of RTV Slovenia on November 29, shorten or abolish some main news programs, while others move to a less-prominent second channel. TV Slovenia is a part of RTV Slovenia, which also includes a public radio channel. The radio channel will also undergo some changes, but those are not being disputed.
The new management of RTV Slovenia claims the changes, to be phased in by the end of March 2022, are designed to improve the ratings. Skeptics say that's not the whole story.
"Whether or not the proposed reforms are designed to curb critical political journalism, their concrete impact would be to reduce RTV's ability to inform the public and scrutinize the government," Laurens C. Hueting, senior advocacy officer of the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, told VOA.
Most journalists of TV Slovenia news programs agree. More than nine in 10 signed a petition in opposition.
"This plan presents a big change, which we believe does not bring any possibilities to increase quality of reporting," senior TV Slovenia anchor Igor Evgen Bergant told VOA.
"We want changes; we want a better work organization ... but the adopted plan will disperse news reporting to several channels and thus reduce the interest of people in our news. So, our relevance will decrease," Bergant maintained.
He is an anchor of the prominent evening news show Odmevi, which is due to be shortened to 25 minutes from 30 minutes at present. But other programs will be more affected.
The management did not disclose changes in detail, but TV journalists told VOA that all political debates ahead of the April 24 parliamentary election move to the second channel, while the main evening news show Dnevnik will be shortened by almost a third to 20 minutes.
A weekly show, Politicno, which analyzes interior politics, will be abolished. Weekly shows Utrip, which examines events in the country, and Zrcalo tedna, which focuses on global events, will be moved to the second channel, along with many others.
The journalists' petition gained public support of a number of universities, academics, Slovenian diplomats, trade unions, business chambers and public institutes.
Still, the management of RTV Slovenia stands by the changes. The management did not respond to VOA's detailed questions but sent a statement saying TV Slovenia is in a "serious crisis. "
"The viewership of most shows has been falling for years, only Dnevnik and Odmevi have since 2003 lost 250,000 or about half of once faithful viewers. That is why we are introducing changes in the news program," the statement said.
Bergant said the viewership figures fail to include those who follow the shows on mobile phones and after a time delay, and that ratings are falling in other countries, as well.
Although the government has no direct influence on TV Slovenia production, many believe the changes benefit the government of Prime Minister Janez Jansa ahead of the April vote.
"It is hard to prove whether the incumbent government is behind these decisions," said Marko Milosavljevic, a professor of journalism at the Ljubljana University. "However, such marginalization of the information program can surely benefit this government, especially before the election, as the abolishment of analytical and potentially critical shows and reports could ease the media position and image of this government."
The broadcaster receives most of its income from an obligatory RTV subscription paid by most households. It is run by a 29-member Program Council mandated to act independently. However, a majority of the council members, 21, are appointed by the parliament.
TV Slovenia runs a 24-7 operation and is one of the most popular TV channels in the country. It competes with several private channels. Its largest competitor is owned by international investment group PPF that is based in the Czech Republic. Another competitor, Nova24TV, was established in 2016 by members and supporters of Jansa's Slovenian Democratic Party.
The Ministry of Culture, which oversees media, did not respond to VOA's questions about government influence over TV Slovenia. In September, the ministry denied exerting any political pressure on the leadership of TV Slovenia.
The RTV's new chief executive, Andrej Grah Whatmough, who took over last April after being appointed by the Program Council, had rejected rumors that his appointment was political and denied being under any pressure.
In August, however, he dismissed the director of TV Slovenia. The new director then appointed a new managing editor of TV's news programs after the previous editor, Manica Janezic Ambrozic, resigned in October because of the planned program changes.
Opposition parties say Jansa's government is trying to control the broadcaster through the Program Council to get favorable coverage.
"It is obvious that (the government parties) want to take control of the public medium and change it ... into a pro-government mouthpiece," Nika Vrhovnik, a spokeswoman of the largest opposition party, the center-left List of Marjan Sarec, told VOA.
Since taking power in March 2020, Jansa's government has been criticized by local and international institutions for its media policies. They include a decision to stop paying the national news agency, STA, which normally gets half of its income from the government.
That happened after Jansa said on Twitter the agency was biased and "a national shame."
Government payments to the STA resumed in November after a new CEO was appointed following a September resignation of predecessor Bojan Veselinovic over his inability to reach a financing deal with the government.
Several TV journalists told VOA they feel more pressure since Jansa took power. Last year, Jansa used Twitter to accuse TV Slovenia of spreading falsehoods.
On December 3, Jansa shared a tweet that accused a TV Slovenia journalist of lying when she compared the government's spending on the health system to military spending.
Analysts said that Slovenian journalists are still able to produce independent news — for now.
Said Hueting: "Against a background of increasing intimidation and threats against RTV's journalists, it is important to support the broadcaster and its staff so they can continue to deliver a high standard of news reporting."