LJUBLJANA - When Slovenia distributed its annual 2.6 million euro (US$3.2 million) budget for local media this month, several news outlets that usually receive an allocation found their applications had been denied.
The Ministry of Culture, which handles the allocation of state funds, told VOA that 69 of the 143 projects media groups submitted for grants were successful.
But media organizations that previously received funding and whose applications were denied this year, and some government critics, say they believe the funds were used to reward news outlets that report favorably on the government and punish more critical organizations.
The Ministry of Culture did not provide to VOA the names of successful applicants but said the list of successful projects would be published in coming weeks.
The overall budget for 2021 is similar to previous years. Projects are assessed on criteria including quality, originality, importance to the local community and objectivity in reporting.
The financing is often an important source of income for Slovenia’s media. The ministry can finance up to 50% or up to 100,000 euros per media project.
“With the financial help, we ensure diversity of the Slovenian media scenery and the right of the public to be objectively informed about events,” according to the government website.
Slovenia's largest dailies, Delo and Dnevnik, the weekly Mladina and a number of local radio stations said the ministry informed them that their applications were not successful.
Radio Student usually receives about 20% of its annual income from those funds. The decision to not allocate funds this year could put the broadcaster’s existence in jeopardy, the station said.
“The ministry did not explain clearly why we did not receive the funds. However, we believe that we did not receive them because we are critical, because we do not favor the government in our reporting,” Ana Kandare, director of Radio Student, told VOA.
“I believe decisions were made according to how the media are reporting on the government, with the goal of shaping the media scene in line with the government’s wishes,” Kandare said.
The station has recently broadcast critical pieces on the government's asylum policy, its treatment of the media and cultural policy.
Radio Student said it plans to take the government to court. Media groups cannot appeal a denied application, but they can apply to the Administrative Court if they disagree with the procedure or believe a project was not properly assessed.
Radio Triglav director Natasa Harej says that her station, which covers a northern Slovenian region, was also informed that it will not receive state funds. Last year, Radio Triglav received about 35% of its income from the media budget.
“This decision will influence our program, we will be forced into bigger commercialisation and a part of our program will surely have to stop as we will no longer be able to finance it,” Harej said.
“We see this decision as a result of poor knowledge on the importance of our program for the local environment. We can also speculate that political interests are involved, with expectations that such radio stations would collapse, which would enable someone to purchase them at a cheap price,” Harej said.
Radio Triglav focuses on local issues, offering informative, educational and entertainment programs.
News website Siol.net, which is owned by the state-owned telecommunications operator Telekom Slovenia and is widely viewed as pro-government, is one of the stations whose application was successful.
Its editor, Peter Jancic, told VOA he sees no evidence this year the government has used funds to reward media that report favorably on the government.
“In the past years most of those funds were given to the media which supported the previous government, although it is true that some smaller sums also went to the media that were critical to the government,” Jancic said.
Dejan Vercic, a professor at Ljubljana University's Faculty of Social Sciences, told VOA the current government appears to favor conservative media.
Prime Minister Janez Jansa came to power just over a year ago, after the center-left prime minister, Marjan Sarec, resigned.
“It seems that the Ministry of Culture is trying, as it says itself, to balance the media space, saying that the mainstream Slovenian media are too liberal and that therefore it is needed to impede them and actively help conservative media to become stronger,” Vercic said.
The ministry did not comment on its decision, or claims that outlets were denied funding because of critical content.
Culture Minister Vasko Simoniti told the national news agency STA it is “great” the situation will be “a bit more balanced” after this budget distribution. Simoniti said the decision on grants was made by a group of professionals nominated by the minister, which includes several university professors.
The budget allocation follows a decision by the government’s communication office earlier this year to stop funding STA.
The news agency previously received about half its annual income from the government, which is legally obliged to ensure STA has adequate funding.
But the government says the agency has not provided the necessary documentation to prepare a new annual contract.
For now, the STA has called on the public for donations to help the news agency to survive.
The situation for media in Slovenia is a focus for international rights groups ahead of the country assuming the six-month EU presidency in July.
The Media Freedom Rapid Response group — a Europe-wide coalition that monitors press freedom — is due to host a virtual mission to Slovenia to examine issues including pressure on STA, verbal attacks and smear campaigns by public figures, the targeting of independent news outlets, and the use of legal threats to silence media.
“While it should be stressed that media freedom and pluralism remain intact in Slovenia for now, we are worried about these telltale warning signs, which fit a worrying pattern previously observed in Hungary and Poland,” the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom advocacy officer Laurens Hueting, told VOA. The center is a part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response group.
The academic, Vercic, told VOA that while the situation in Slovenia is deteriorating, it is not nearly as bad as in Hungary.
All Slovenian governments to some extent try to influence the media, including by streamlining state advertising to outlets whose reporting is favorable to their administration but, Vercic said, the incumbent government “is less skillful, more revolutionary and brutal while doing it.”
The European Commission told VOA it is monitoring the media situation in Slovenia.
“Public media, including public news agencies, play a special role in the European Union and we call on all member states to refrain from putting political pressure on them,” the commission said in an email to VOA.