This piece is published in collaboration with Delo as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.

The article is translated and adapted from a Slovenian-language version, which is available to read on Delo’s website.

The Slovenian media have survived the pandemic, along with two years of the right-wing government of Janez Janša, but some of them are in a better shape than others. At the same time, they struggle with the declining level of public trust, where the strongest fall was suffered by the biggest media institution in the country – the national RTV Slovenia.

The most recent survey The Mirror of Slovenia, carried out in the middle of last October by Valicon to measure trust in institutions and professions, revealed a lower level of trust in the media than at any other time in the last decade. RTV Slovenia lost 24 points and the trust level fell to -38, thus returning to the level of the end of 2019. The fall in the World Press Freedom Index, where Slovenia landed in 54th place (its worst ranking ever) reinforces the negative picture of the situation for Slovenian journalism.

The Slovenian media landscape includes two extremely important public media, RTV Slovenia and the Slovenian Press Agency (STA). The latter, the backbone of the media industry and indispensable for  all other media outlets, barely survived Janša’s two-year term of office. The suspension of the monthly public service payment for the services performed for the government, which accounts for one-half of STA’s revenue, brought the STA to the verge of bankruptcy.

At the very last moment the Government of the RS and the STA, under pressure from Brussels as well, reached an agreement and the press agency pulled through. But then Janša’s government shifted its focus to RTV Slovenia.

Although the government changed in the meantime, the national RTV is still in the clutches of the former ruling coalition. The parties of the former coalition are still in control of the national RTV bodies, which is clearly illustrated by the recent appointment of Uroš Urbanija, the ex-government communications chief under Janša, to the position of Director of RTV Slovenia. Urbanija was the one who refused to pay the STA for its public services throughout that time. His appointment as director of the national public broadcaster was strongly opposed by the employee representatives of RTV Slovenia, representatives of the civil society, media organizations and media experts, but their efforts were in vain.

The former ruling party wants to keep its influence on RTV

Safeguarding the public broadcaster RTV Slovenia was one of the main promises of the current left-middle coalition under the leadership of Robert Golob, a political newcomer. Already during the first sitting of Parliament, they filed a proposal for a new law on RTV Slovenia which would deprive politicians of the possibility to appoint management bodies of this public institution (the Supervisory Board and the Programme Council) and to influence most staffing and financial decisions.

However, Janša and his party, who are now in the opposition and are not willing to let go of their influence on RTV Slovenia, were ready for this step. The (right-wing) Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by Janša, filed their own proposal for a law on RTV Slovenia only a few minutes before the winner of the elections, the Freedom Movement led by Robert Golob, did. A proposal which is first filed is first presented for debate before the parliament, so they succeeded in blocking the plans of the new government for a while.

Mojca Šetinc Pašek, a former RTV Slovenia journalist and currently an MP of the Freedom Movement, had expected this kind of sabotage from the opposition party: “We announced amendments to the Radiotelevizija Slovenija Act, so the SDS knew we had been drafting them, but wanted to keep the RTV in their hands. What we did not expect at the first sitting of the Parliament was how they succeeded in blocking the entire parliamentary procedure with a bunch of laws that they had never filed during their two-year run, because they ruled with decrees.”

Together with her colleague Eugenija Carl, Šetinc Pašek was the target of an offending Tweet written by Janez Janša years ago, labelling both journalists as “washed-up prostitutes”. Janša was recently found guilty of slander. Today, Šetinc Pašek is the first signatory of the draft law on RTV Slovenia. “I drew from my own experience with the national media house, as its main problem was that the management and their superiors had always exerted political pressures. However big or small these pressures were, they were always felt. It is thus highly important for RTV Slovenia to depoliticize,” she said.

The coalition led by the Freedom Movement now has the majority in the parliament and their draft law on RTV Slovenia was finally adopted after several weeks’ delay, but it still has a long way to go until it is enforced. The SDS called for a referendum, with the likely goal of stalling the process, as the law cannot be enforced before the results of the referendum are announced. If the law is rejected by voters, a similar legislative proposal cannot be implemented for at least one year. The law on RTV which strived for depoliticization was already rejected in a referendum years ago, but the political climate has changed.

The political crusade against the STA and RTV Slovenia has united the media guild

Political pressures, exerted primarily on the STA and now also on RTV Slovenia, are not the only problem of the Slovenian media.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed serious challenges and revealed the necessity to adopt a comprehensive media law. According to Marko Milosavljević from the Chair of Journalism at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana (FDV), the pandemic caused a decline in advertising, problems with the distribution and sale of print media and an even greater concentration of digital advertising on global platforms that have been destroying the media also in other parts of the world.

“Another problem is the fact that the Slovenian government, contrary to many other European governments, failed to adopt measures that would help the media in any way in these special circumstances. Why the government refused to help the media and journalists is clear from the general attitude of the previous government i.e. the SDS towards the media, as the former attacked them – in a ‘Trump’ fashion – by labelling them as ‘fake media’ and repeatedly defaming them. In the past, it happily predicted the death and destruction of the traditional media, claiming that we no longer need them and that they would be replaced by social networks. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic showed this belief to be false,” Milosavljević emphasized.

In his opinion, the Slovenian media are in fairly good condition, given their eagerness to survive. “After two years of COVID-19 and the government that was hostile to the media in many respects, it has been shown that the media need to be decisive and self-assured as well do better investigative work. That is also why, in this period, the media generated a series of high-profile investigative press stories and were the first to expose irregularities.”

He pointed out another aspect that journalists in the Slovenian media landscape have tended to avoid so far: the organization of the entire media guild. This was evidenced by the support to the STA and RTV staff when they were targeted by Janša’s government. In the past, the journalists failed to protect their positions, said Milosavljević.

What kind of media do we want, and which media are in the public interest?

In recent years, both the media and the political circles have pointed out the need to change the media law, but there was still little will to change anything. The media law stipulates the rights, obligations and responsibilities of legal entities and natural persons as well as governs public interest in the media landscape. The legislation – although there have been several attempts to change it – is obsolete, says the Slovene Association of Journalists (DNS).

“The media legislation needs a complete overhaul, but most of all, the state should first decide what kind of media policy it wants, what kind of media it needs and what is essential in the public interest. If the print media are most at risk, do they need special incentives? How to finance audio production and where to find financial funds? The annual subsidies to media outlets is a completely obsolete system; such tenders should be designed for several years and should be developmentally oriented. And what about programmes of special importance? How can we ensure the preservation of local information? Are municipal media still acceptable in terms of non-transparent financing of the media whose autonomy is questionable?” Špela Stare from the DNS listed the urgent changes in the media legislation.

The state ‘missed the train’ at least in the regulation of media ownership concentrations, which enable both economic and political power at the same time. Although in Slovenia, owing to the protection of plurality and diversity of the media and media content, media ownership is restricted by law, the reality is quite different.

A broadcaster/publisher, either a legal entity or a natural person or a group of related persons who broadcasts television or radio programmes or publishes a printed general-interest daily newspaper, can own 20 percent of another broadcaster/publisher at most. A higher equity stake requires prior approval by the Ministry of Culture. However, a large part of the Slovenian media landscape, including radio stations, print media and web portals, is closely connected today – they share articles, publish contributions by the same authors and align their editorial policies.

Definitions of ownership concentration need to be updated

Ownership concentration as such (according to the media expert Sandra Bašić Hrvatin) is not the main problem; what is controversial is its impact on the freedom of expression.

Marko Milosavljević warned that the obsolete media legislation that was adopted 15 years ago, in the time before digital media convergence and the emergence of portals, no longer provides clear definitions and dividing lines that are necessary, for example, to define dangerous concentrations or relevant markets. The old definitions are obsolete and useless in many respects, because “we live in a hybrid world where a newspaper is practically also a generator of video- and audio-content and/or provider of audiovisual media services”. The dividing lines between individual media outlets and the feasibility of operations and regulation according to old definitions and concepts, such as radio, newspaper and television, need to be completely revamped.

“The market is more or less consolidated, the legislation can no longer intervene in these processes,” Špela Stare pointed out. As long as we have a strong, high-quality public radio with a wide audience, she does not see any big problems in the radio market. Print media are a different story, as the centralization of production due to more expensive raw materials and energy products, along with growing demand for paper and cardboard, will continue. Moreover, newspapers must deal with a lack of deliverymen – there is simply no interest in this low-paid night work – and higher prices, largely a consequence of higher costs (paper, energy, delivery). But the fact is that the print media in Slovenia (still) enjoy great social importance because the readership is still high.

The media law will have to draw a clear line between those who can be (co)owners of the media and those who cannot. Political parties and political office-holders should not own the media by any means, because a conflict of interest can arise when it comes to state funding, along with the danger of unlabelled political propaganda and manipulations. When funds were allocated via tenders of the Ministry of Culture in the period of Janša’s last government, most of them were allocated to the media that were more or less directly associated with the SDS party.

But how strong the political will to change the media legislation is in reality? Špela Stare highlighted that today the laws are still drafted by the civil society, which shows that the government has not yet established a body of experts that would formulate policies and draft laws. “For changes to happen, the government must present essentially more strategic covenants, which we have not seen so far. The media and all the problems associated with them have always been sidelined and the Ministry of Culture has not improved its expert base, because other things were more important.”

Without any changes, a war will be lost, not only a battle

If the media law breakthrough does not happen now, the DNS eagerly explains, not only a battle will be lost, but a war.

The breaking point of Robert Golob’s government will be the success or failure in delivering its pre-election promises, i.e. the ‘restoration of the media freedom’. At the very least, the government and/or the Ministry of Culture will be ‘forced’ to amend the media legislation by the European Union. According to Milosavljević, the first version of a very extensive media act is just about to be published and, for the first time in the history of the European Union, it will revamp the media landscape thoroughly and with a binding effect.

So far the European Union has been avoiding the problems of the media, but the cases of Hungary, Poland and regretfully also Slovenia revealed the necessity to adopt a directive at a broader level, aiming at regulating the media and their financing as well as state interventions, public media freedom and protection of journalists. Slovenia will have to integrate such directive into its legal order, which is why the next year – even if the state fails to do anything by itself – will be very turbulent for media regulation.

This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe in collaboration with leading independent media in the region. Any viewpoints expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent the views of IPI. Read more.