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When the news finally broke on March 12 that Slovenia was going to officially declare Covid-19 as an epidemic, the Infodrom production team had just finished taping up programme’s latest episode.

Produced by RTV Slovenija, the country’s public broadcaster, Infodrom is an award-winning, kids-oriented, weekly half-hour TV news programme and a key tenet of media literacy education in Slovenia.

Faced with a national emergency and immediate country-wide school closures, the team lost no time and developed a new daily hour-long programme literally overnight

Titled Izodrom, it was on the air the very next morning. It ran for 49 back-to-back episodes (weekends notwithstanding) and provided both an essential home-schooling channel as well as much needed respite for parents. Crucially, this was achieved within existing budget constraints.

Just as Izodrom finished its baptism-of-fire on March 13, the Slovenian parliament was in the middle of appointing a new government, led by Prime Minister Janez Janša of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS).

Little more than a month later Tarča (Target), another RTVSLO programme, broke the story of corruption allegations, misappropriation of funds and mismanagement in the emergency procurement of medical ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), with problematic sums reaching into the millions of euros. This spawned a criminal police investigation, at least one parliamentary inquiry, and sparked a massive protest movement which has yet to abate.

All this whilst RTVSLO and many other outlets, notably the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), provided reporting in the public interest and technically supported various government branches and agencies in informing the public on the latest measures to curb the Covid-19 epidemic in Slovenia.

It goes without saying that not only this pandemic has proven the need for countries to maintain a public health system, it has also proven the need to maintain a public broadcasting service, as the valuable programming of Izodrom and Tarča show.

And yet, despite this public value, within weeks of the epidemic being officially recognized, the Janša government drafted a set of media laws that would dramatically alter the media landscape in Slovenia and do it for the worse.

Concerning draft legislation introduced

To be fair, the law on media, the law on RTVSLO and the law on STA are all outdated and in dire need of change (especially the former two). Past attempts were often stymied by both business and political interests.

However, what the government proposed this time is essentially to defund RTVSLO by carving out its transceiver network, reducing yearly income by 8 million euro (out of 120 million per year). It would then take a further eight percent of its income, mostly from licences fees, to instead fund STA and privately owned media, especially those that are either close to Janez Janša’s SDS, or are an outright part of its propaganda machine.

According to RTVSLO Director General Igor Kadunc, combined with a projected increase in costs of labour and materiel, this would deprive the public broadcasting service of about 25 million euros or 20 percent of its funding. Staff cutbacks in an already understaffed institution would be inevitable and would, in turn, critically jeopardize its mission to provide quality programming in the public interest.

Currently, this takes the form of two flagship TV channels and a dedicated parliamentary TV channel, four nation-wide radio channels, two regional media centres, specialized programming for Hungarian and Italian ethnic minorities as well as dedicated programmes for the Romani community, religious programming for various denominations and a plethora of non-commercial or partly commercial programmes (such as Infodrom) for various demographic groups, from the youngest to senior citizens.

This is further augmented by in-house production of TV series, documentaries and full-length motion pictures, a multimedia centre with its own online and streaming services as well as an in-house symphony orchestra. On top of this, RTVSLO’s radio and TV news programmes are – despite frequent and sometimes justified criticism – still benchmarks against which most Slovenian media production is measured.

A 20 percent cut would very likely set off a vicious circle in which RTVSLO would be unable to serve its various audiences, leading to further cuts on accounts of “inability to perform”, which would in turn ultimately lead to the demise of the public broadcaster as we know it.

Consultation period ahead

The government’s initial position was that the legislative changes are overdue and – especially regarding the law on RTVSLO – minimal, while it envisaged that a cut in funding would be offset by increased advertising revenue.

However, having initially allowed a mere five days for a public debate (with a weekend included), it was obvious that the ruling coalition was aiming to skirt the attention and ram the legislative package through parliament as fast as possible. It was only after a huge outcry that the public debate was extended until September 5.

Even so, this change is cosmetic at best as a vast majority of the time allotted coincides with summer holidays, while the beginning of September is sure to bring about renewed worries about school reopening and a possible second wave of Covid-19 infections.

That said, the fate of the legislative package is not certain. The opposition to proposed changes has grown both within and outside parliament. RTVSLO and STA took the lead in defending their independence, with various domestic and international organisations supporting them.

Additionally, the Modern Centre Party, a junior coalition member, has signalled some dissent on the matter. There are also voices within another coalition partner, DeSUS, that have criticized its leadership for not standing up to Janša and SDS on frequent attacks on the press and specific journalists.

A recent debate in the parliamentary committee on culture has only deepened the rift between the Ministry of Culture (under whose purview the three laws fall) and the opposition parties which are livid with the government for what they called an arrogant and dismissive approach.

But the biggest procedural danger lies in the recently acquired power of the parliament to ban a referendum on laws that are critical to the functioning of the state. The instrument allows for skipping the “cooling-off” period between adoption and promulgation of the law during which interested parties can mount a referendum bid or a pre-emptive constitutional challenge.

While it was initially envisaged as a legal instrument to fast-track anti-Covid-19 measures, past experience shows that it would not be beyond this government to try and use this legal loophole to avoid its media policies being subject to a popular vote. The situation bears monitoring closely.