Slovenia: Going After the Public Broadcaster
Slovenia's journalists are up in arms over a new media bill viewed as an attempt to turn the country's public broadcaster into state-run TV station.
by Ales Glaube, 23 April 2005
Many thought it was an April's fools joke when Slovenia's culture ministry on 1 April published a new draft law on the national public broadcaster on its web page. The highly controversial proposal would effectively limit and possibly eliminate the journalistic and editorial independence of the national TV and radio broadcaster RTV Slovenia and turn it into state-run television.
Domestic and international journalism organizations cried foul and forced the lawmakers to adopt some changes, but media analysts describe these as cosmetic.
Changing the Slovenian media landscape was a long-standing desire of the current government coalition of Prime Minister Janez Jansa.
When the ruling Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) and New Slovenia were still in opposition, they constantly criticized the media as being biased against the center-right. But the notion of a left-wing conspiracy was shattered when the current coalition won a landslide victory in the October 2004 general election.
After the elections, some right-of-center politicians publicly thanked the media for their unbiased coverage of the campaign.
But it seems the honeymoon was over rather quickly; it certainly came to an end with the 1 April draft law.
The law was prepared in total secrecy without any consultation with academic experts or journalists' associations and was supposed to follow a fast track through parliament. The law would have introduced massive changes in the organizational and editorial structure of RTV Slovenia.
The general manager of RTV Slovenia, who is appointed by parliament, would stay in place, but his authority would be much increased. At present, the general manager ensures that the public broadcaster's finances are sound but has no influence on editorial content. Under the proposal, the position would combine managerial and programming responsibilities. The specialized managers currently responsible for radio and television programming would be replaced with positions that would deal mostly with organizational and staffing issues.
In addition, the broadcaster's 21-member council and its supervisory board would be abolished. While it is widely acknowledged by experts and journalists that the council was flawed, many believe the new draft would create an even worse situation: the bill envisages the creation of a 29-member program council that would take decisions about content, and a new supervisory board whose powers would be limited to organizational and commercial decisions. The government would have greater influence over the programming board than under the current system as 21 of the council's members would be approved by parliament.
The new body would also appoint the general manager, who in turn would name new editors-in-chief.
The government would have a majority in the new supervisory board as well: nine of the 11 members would be named by parliament and by the cabinet.
The bill foresees a new TV station to broadcast all parliament sessions as well as sessions of parliamentary committees. This issue was already hotly contested in the run-up to last year's election, when parliament insisted on an opposition proposal that all sessions should be broadcast live.
WITHDRAWING FROM THE BROADCASTER?
The government tried to generate public support for the law with a change in the unpopular current license-fee system. At present, anyone who pays electricity bills also pays a license fee for RTV Slovenia programs even if they can prove that they own neither a radio nor a television set.
The initial draft proposal would have abolished the current license fee. The government has called it ³utterly un-European² to tie license fees to electricity bills to prevent people from dodging the tax.
All major quality newspapers in Slovenia and the Slovenian journalists¹ association (DSN) have reacted strongly to the draft bill. The DSN called on the government not to abandon the EU practice of consulting experts and the broader public on changes to media legislation.
Culture Minister Vasko Simoniti adamantly defended the bill, saying on 5 April that it would in no way curb editorial autonomy and that the state was in fact "withdrawing" from the programming council.
He explained that the members of the programming council would be selected following a public call for applications. Persons eligible for the council must have knowledge, be distinguished in some way, or have achievements to their name that can contribute to the broadcaster's work and reputation, he said, summarizing the criteria for successful candidates. The parliamentary committee for appointments would collect proposals for 16 members from civil society that parliament would then confirm.
Until now, representatives from civil society on the council were chosen without any involvement by parliament.
Another five spots in the new program council are reserved for representatives of political parties, as is the case now.
Though Minister Simoniti was grilled by journalists who said that the ruling coalition would be able to select the majority of members, he has continued to insist that the selection criteria would ensure that only independent people outside the influence of politics would be selected. Such a program council could never be as politicized as the current one,² he added.
The public outcry had a limited effect. Simoniti on 6 April announced that he was delaying a cabinet vote on the bill so that he would have more time to discuss the changes with the trade union of RTV Slovenia¹s journalists and its management.
Marko Milosavljevic, a professor of media studies at Ljubljana university's faculty of social sciences, warned on the same day that the delay was only a tactical move to give the impression that a dialogue with the journalists was sought and that the dialogue had produced some changes.
AN ASSAULT ON DEMOCRACY?
The professor¹s predictions that any changes would be minor and cosmetic proved to be right. The minister actually met with journalists for a discussion but ignored calls for a wider public debate on the law and to involve media professionals in the drafting of the law before submitting it to the cabinet for approval.
On 13 April barely a week later the culture minister introduced a slightly revised draft that scrapped the initial proposal for improved fee collection but kept all other controversial provisions. Another change was that parliament would not consider the law under its fast track procedure.
Since the governing coalition has a solid majority, the bill¹s passage is almost assured.
Journalists and media professionals are fuming. Sandra Basic-Hrvatin, a journalism professor at the Ljubljana university¹s faculty of social sciences, thinks that the draft law restricts freedom of expression. And her colleague Milosavljevic, describes it as dangerous and undemocratic, since civil society will in effect be excluded from decision-making at the public broadcaster.
Commentators from various dailies were even tougher.
Milan Slana wrote in the 15 April Dnevnik that the public broadcaster would now become a state-run institution. Under the new system, the state will have control over almost all managerial bodies at RTV Slovenia: it will have a majority in the programming council and the supervisory board, while it will also have control over the director general, who will be appointed by the state and will have broad responsibilities. This is total privatization with no responsibility towards the public.
Slana added that the way the bill was being adopted and the attempt to exclude the public from the debate a decision-making process he called 'totalitarian' suggested that 15 years after the end of Communism, democracy was still struggling in Slovenia.
Ales Gaube is a TOL correspondent based in Ljubljana.
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