Independence of RTV Slovenija under threat; culture and environmental CSOs face funding cuts

Independence of RTV Slovenija under threat; culture and environmental CSOs face funding cuts
Attacks on media independence and civil society continue (Olivier Matthys/Pool via REUTERS via Gallo Images).

Association

Harsh funding cuts in the state budget for cultural and environmental CSOs

On 8th December, the Slovenian parliament approved the state budget for 2022, with projections for 2023 and 2024. However, civil society has raised concerns about the funding cuts for cultural and environmental organisations.

“The story, here, is really black and white. For example, while NGO social service providers, after ten years of struggle, finally got the huge increase of budget that covered the decrease that happened in 2013 as a consequence of the economic crisis and increases of salaries in the public sector, others - such as culture NGOs - are not as lucky”, reported Tina Divjak, Head of Advocacy of CNVOS.

In fact, according to Tadej Meserko, Head of Office of Asociacija, while

paradoxically the budget for culture got higher, the budget for NGOs has been cut almost in a half. It was planned to be 6,4 million in 2022, but then it decreased to 3,6 million. This is going to have a huge impact on NGOs in the field of culture.

This comes after Asociacija and many other umbrella organisations in the cultural sector sent an open letter to decision-makers at the end of October, urging for government “to consider all possibilities for increasing” funds.

Gaja Brecelj, Director of Umanotera also added thatthe situation for environmental NGOs is “probably the worst in a decade, or more”.

Under the current minister there have been no more project calls, and in the new state budget there are literally no funds for projects for this and the next year. From the Climate Fund, where environmental NGOs are also eligible, the funding has been cut down by 70%, leaving the budget only on what was in a call for proposals under the previous minister’s mandate. No calls and no money for projects or programmes for environmental NGOs are being planned – this is the official information we received from the ministry.” 

Second draft of the De-Bureaucratisation law further threatens funding for cultural CSOs

In September 2021, the Slovenian government submitted a bill to the National Assembly on de-bureaucratisation, with the purpose to “improve the competitive business environment” and “simplify the lives of citizens” by “removing administrative barriers” - and their related costs. A first draft bill on the subject was already submitted to the parliament in March 2021, and this second draft presented a few minor changes to the original version.

According to Asociacija, the current bill on de-bureaucratisation maintains amendments to the Act on the Realisation of the Public Interest in Culture (ZUJIK), which were also included in the March bill, and “will result in lowering the role of professionalism and increasing the level of political interference in decision-making processes” concerning the field of culture.

In the current ZUJIK law, when it comes to making decisions for funding cultural projects, it is stated that the minister of Culture must follow the expert commission’s advice. The minister can object once, but when the expert commission issues a second opinion the minister has to follow it. The amendments included in the De-bureaucratisation law would change this: the minister would still get recommendations by the expert commission but, in the end, would decide autonomously what projects should be funded or not….We, as umbrella organisations working in the field of culture, believe that the decisions are best if they’re made at the expert level.” - Tadej Meserko, Head of Office of Asociacija.

New national plan for culture threatens recognition of NGOs in the sector

In October 2021, the Slovenian government released the first draft of the National Programme for Culture (NPK) 2021-2028, two years after the expiration of the previous one. This key document, with substantive guidelines in the field of cultural policy, left many CSOs working in the sector disappointed and concerned.

According to Asociacija, “Of particular concern is the fact that the proposal reaffirmed that the legal basis for the formation of the NPK is poor”, since it needs an action plan to be implemented in practice – an action plan that is yet to be confirmed only by the Government, which means it may include many poor measures.

In terms of content, inadequate treatment of the non-governmental sector and the self-employed professionals in culture stands out the most. The NPK proposal seeks to place both entities in the private sector, without any real distinction, together with other business entities, which is definitely not a good solution.

As pointed out by Tadej Meserko, Head of Office of Asociacija,

the new document put into public discussion by the government still shows a very negative view of the NGO sector working in culture. It is really problematic since, according to the ZUJIK law, the status of NGOs and the self-employed in culture can’t be so easily equated with business entities, and therefore they deserve separate and special treatment. The effect will probably be more budget cuts in the next years. It surely means a degradation of the NGO sector in the cultural field.

However, after receiving many critical comments on the first draft, at the beginning of December 2021, the government processed a new document, which has yet to be confirmed by the parliament. “But it looks like there are no major changes. It’s a paradoxical situation: we’ve been waiting for this document for two years, but at the same time this is not the document NGOs really need”, said Meserko. 

Metelkova evictions- What’s next?

As reported previously on the Monitor, on 19th October 2020, the NGOs operating at No. 6 Metelkova Street in Ljubljana received a proposal for an amicable termination of the lease from the building manager of the Ministry of Culture and an order to vacate the building by 31st January 2021. If they failed to do so, the ministry threatened to take the case to court and to enforce the eviction at the expense of the NGOs concerned.

In their response, the 20 internationally renowned NGOs occupying the building - such as the Peace Institute and the Legal Information Centre - noted that the termination of the leases came to their addresses “unannounced and on the very day when the SARS-CoV-2 virus epidemic and curfew were declared.” Therefore, they’ve been strongly opposing the actions of the Ministry of Culture, informing it that they have no intention of leaving No. 6 Metelkova and that they “will resist with all possible means these attacks on civil society, independent culture, and democracy.

A decision on the eviction is expected for some of the organisations in the coming months. The court procedure has been introduced separately for each organisation with slightly different dynamics, resulting in significant legal costs to NGOs.

This eviction procedure has been one of the major attacks of the current government on NGOs among a number of hostilities against them, and an additional difficulty for these organisations in the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. The search for offices on the commercial market will strongly affect the organisations and may lead to the collapse of some of them”, stated Brankica Petkovic, Researcher of the Peace Institute in Ljubljana.
The eviction was discussed in parliament, in a special body for culture that issued a non-binding decision that the government should help the NGOs evicted to find new accommodation. But the government decided to sue all NGOs in the building instead. This is a long and expensive process, and it’s taking a turn for the worse for the NGOs. Some of them received the order to leave the building by March 2022, but they can probably appeal this decision to postpone the deadline”, reported Tadej Meserko, Head of Office of Asociacija. 

New amendment to increase tax relief for donations to CSOs

On 29th October 2021, the Slovenian parliament adopted an amendment to the Corporate Income Tax Act, providing an increase in tax incentives for donations to NGOs as of January 2022. The general tax incentive has increased from 0.3% to 1% of taxable income, while donations for specific purposes (for which the tax incentive remains 0.2% of taxable income) have been broadened to include sport associations (previously, it included only culture and voluntary associations working on prevention of natural, or other, disasters). Furthermore, the amendment introduced a new tax incentive of 3.8% of taxable income for donations to professional sports organisations.

Peaceful Assembly

Lawsuits against the organisers of unregistered public rallies

According to media reports, following the order of the Ministry of the Interior, the State Attorney's Office is being forced to consider the possibility of bringing lawsuits against organisers of unannounced/unregistered protests in order to recover the costs of police intervention during these rallies.

The amount of compensation depends on the number of participants in the protest, the place and time of the event, and the security assessment. “For smaller rallies, when a small number of police officers participate, the costs are a few tens or hundreds of euros. In the case of larger unregistered public gatherings, more demanding of protection, these costs can increase up to 10,000 euros”, said the police.

The police have already submitted evidence of costs amounting to 972 166 euros, said the Director General of Police, Anton Olaj, in October 2021. Later, that amount increased. According to Dnevnik, the state attorneys who received the case are in a dilemma, as it is not clear from the Ministry of Interior's request whether the known facts about the actions of the individual protesters are enough to file a lawsuit based on available legal grounds.

The Legal Network for Democracy Protection is strongly objecting to these arguments, referring to the law and the decision of the Constitutional Court on protection of the right to protest.

CSOs launch new “Voice of the people” initiative

In early November 2021, a group of NGOs - encouraged by the success in mobilising citizens for defending the environment at the water law referendum in July 2021 (see previous update) - launched an initiative called Glas ljudstva (“Voice of the People”), joined so far by more than 100 organisations defending the environment, labour, housing, human rights and transparency, as well as by the protest movement for the protection of democracy which rose in popularity in 2020 (the so-called bicycle protests).

The initiative has put together, through a consultative process, at least 100 demands to candidates in the coming parliamentary elections in April 2022 (which will be followed in the same year by presidential elections and local elections). These demands address ten different areas, such as:

  • Democracy and political system reform
  • Rule of law and human rights
  • Fair climate change, nature conservation and sustainable food supply
  • Decent work and social rights
  • Culture and freedom of the media
  • Accessible public health
  • Development of education in science
  • Sustainable economy and public finances
  • Affordable housing and green infrastructure
  • Foreign policy

Glas ljudstva will conduct joint actions throughout 2022 to support public participation in election debates, to monitor the election process and to inform citizens and mobilise them to vote. 

Expression

STA signed a financial deal with UKOM on public service in 2021, but journalists are still concerned

After more than 300 days without funding, at the beginning of November 2021, the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) signed the contract on its public service for 2021 in an agreement with the Government Communication Office (UKOM). With this document, the government acknowledged all STA’s claims from January 2021, when the “Prime Minister Janša’s ongoing systematic attack against media and journalists in the country” began, forcing STA to rely on public crowdfunding for one year. Director of UKOM Uroš Urbanija told the press that STA should now receive two million euros for 2021.

“We are still very cautious, because the contract is based on the governmental decree, which we believe is in discrepancy with the law and has been challenged by STA in court. We are also concerned about the financial stability of the STA under the conditions of this contract. In the contract for 2022, improvements of these conditions will be necessary. We are concerned that the STA funding will be a problem again in January 2022, if STA won't be willing to agree to the UKOM's terms”, said Spela Stare, Secretary General of the Slovene Association of Journalists.
Regarding state subsidies to the media, the tender has been published and the amount of funding in 2022 was increased from approximately 1,250,000 euros to 3,950,000. Now we have to see how the money will be allocated, because last year decisions were extremely problematic”, explained Stare.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) echoed these concerns.

“This crisis has left the STA drained psychologically as well as financially. Numerous staff and some of its most experienced journalists have left. As the MFRR heard during our mission, some of its workforce is suffering from mental health problems as a result of stress and anxiety. Despite these pressures and smears from top government officials, its newsroom has continued to work with great professionalism and dignity. While the STA draws up a fresh business plan for 2022, a period of stability and fresh recruitment is now required to rejuvenate the agency for the future.”

TV Slovenija news journalists protest production plan for 2022

At the end of November 2021, news programme journalists of the television branch of RTV Slovenija protested against the draft programme and production plan for 2022, calling on the programming council of the public broadcaster to adjust it so that it “appropriately implements the mission of RTV”. After a petition against the proposed plan, almost all RTV Slovenija editors resigned in October 2021, including Manica Ambrožič Janežič and three other TV Slovenia editors: Dejan Ladika, Meta Dragolič and Mitja Prek. Under the draft Programme-Production Plan (PPN) for 2022, news talk shows will be cancelled, daily news programmes such as Dnevnik and Slovenska kronika would be shortened, while others, including election programming, would be shifted to the broadcaster’s second channel, which has far lower viewership. Despite concerns being raised in a letter to the newly appointed DG, Andrej Grah Whatmough, who fired Director of Programmes at RTV Slovenija, Natalija Gorščak in August 2021(see previous update), he stated that the changes in programming are necessary due to the current financial situation, the departure of employees and low ratings of news shows. On 29th November 2021, RTV’s programme council approved the proposal despite widespread criticism from media watchdogs.

A new editor-in-chief was appointed by the TV director without consulting the newsroom, which is required by law.

We are extremely concerned about the pressures on journalists and the editorial autonomy of the public broadcaster in the following months, during the 2022 election campaign”, pointed out Spela Stare, Secretary General of the Slovene Association of Journalists.

According to Brankica Petkovic, Researcher of the Peace Institute in Ljubljana, in December 2021 the pressure on the public broadcaster by the government further increased, also by “appointment of new members of RTV Slovenija’s governing bodies by the tight majority in the parliament, with no single member nominated by the opposition parties, enabling total control by the government coalition over RTV Slovenija’s governing bodies.”