Concerns remain over RTV Slovenia as the new government opens up dialogue with civil society

Concerns remain over RTV Slovenia as the new government opens up dialogue with civil society
Prime Minister Robert Golob speaks to RTV SLO which is facing editorial pressures (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images).

Introduction

After the legislative elections were held in April 2022, Slovenians voted to elect a new President on 23rd October 2022. Former foreign minister and conservative candidate Anže Logar and former information watchdog and lawyer centre-left candidate Natasa Pirc Musar will head to a run-off election on 13th November 2022. Local elections will take place on 20th November 2022 and mayoral run-offs on 4th December 2022. CSOs are mobilising citizens to encourage turnout through a series of campaigns.

The former ruling Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) has collected signatures for three referendum motions against three pieces of legislation recently adopted by the new government led by Robert Golob. The Democrats (SDS) are seeking to defeat a law reorganising the bodies governing the public broadcasting service RTV Slovenija, an act to reshape the government cabinet, and one deferring the long-term care act passed under the previous SDS-led government. The referenda will be held on 27th November 2022.

After the Slovenian Constitutional Court ruled that the provisions restricting marriage to heterosexual couples are unconstitutional, the new government rapidly proposed amendments to the Family Code to allow same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples in Slovenia. On 5th October 2022, the Parliament approved the new legislation. However, the Council of State voted by 17 votes to 11 to impose a veto on amendments to the Family Code. According to the proponents of the veto motion, the amendments, which define marriage as a living union between two persons and allow same-sex couples to adopt children, circumvent the will of the people. On 19th October 2022, MEPs confirmed the law. In the meantime, the conservative coalition “It’s for the children!” (“Za otroke gre!”) has launched an initiative to collect signatures for a referendum against changes to the Family Code. The Parliament is expected to vote on the inadmissibility of the referendum, after which it will likely be dismissed as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.

Association

Charges against 8 March Institute are dropped as CSOs reclaim their public role

At the beginning of April 2022, the 8 March Institute (Inštitut 8. marec) received a notice from the Inspectorate of Internal Affairs accusing the Institute of “leading an undeclared electoral campaign” (see previous update). After the change in government, the investigation was discontinued.

The “Let’s go vote” (Gremo volit) campaign promoted by the 8 March Institute encouraged voter turnout at the parliamentary elections, held in April 2022. If CSOs want to engage in campaigning on the subject of a referendum, they are obliged, according to the Slovenian law (Election and Referendum Campaign Act) to inform the national voting and election committee and provide necessary data as “organisers of the referendum campaign”. For instance, environmental CSOs and the 8 March Institute had to register as organisers of the referendum campaign regarding amendments to the Waters Act in 2021. CSOs are concerned that if such requirements are extended to information campaigns aimed to encourage voter turn-out and empower democratic processes, it would severely limit the work and role of CSOs, according to Brankica Petković of the Peace Institute.

The Peace Institute, along with other European NGOs, participated in a project led by Liberties on the topic of political advertising laws. According to the recommendations of the published report, civil society and investigative media in Slovenia should be able to act as a credible source of information during campaigns and be able to provide additional oversight of political advertising transparency. To this end, CSOs are calling for an update of the regulation of political advertising.

Renewed dialogue between the new government and CSOs

Since the government change, its dialogue with civil society has improved. “In terms of accessibility and dialogue, things are really changing”, commented Polona Torkar of cultural network Asociacija.

Concerning the urgent issue of cuts to CSOs’ funding, as implemented by the previous government, the Ministry of Culture has published a calendar of scheduled calls for tenders for creators and producers in the field of culture.

There has been improved dialogue in several policy areas. For instance, the Ministry of the Environment has established the Council of the Minister of the Environment and Space for cooperation with non-governmental organisations and held meetings with CSOs. Likewise, the Ministry of the Interior has established a body for regular consultations with civil society on migration policy and appointed an independent researcher as an advisor to the cabinet of the Minister.

Prior to the April 2022 parliamentary elections, the civil society initiative “Voice of the People” (“Glas ljudstva”), the largest and most diverse civil society coalition in Slovenia, gathering more than 100 CSOs and supported by a thousand individual activists, presented 138 demands for policy measures in 11 policy areas (democracy and political system, rule of law and human rights, climate justice and nature protection, labour and social affairs, housing, public health system, education and science, culture and media, sustainable economy, infrastructure - transport, energy, digital - and global justice) to candidates. The three parties of the government coalition have committed to 122 of the policy measures prior to the elections. The civil society coalition will follow up on the pre-election commitments with a monitoring report in the coming months. They are also trying to establish a dialogue with the ministries to participate in development of policy changes and provide independent expertise in various policy fields.

However, challenges remain with legislative due process. For instance, the Law on intervention measures in the Energy Sector was adopted by the National Assembly on 13th September 2022 through the emergency legislative procedure, thus bypassing the 30-day period for public debate which was due to expire on 29th September 2022. Similarly, the Law on intervention measures in the Health Sector was approved last July following the emergency legislative procedure. Since 2009, the CNVOS network has been monitoring the number of violations of legislative due process through an online platform. In the last four months, during the new legislature, the platform recorded 55 per cent of due process violations, marking an improvement from previous figures.

A new autonomous space opens in Ljubljana while Metelkova remains under threat

On 3rd September 2022, a new autonomous space for civil society work under the name of PLAC (Participatory Ljubljana Autonomous Zone) opened in Ljubljana in a building owned by a bank that has been abandoned for years. The activists who reclaimed the space explained at the press conference that they were motivated by the lack of opportunities to act in an increasingly gentrified city, particularly felt by younger and less emancipated communities in recent years, especially after the eviction of the Rog Autonomous Factory.

Since its opening, the police has visited the PLAC twice seeking to identify those present, which has been perceived as a form of intimidation. As a part of the electoral commitments, Robert Golob promised to support existing and new autonomous spaces. PLAC users now expect the government, ministries and coalition parties to support them in their efforts. Some weeks after its opening, PLAC has been running reading clubs, sports activities and practical workshops.

Faced with the threat of eviction since October 2020, cultural and human rights NGOs at Metelkova 6 building in Ljubljana have been approached by the new Minister of Culture with the promise of a permanent legal solution. The former Minister of Culture launched eviction proceedings against every individual NGO, which they separately challenged in the courts, resulting in a considerable amount of legal defence costs.

“The proceedings are still ongoing, but the new government committed to finding long term legal solutions to protect the NGOs,” said Brankica Petković of the Peace Institute, one of the NGOs under threat of eviction.

Director of 8 March Institute physically attacked in Ljubljana

On 25th October 2022, Nika Kovač, the director of the 8 March Institute, an all-women-led CSO engaged in promoting citizen participation and denouncing injustices and inequalities, suffered a physical attack in the centre of Ljubljana. She was walking with her colleague Maja Koražija when a man deliberately knocked Nika over. He then insulted the activists and threatened them with physical harm before leaving.

After reporting the attack to the police, the activists were targeted by online hate speech and some media affiliated with the former ruling party SDS questioned their credibility.

This is not the first time that Nika and the 8 March Institute have faced harassment and threats. There are currently five court proceedings and police enquiries pending relating to death threats against Nika or against the Institute as a whole.

Peaceful Assembly

New government announces refund of unlawful fines and policing fees

In a ruling issued on 5th May 2022 upon challenge by the Information Commissioner, the Constitutional Court found that the government decree governing the checking of Covid passes in public places is unconstitutional. The application of the decree led to the opening of an impressive number of misdemeanor proceedings.

The state must protect people from communicable diseases, which is one of the human rights, but not at the expense of violating another human right. Besides, there was more than enough time to pass an appropriate law ,” the Information Commissioner said in response to the ruling.

A report presented to the government by the Ministry of Justice on the legal basis of misdemeanor proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic found that more than 62,000 offences were alleged against legal and natural persons under the Communicable Diseases Act and the Public Collection Act between 12th March 2020 and 30th May 2022, amounting to 5,754,540.63 euros.

In accordance with the ruling and the findings of the report, the new government has ordered the Ministry of Justice, in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior and the government’s legal service, to prepare normative solutions to remediate the unlawful proceedings by 31st January 2023, most likely by means of a special law. Therefore, according to the Justice Minister, the Government will do everything to stop ongoing proceedings, abolish the fines imposed and reimburse the fines already paid on the basis of unconstitutional or unlawful or disproportionate regulations. “In doing so, we must stress that we will not interfere with those misdemeanor procedures that have been put in place under lawful and constitutionally consistent regulations. For example, when it comes to violations of road traffic regulations or the Law on Public Order and Peace," the minister stressed.

After the case sparked an international response, the new government has also announced that it will discontinue proceedings against activist and theatre director Jaša Jenull and other protesters after the State Prosecutor’s Office stated in December 2021 that it would begin bringing cases against so-called "organisers of unannounced/unregistered protests" in order to recover the costs of police intervention during these rallies (see previous update). Jenull was issued fines amounting to 35,000 Euros after three claims were brought against him to reimburse the authorities for the cost of policing protests he attended in the last two years.

“March for Life” gets violent as neo-Nazis join pro-life groups

The “March for Life” movement organised two rallies in Ljubljana on 27th September and 1st October 2022 to defend ‘traditional values’ and ‘traditional families’. Anti-fascist activists staging a counter march in defence of women’s rights were reportedly attacked by individuals identified as neo-Nazis. Police failed to prevent the attack on protesters and refused to intervene in the dispute for some time.

Expression

RTVS staff step up strike due to worsening working conditions and lack of autonomy

On 26th September 2022, journalists and other employees at public broadcaster RTV Slovenija staged a strike demanding editorial autonomy over content. Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the National Assembly expressing support to RTV staff and demanded the resignation of the management. The normal broadcasting schedule was disrupted with only the flagship 7pm news airing. This is the third strike since June 2022 and comes after months of tensions (see previous update) between the staff and the management appointed by the previous government.

  • Throughout early 2022, the Slovenian Government Communications Office (UKOM) then headed by Uroš Urbanija continued to publish regular analyses of the coverage of RTV Slovenija, which critics from journalists’ associations and academia described as undue pressure on the public broadcaster’s editorial independence and violation of UKOM’s mandate. The analyses repeatedly criticised journalists’ reporting as one-sided and unprofessional. In addition, public letters were sent to the management of RTVS, which singled out certain journalists and included recommendations on who else the journalists in question should have interviewed, what other questions they should have asked, and directions on how RTV should conduct its reporting. Several journalists' unions condemned the analyses:
“We understand such behaviour of the office (UKOM) as a gross and inadmissible encroachment on the independence of journalistic and editorial work, which is based on the program standards of RTV Slovenia, the Code of Journalists of Slovenia and the Professional Standards and Principles of Journalistic Ethics of RTV Slovenia, and the broader framework of our activities is of course determined by legislation (the Media Act, the Broadcasting Act, the Constitution...).”
  • On 4th May 2022, RTV Slovenia journalist Vida Petrovčič received several insults and threats on social media after rumours circulating stated that she would start hosting the Studio City show on TV Slovenija. Many described her as "Janša's soldier", and one of the Facebook users also wished that a "nuclear arsenal" would be used on her. Threats and insults were also directed at Petrovčič's relatives and friends. She described the insults on social media as "inadmissible attacks", and the management of RTV Slovenija also condemned them and confirmed that Petrovčič would not host the show.
  • On 13th May 2022, an anonymous user sent several death threats on Twitter to TV Slovenija host Igor E. Bergant and threatened Bergant's wife, who is a judge at the Ljubljana High Court. The same user allegedly made a similar threat via the answering machine of the ombudsman for the rights of viewers and listeners of RTV Slovenija. The online attacks came after Bergant spoke in support of the strike action led by journalists at RTV Slovenija to demand editorial and institutional independence.
  • Journalist and TV host Andreja Gregorič said she was targeted with insults on social media after it was announced that she would be one of the hosts of the new Panorama show on TV Slovenija. On 25th May 2022, Professor Boris Vezjak discredited Gregorič in a blog post saying that she was playing the victim in a "perfidious camouflage to support the current state of dismantling public service broadcasting and an implicit call for unethical and irresponsible behaviour".
  • In September 2022, a court found that RTV Slovenija director general Andrej Grah Whatmough unlawfully dismissed TV Slovenija director Natalija Gorščak in August 2021. After Gorščak's dismissal, TV Slovenija was without a fully-fledged director for almost a year, until Uroš Urbanija, head of the Government Communication Office (UKOM) under the previous government, took over in mid-July 2022.
  • In August 2022, TV Slovenija director Uroš Urbanija questioned the professionalism of news anchor Saša Krajnc and editor Vesna Pfeiffer and called on the editor-in-chief to evaluate their actions. This was due to how they decided to present a report on the broadcaster ending its business with the magazine Mladina. The trade unions of RTV Slovenija and TV Slovenija have called for the dismissal of Urbanija.
  • RTV Slovenija staff continued to be subject to mobbing and smearing, as RTV management have continued to pressure individual desks, journalists and programme editors, threatening some staff to dismiss them. Trade unions have filed dozens of complaints with the relevant authorities such as the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption and the Labour Inspectorate, as well as criminal complaints over alleged pressure exerted on staff by the leadership of RTV Slovenija and threats of disciplinary action.

In July 2022, the Golob government promoted a reform of the RTV Slovenija Act, currently subject to referendum proceedings, which would hopefully restore the autonomy of the broadcaster. The bill aims to modify the governance of RTV Slovenija by creating a new RTV council predominantly composed of members of civil society and RTV staff. The remaining members will be appointed on the basis of public calls by the Italian and Hungarian minorities, Slovenia’s president, the Academy of Sciences and Arts (SAZU), the National Culture Committee, Slovenian Olympic Committee, Information Commissioner, Council for Sustainable Development, and the Human Rights Ombudsman. The government says this will significantly reduce the impact of political interference on RTV Slovenija. The new governance model eliminates the post of director general to replace it with a four-member management board, featuring all major senior directors at the broadcaster, with one of them being a workers’ director.

The bill also introduces some limits on the dismissal of editors, which can no longer be an arbitrary decision of the management. Editors will be dismissed only if they lose the trust of the staff, and the RTV Slovenija council will have to agree with the move. The bill sets a clear line between the powers of the RTV Slovenija council and of editors when it comes to media content. The council will not be allowed to interfere in specific parts of the content before publication and may only discuss them on the basis of reports from the broadcaster’s advocate of the rights of viewers and listeners.

The bill also introduces a new consultative body advising the RTV Slovenija council – a financial board of five financial experts. Its members will be appointed by the RTV Slovenija council upon proposal by the culture and finance ministers, the RTV works council, the Slovenian Directors Association and the Association of Bookkeepers, Financial Experts and Auditors.

Hostile rhetoric in the media

The Agency for Communications Networks and Services (AKOS) has conducted an inspection into Nova24TV, affiliated to the former ruling party SDS, after TV host Boris Tomašič called for an armed rebellion in the case of victory of the left-wing coalition at the legislative elections while on air last March. The inspection was aimed at determining whether there had been incitement to intolerance and violence. As a last resort, the Agency could revoke or annul the outlets licence to carry out its activities.

Right-oriented Demokracija magazine described the current government as "neo-Bolshevik", as it claims a parliamentary inquiry into allegedly unlawful funding of political parties and party propaganda was being "abused for a reckoning with media not owned by the transitional left or the deep state".

Photojournalist assaulted

Mapping Media Freedom reports that on 11th September 2022, photojournalist Uroš Abram from weekly political and current affairs magazine Mladina was physically assaulted by a steward while documenting a roadblock during a cycling race in the municipality of Škocjan. Introducing himself as a journalist with a press card from the Slovene Association of Journalists, he asked two race stewards stationed at the location how long the roadblock would last. The two men suggested he contact the race organiser. The photojournalist then took out his phone and began to try and take photos of the roadblock. Following this, one of the stewards forbade him from taking photos and blocked his view. The steward first insulted and then began to threaten Abram. The journalist changed the settings to video recording and asked the steward to repeat the ban on taking photos of the roadblock. According to the Slovene Association of Journalists, the man then told him he could film in the other direction, at which point he physically assaulted Abram, which resulted in his phone being knocked out of his hand and breaking. The steward then broke his press card. While the photojournalist was not injured during the attack, he reported the matter to the police who arrested and charged the steward for an offence against public order and peace.

Journalist received insulting email

Mapping Media Freedom reports that on6th June 2022, journalist Anja Intihar from the daily newspaper Delo received an insulting email which contained offensive language regarding her appearance and made comments discrediting her as a journalist. Among other comments, she was called a "cheap prostitute". The email included a link to an article that the journalist had written on 3rd June 2022 about the new appointment of the former Slovenian Minister of Education, Simona Kustec.