MEP Romana Tomc, leader of the Slovenian delegation of the European People’s Party (EPP), has stressed that in current times, people rely on the media more than ever before. In addition to the public media, the so-called “mainstream” media, there is a growing tendency to follow private media, especially online news portals. However, the editorial policy of the latter is very much dependent on who owns them, as reporting depends on the interests of the owner of the media company to which they belong.
Member of the European Parliament Romana Tomc pointed out that if the business of media owners is intertwined with the business of political actors, reporting on the misconduct of their own economic entities and on possible political connections is, of course, not to be expected. “In addition to editorial policy, media standards are visibly lowered in such an environment. The amount of fake news and disinformation is at a high level, which poses a challenge for us to protect European democratic values and our right to be informed.” In order to discuss this issue, Romana Tomc organised a conference at the European Parliament entitled Media Freedom in the EU. The speakers at the conference were Anna Herold, Head of the Audio-visual and Media Services Policy Unit at the European Commission’s General Directorate for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, MEP Vladimír Bilčík of the European People’s Party, Margherita Movarelli from the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, and representatives of the Slovenian media: Peter Gregorčič, Peter Jančič and Miro Petek.
MEP Franc Bogovič: I agree that there is a specific problem here, and it is also present every year in the reports on the rule of law in Slovenia when we talk about the media. And that problem is media ownership. On the one hand, ownership is very concentrated, there are a lot of radio stations, television stations, gossip media outlets, and various portals, from where people are later delegated to the Slovenian government, to individual parties. There are over 60 media outlets that are owned by a single individual, and there is a concentration of media. Smaller regional media are collapsing, which are often a very good corrective to the state media, which often, at least in our case, get involved in politics and are supporters of certain policies. The ownership structure of the largest daily newspapers is also interesting. The owners of these media are the owners of large companies, many of whom are transition tycoons who have been the subject of journalistic investigations, and suddenly, nobody is looking into the businesses of these people any more. I myself once put forward the thesis that there is a media, capital and political conspiracy here, which sets up governments, including those that have changed rapidly. But you quickly see them sacking you when they are not happy.
Mitja Iršič: I am a former adviser to the Minister of Culture. I would like to take issue with the explanation given by the member of the cabinet of the Vice-President of the European Commission. There is nothing wrong with the Vice-President meeting members of the European or Constitutional Courts in the Member States. However, in her term of office, she has visited only three constitutional courts, of which the Slovenian court has been visited twice, which is a little unusual. Especially at this time, when the Slovenian Constitutional Court is making a really tendentious or politically tense decision on the Radio-Television Slovenia Act. I would also like to highlight Jourová’s statement when she said that the future of Radio-Television Slovenia depended on the decision of the Constitutional Court. Such a statement might sound politically unhygienic, at least, as a kind of central pressure on the Constitutional Court, saying, ‘You better make the right decision’. I do not claim that she really said it with such intentions. However, that is how it might sound to someone listening from Slovenia. We have heard such phrases in Slovenia before – from members of the coalition. I would also like to point out that the Slovenian media reported that the Vice-President’s office did not want to answer who specifically invited them to Slovenia.
Edvard Kadič: I deal with communication and media, and I am also the publisher of a number of electronic media, including Portal24. I think I should refer to the words of Mr Gregorčič, who mentioned the relativisation of Russian aggression in Slovenia. Yesterday or the day before yesterday, in the National Assembly, the opposition’s proposal to declare Russia a terrorist state was not supported. This relativisation has a much broader concept, and it is slowly spilling over into the media. In Slovenia, we currently have a case that we have heard about several times today, in regards to Ms. Jourová. Visiting the constitutional courts is probably part of the job, but to take the position of someone in the process and then visit the constitutional court in the process of debating this proposal is problematic, to say the least. The stain on the reputation of the European Commission is very great indeed. At this point, I think it is important to point out that the Commission is a representative of all EU citizens and also all citizens of Slovenia, including those who think differently from the ruling coalition. While any expression of views is a legitimate right, we need to be careful in the procedure when we are talking about the protection of the rule of law.
We also need to be aware that a politician is always living in latent fear of losing influence over the media. The media can also play a kind of extended arm of politics. The second issue relates to the protection of trust in journalists. As a publisher of electronic media, I can tell you that the trend in this area is also the same as on social networks. Journalists are increasingly seen as influencers. The individual is an easy target for discrediting, for attacks.
Miro Petek: In the last two years, under the previous government, there was also talk of attacks on journalists on the European stage. The only attack that was carried out on journalists was the attack on me in 2001, when they tried to kill me on my own doorstep. Fortunately, I survived. After that attack, there have been no other physical attacks on journalists. Despite the fact that five of the attackers were in prison, they ended up with a handsome compensation, but I, as the victim, got nothing. I am an amphibian. I have been in journalism for just over 20 years, as a correspondent from Carinthia, and I have mainly done investigative journalism. Then I went to Parliament and was a Member of Parliament for eight years. I have an insight into both political life and journalism. For the last two years before the current government took office, I was an adviser to the Minister for Culture, Simoniti. There has been a lot of talk about attacks on journalists during that time, which, from our side, is not true. We had many questions and contacts with foreign media. However, the statements we made were ignored by them. They refused to publish a correction. If the world’s biggest media do this in such way, about a country like this, how can we expect them to be objective when they write about important issues like war. With our media, the world media have been in solidarity when it comes to lying.
We have a very interesting network of different media outlets that have a hegemony on the Slovenian media market, that evade media legislation, that are linked to different owners, and that all lead to one owner in the end. Our attempt a year or two ago to break up these networks, which are harmful to democracy in Slovenia, was futile. The problem of media freedom in Slovenia lies precisely in the ownership of the media in a large media monopoly and in the circumvention of the law. All the left-wing policies that have been in power so far have allowed such a media concentration defect, which today is a serious threat to democracy in Slovenia. The competition regulator in Slovenia, the Slovenian Competition Protection Agency, does nothing in this area, nor does the media inspectorate, which operates within the Ministry of Culture. It is precisely because of this media concentration that we are witnessing the dismissal of journalists in Slovenia in these dominant media. The media no longer need so many journalists, because the concentration of the mass media in one hand has led to the so-called phenomenon of reuse in different media. Thus, on the one hand, they achieve greater reach and influence, and on the other hand, they are able to use their greater reach and influence to commit the media murders that we are witnessing in the Slovenian media space.
Although I was involved in the creation of new legislation in the National Assembly, today, in this area in Slovenia, we are still living with one foot in the old Yugoslavia, and artificial intelligence is knocking at our door, which is setting a whole new milestone for journalism and the media. As for Radio-Television Slovenia (RTV Slovenia), Petek pointed out that it has 2200 employees, while more than 30 municipalities in Slovenia (212) have fewer inhabitants. RTV Slovenia has an annual budget of around 110 million. Petek said that during his time as an advisor to the Ministry of Culture, the budget was increased to 244 million euros, which is much higher than in 2016-2017, when the Ministry’s budget was 167 million euors. RTVS has excellent conditions to function normally in the country. RTVS has 615 employees in journalistic positions, 132 of whom do not meet the conditions for a journalistic position. This is a figure from just over a year ago. You can drive a car on the road if you have a car licence, you can judge if you are a qualified lawyer with a judicial qualification, you can operate on someone if you are a doctor or a surgeon, but in Slovenia, practically anyone can be a journalist. And there is a double risk when it comes to journalists with inadequate education. They cannot do the job of a journalist competently, and they are prepared to make all sorts of compromises in order to keep their jobs. This, of course, is not good. The adoption of the amendment to the Radio-Television Slovenia Act under the urgent procedure, without public debate, almost by revolutionary law, shows the considerable danger in our society of laws becoming a tool of unrequited vindictiveness, human malice, passion and the satisfaction of inferiority complexes. This is my observation now that I am no longer involved in neither journalism nor politics. The right-wing say I am too left-wing, and the left-wing says I am a radical right-wing, fascist or Janšaist.
Our President of the Republic also worked in the media, reading news reports written by others. Before she was elected, she often criticised the media, especially the media outlets which were not kind to her. She accused them of implementing the practice of buying media peace and accepting payments for media attacks on dissidents. She did not cite a single concrete example to prove her point. We have a President whose rhetoric on the media is reminiscent of a debate in a peripheral village pub in Carinthia. The links between left-wing politics and the media moguls are obvious. A few days ago, the Minister for Infrastructure, Alenka Bratušek, fell into the arms of the owner of the newspaper Delo, who is also a co-owner of the company that is currently building Slovenia’s largest infrastructure project, partly co-financed with EU funds. The media is used by the largest owners of media houses in Slovenia in order to win other businesses financed with state or EU money. In such cases, the media becomes a weapon of blackmail, a bargaining chip, where the media owners can ensure that one politician is written about positively and another negatively.
Peter Jančič: The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia was visited last week by the Vice-President of the European Commission, Vera Jourová, immediately after the dismissal of the entire top management of RTV Slovenia had been stopped. They found that there was a serious risk that the constitutional order, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of the media were being violated. After the elections, the new authorities tried to prematurely dismiss the whole leadership of RTVS, and of course, this means that they would have gotten rid of the editors later on as well. This has happened in the past. The court’s decision was at first a surprise to the left and liberal parties because they appointed the majority in the Constitutional Court. But this time, things did not happen according to their plans, and then the European Commissioner, with the same political view as the parties of the current coalition have, came to the President of the Constitutional Court, who weighed in to say that the decision had been taken. She then said that she supposedly did not talk to him about this topic.
If a certain authority can immediately replace critical media outlets that could do it any harm, then it does not need to pursue journalists; it does not need to call editors and put pressure on them. They merely appoint their own people. Judges are better guardians of freedom than politicians, because the latter have their own objectives. The same thing that is happening on television has happened on Siol.net, the second most widely read media outlet in the country. I publicly announced my dismissal before it even happened. After the elections to the National Assembly, they immediately dismissed the two supervisors of the Slovenian Sovereign Holding, thus securing a majority to dismiss the Holding’s entire management board, which manages all state-owned companies. The new administration immediately dismissed the Telekom Slovenije supervisors, too, and the new Telekom supervisors appointed a new administration. The new board immediately dismissed the director of Telekom’s TV, Rajko Gerič, who is considered an experienced journalist with autonomy. And thus, they opened their way to me and told me that they wanted me to stop being editor-in-chief from the next day onward. That is nothing unusual in our country. This has happened to many journalists before. The authorities had good reasons for this change, just as they have at RTV. There was a story published about the current Prime Minister Robert Golob before the elections, where it was found that he had received unusually high bonuses and salaries in his previous job. There is a special law in Slovenia related to salaries in state-owned companies, and he was paid significantly more than what is allowed by law. We published this – that he had received more than 1 million euros in bonuses over four years, for running a company that was predominantly state-owned all the time. However, our story was not entirely accurate. In fact, Golob actually received 1.5 million euros more in bonuses, but we did not know that. In the end, he gave up the extra million and a half because the scandal would have been too big. It was also because we had raised the subject.
What I believe is particularly important is the exposure of the controversial practices of that same company, the Gen-I energy company, that directly financed the companies of some journalists. In 2019, the journalist Vesna Vuković started receiving money from Gen-I to a parallel additional company she established. The contract was made by Robert Golob’s company. Over a few years, over 100 thousand euros were paid to the said company. However, payments also came from several related companies, including the company of today’s Minister of Finance. They did not want to tell us why this happened. They insisted that it was a private matter. After the elections, Vuković became the main PR representative for Golob’s party, the Freedom Movement (Gibanje Svoboda). Later, she even became the Secretary-General of the party. The wife of another member of the Necenzurirano.si web portal team (the web portal where Vuković worked before) became the government’s communications chief, while a third member became an adviser to a special commission in the National Assembly, investigating the allegedly controversial funding of the media that were critical of the government. Until recently, this commission was headed by journalist Mojca Pašek Šetinc, who had suddenly jumped into politics. She is obtaining information on the operations of critical media, although the information is not accessible to anyone. And then, they interrogate editors and advertisers in the National Assembly and try to intimidate them.
Peter Gregorčič: Since the beginning of last year, I have been the Chairman of the Programme Council of RTVS, a public institution of special cultural and media importance, which provides a public service in the field of radio and television. The Programme Council is the governing body of the institution when it comes to the programming policy, and in its work, it represents and protects the interests of the public by conducting programming policy in a way that serves all the people of Slovenia. It safeguards the principle of publicity. I am talking about the Programme Council, whose composition is being changed by the recently adopted amendment to the Radio-Television Slovenia Act. It is composed of 29 members from all sectors of society, with a majority of 16 members elected by an absolute majority by the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia on the proposal of users of RTVS content and the civil society. I was elected as one of the representatives of civil society.
The plurality of a society is a prerequisite for the realisation of the values on which the European Union is founded. Without ensuring the pluralism of opinions and ideas, neither human dignity nor the rule of law can be realised. Two sub-systems are key to ensuring pluralism: freedom of education and freedom of the media. Slovenia has, or has had in the past, serious problems with both.
After the elections to the National Assembly that were held last April, the new authorities apparently realised that I, as the President of the Programme Council of RTV Slovenia, was clearly not the right person for them. So, they launched a political purge, in a way that the EU is already very familiar with, from similar cases in Hungary and Poland. The government, led by Dr Robert Golob, abused the urgency procedure to table an amendment to the Radio-Television Slovenia Act. In this way, with all public debate completely blocked, and during the summer holidays, it wanted to remove the supervisory and management bodies of RTVS and replace the management staff with those loyal to itself. The legislator, abusing the parliamentary majority, adopted the transitional provisions of the amendment, which, as soon as it entered into force, ex lege terminated the mandates of the Director-General of RTVS and all members of the Programme and Supervisory Boards and the committees attached to them, more than three years before the expiry of their term of office. It should be recalled that in Hungary and Poland, the parliamentary majority has similarly abused its strong position of power. It got rid of judges, civil servants and other officials who were not to its liking through exactly the same legal changes. This led to Hungary and Poland being condemned before the European Court of Human Rights. And Hungary had ex lege terminated the Hungarian Information Commissioner before the end of his mandate.
In order to prevent a blatant abuse of power in Slovenia, which is contrary to the minimum standards of European human rights law, we immediately turned to the Constitutional Court after the amendment to the law was made public. The petition for interim suspension was lodged by representatives of RTV Slovenia, in order to safeguard the institutional independence of this public institution. This petition is the only legal means of preventing the authorities from arbitrary, capricious, and blatant political subjugation of the public broadcaster. The adopted amendment contradicts the objective of the European Commission, which states that the appointment of the head and the board of directors of public service media will have to be transparent, open and non-discriminatory. In total contradiction to the Commission’s guidelines, the amendment completely changes the way RTVS is managed and controlled from a democratic to a corporatist manner. With the aim of so-called depoliticisation, the ruling coalition has completely transferred the power to appoint the members of the RTVS Council to the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia – meaning to the constitutional institution with the highest degree of democratic legitimacy. It has, however, delegated this power to individual, completely arbitrarily selected interest and sui generis state institutions. In doing so, the government and the legislator have not even explained the criteria on the basis of which they have chosen these groups. Appointments under the new legislation were made in a completely non-transparent manner and far from the public eye. However, the provisions now allow the members of the Council to silence and replace those members whose performance they do not like, by means of a relative majority of their members. This requires the obedience of the members of the Council. This new legal regime in Slovenia allows majority interest groups to control RTVS according to their purely partisan interests. The recently adopted legal solutions in Slovenia are completely at odds with the objectives pursued by the European Commission for public service media.
Romana Tomc: The latest and the penultimate reports of the European Commission on the rule of law say that we have major problems with the media in Slovenia. The European legislation that is now being adopted is all the more important for this reason. There is an attempt underway in Slovenia to completely politically subordinate RTVS, and many believe that the main purpose of the law was to remove the leadership of RTVS to more easily achieve this goal. The way in which the ruling politicians have conceived the politicisation of RTVS is an example of what the new European legislation prohibits.
Margherita Movarelli: I come from a European think-tank that is very active in the field of political research in Brussels and in the EU Member States. We work closely with European institutions, media platforms and journalists across Europe. The new digital era has brought an expansion of the range and accessibility of information, which has also greatly increased competitiveness. This, in turn, has revolutionised media business models. But we have a lot of media pressure, media politicisation. The new digital context has brought new pressures on journalists, media editors, publishers. These are megatrends that have been identified by European institutions. In addition to political pressures, we also have economic pressures. Here we need transparency in state funding, we need fair funding, and advertising must be transparent. We also need to ensure quality standards, quality journalism. The data show that we have a decline in quality in the media offer, and we also see a decline in trust, especially in some countries.
Freedom of the media is at the heart of European values. This must be preserved. Each country is different, it has its own specificities, and the right balance needs to be struck in harmonising uniformity in the European media market. This is essential. A pluralistic and independent media is in everyone’s interest.
Vladimír Bilčík: Today, we are facing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we are finally beginning to realise throughout Europe how much Russian propaganda there really is in Europe. We have to face up to this, and we have to fight against it. We need to take joint action. Without free and quality media, we do not have democracy. If we do not have free media, it will be difficult to have democracy. I hope that we will conclude this legislation by the end of this year.
The media must be independent, journalists must not be spied on illegally. We need independent public services with independent funding. Transparency of ownership is very important when we are talking about private media. There are many of them on the market, but the question is who owns them, who do these journalists work for, and is there job protection available for these journalists. We adopted the Digital Services Act last year, which is important because it is the first time we have started to deal with online content. This will be regulated at the EU level. This means that you cannot write whatever you want on your social media. I am in favour of freedom of speech, but the question is how things spread. If things are in accordance with the law, we can write them down. It is important that platforms realise that they have the responsibility to be transparent about how they fight such disinformation. Threats to media companies are also a problem across the EU.
11:45 The European Commission spokesperson said that it is important to talk about media freedom. We see Russia’s war in Ukraine, where they are using weapons and also propaganda. This reminds us of how important the work of journalists and the media is in informing the general public. We need democratic leadership. This is not only about protecting rights abroad, but also our rights and freedoms in the EU. We have seen many attacks on media freedom in recent years. In the most dramatic cases, this has even led to the murders of journalists.
We see problems all over the EU. We have seen spying (the Pegasus scandal), somewhere, the media close to the authorities are making threats, elsewhere ownership is unknown…. The Freedom of the Media Act that has recently been presented addresses all the important issues. For the first time in European law, we have a provision which stipulates that states cannot interfere with media freedom and editorial freedom. You also have transparency rules in the text: transparency of media ownership. We want to strengthen European coordination of national media regulators.
Romana Tomc: The basis for this debate is the new European rules on media freedom presented by the European Commission last September, which are intended to ensure greater diversity and independence of the media. Expectations are extremely high, and there have already been many consultation events on what these new rules will look like. The majority welcomes these new rules, stressing their importance, but also pointing to their lack of transparency and expressing concerns about how the transfer from theory to practice will actually be carried out. This is important because, unlike a directive, a regulation is a legal act which, as soon as it enters into force, is directly and uniformly applicable in all Member States.