The Slovenia Times

How Free Is the Media?



When the New York-based organization Freedom House recently published its annual report on the freedom of the world's press, members of Slovenia's government generally liked what they saw. Slovenia ended up on the 39th-to-45th position out of 195 countries worldwide. White the study mentions "reports of government pressure and interference in the media" as a growing cause for concern, it describes Slovenia's media as essentially free. This came on the heels of a generally positive State Department report, which states that the government respected press rights, despite "reports of indirect government influence on the media."

Some journalists and media observers within Slovenia, however, paint a considerably different picture. They argue that the country's journalists face significant direct and indirect political pressure, largely a result of the ownership structure of companies controlling many media outlets. According to the critics, such pressures have increased since the SDS-led coalition was elected more than two years ago.

State Ownership
Despite Slovenia's privatisation program of the 1990s, the state has retained indirect ownership of a number of newspapers through various funds. While state-owned newspapers were nominally privatised, chiefly through internal-buyouts, the state has kept significant holdings through its control of privatisation funds. According to Marko Mirosavljevič of the Ljubljana Faculty of Social Sciences, a frequent critic of the current system, "the state is currently present in various media as an owner, regulator and advertiser." He argues that it would be utopic to talk about independence and autonomy of the media as long as such indirect state control remains.

Critics point out to changes at Delo in the wake of the 2004 election as an example of politics interfering in the editorial process. The watershed election brought a centre-right collation to power after a long period of canter-left rule by the LDS and its partners. Because of the state's ownership of Delo shares, the composition of the newspaper's board of directors also changed following the election. Danilo Slivnik, who had previously edited a right-of-centre weekly newsmagazine, was named the chairman of the board, despite open opposition of a number of Delo journalists. Slivnik named Peter Jančič the newspaper's editor-in-chief, despite public opposition from a number of Delo's journalists.

Public and political opinion about the changes is sharply divided. Some support Slivnik's argument that the changes are intended to redress a systemic left-wing bias at the newspaper. The new management argues that it intends to create a truly centrist newspaper more in touch with the political views of the general public. To many critics, however, the changes are a sign that the new government is determined to silence critical voices by creating a more loyal press.

Recently, 62 members of the Slovenian Writers' Association issued a public protest against what they described as "intimidating and punishing methods" used by Delo management on its journalists. "We don't want to live in a society ruled by fear," the writers wrote in a letter to the public. The protest came after Peter Kolšek, the president of the Delo journalists' body, and Mija Repovž, heads of the in-house trade union, received final warning before dismissal from Slivnik for publicly speaking out against some of the newspaper's policies.

The dismissal of Delo's correspondent in Croatia, Rok Kajzer, also triggered considerable debate. Many critics argued that Kajzer's firing was a political decision made solely based on his critical reporting of Slovenia's foreign policy. The Foreign Correspondents Club of Croatia even informed the embassies of EU member states about the dismissal, citing "Delo's reprehensible treatment of Rok Kajzer." Jančič, however, disagrees and argues that Kajzer had been inserting his own personal views into his reports. "A correspondent's main task is to report, only then can he comment," argues Jančič.

Politics and the Small Screen
The debate over journalistic freedom in Slovenia also extends into broadcasting. Shortly after the SDS-led coalition came into power, it announced plans for a new broadcasting law, which determines how Slovenia's public broadcasting organization, RTV Slovenija, is run. Previously, the RTV Council, the body governing RTV Slovenija, was composed mostly of "civil society" nominees, ranging from writers to representatives of farmers and trade unionists. The new law, however, greatly reduced the number of "civil society" nominees by requiring parliament to appoint most positions on the RTV Council.

The move was controversial. Its proponents argued that the change would introduce a new spirit of accountability and counter what they considered a pervasive left-wing bias at RTV Slovenija. They pointed out at inefficiency and overstaffing at the broadcasting organization as proof that the existing system was faulty and prevented parliament from exercising any oversight. According to the supporters, the "civil society" system enabled left-wing domination of the RTV Council through the back door. Constitutional law expert Klemen Jaklič described the previous system as a "politicised corporative experiment."

The bill's opponents, however, argued that the change would simply ensure that the RTV Council would always be in tune with the majority in parliament. These concerns led the critics to force a referendum on the bill in 2005. However, the measure passed by a small margin.

As expected, the new law brought a number of personnel changes to RTV Slovenija. Some critics see the changes as a much-needed breath of fresh air, while others condemn what they perceive as pro-coalition staff members getting into top positions and influencing the broadcaster's output. LDS lawmaker Pavel Gantar said he could see the prime minister's influence in TV Slovenija's news output, which no longer features face-to-face debates. "When was the last time that a member of Janez Janša's cabinet faced a representative of the opposition?" Gantar wondered.

The Debate Continues
Meanwhile, the debate about the state of Slovenia's journalism rages on. After coming into power, the collation introduced new legislation establishing a media fund that provides state financial assistance to various media outlets in the name of plurality. The impetus for this came after a number of newspaper failures since independence. Many observers, however, view the fund as simply a mechanism for state support of politically loyal media outlets, which will simply encourage more government interference.

A provision of the new law on the media requiring newspapers to publish lengthy corrections has also been criticized. Grega Repovž, the head of the Journalists' Association, argues that the right to corrections has been expanded to an "absurd level and could encroach on the right to free speech." The law's proponents argue that the provision is necessary to provide a platform for people to defend themselves when attacked.

One thing seems clear: In Slovenia's politically charged climate, with new media outlets (including RTV Slovenija's third television network, devoted primarily to coverage of the parliament) on the horizon, the debate over media freedom is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Many of the issues raised are similar to those faced by other post-communist states of Eastern and Central Europe, as they struggle to find the best models for the future. In Slovenia, the situation is further complicated by the small size of the media market, which only enables a limited number of voices to be heard in "the marketplace of ideas" at any given time.

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