STA funding suspension envokes strong reactions from journalist associations, trade union, even coalition parties
Ljubljana - The Slovenian Journalists' Association (DNS) and the Trade Union of Slovenian Journalists stood to defend the Slovenian Press Agency in their separate statements on Tuesday after it transpired that the government had suspended funding to the national press agency.
The DNS, the largest journalist association in the country, said it was "appalled" at the government decision, which it saw as an "attack on journalism", while the journalists' trade union condemned the move and protested against the "unilateral and legally controversial decision of the government".
"The government decision to cut the financing of the STA's public service is an obvious violation and a brutal interference with a law-based institutional, editorial and financial autonomy of the public information service," the union wrote.
According to the DNS, "everyone working in the media is in near-daily contact with the work of the national press agency, which provides an essential service in the Slovenian media landscape".
"This year a broader audience has had the chance to get acquainted with the agency's work after a lot of the content was made freely available to the general public, in particular coverage of the current epidemiological situation.
"What is more, with its news wire, livestreams of press conferences and statements, and its radio-news service, the STA has made it significantly easier for journalists to access information at a time when they have had to work remotely due to various restrictions," the DNS said, noting it was thus clear that the STA complied with the legislative provisions that govern its performance of public service.
Thus, it dismissed the reasoning of the Government Communication Office that the STA director general had failed to provide all the requested documents to secure government funding.
"The STA has honoured its contractual obligations. Payment of the monthly instalment cannot under any circumstances depend on the content of STA reporting, least of all on reporting about its founder - the state - which is represented by the government."
The DNS sees the latest government move as "yet another attempt to destroy the national press agency, which is a pillar of high-quality and unbiased reporting". It also pointed to similar efforts in neighbouring Hungary.
Both organisations called on the government to immediately restore financing of the STA. The DNS also urged coalition partners to "reflect on whether they want to participate in the demolition of the democratic foundations of this country".
The trade union also called on the National Assembly to discuss the effects that this government decision will have on the informing of citizens and the functioning of the public service.
Marko Milosavljević, a professor at the journalism chair of the Ljubljana Faculty of Social Sciences, called the government decision shocking and very dangerous and likely unlawful.
If one of the reasons to suspend financing is that the Government Communication Office (UKOM) does not like an interview with a musician, Milosavljević says, than it is clear "this is an arbitrary and totalitarian decision".
After the STA published an interview with rapper Zlatan Čordić - Zlatko (who is also an anti-masker who has been critical of the government) it has faced "systematic bombardment" with demands for documents - so extensive it would take the STA services in charge at least two months to compile, says Milosavljević.
He wonders whether UKOM is in fact the addressee who could demand such documentation from an independent press agency, which he says leads to the conclusion this was an arbitrary move the government may have committed out of "motives of revenge" or "personal frustration".
The media expert believes the STA has been fulfilling its obligations under the law, nor has he heard once from a single of the many journalists and directors of media outlets he has talked with that the STA's work has been problematic in any way, let alone unlawful, nor has once in a decade the agency been involved in any scandal or suspicion of corruption.
The agency's contribution to the media space is in his view "absolutely substantial", so no one would imagine that someone who should in principle see to the public interest and the public being informed like the government in this case would act in such a destructive way as to end its financing.
He underscores the state has an obligation by law to provide suitable financing to the STA and to guarantee its institutional autonomy and editorial independence.
Coalition deputy factions agreed to hold a discussion on the financing of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) after the government took a decision that effectively suspended the financing of the public service performed by the agency. MPs of two junior coalition partners want the decision withdrawn, as the left-leaning opposition condemned the move.
The government adopted a resolution on Monday confirming receipt of a notice from the Government Communication Office (UKOM) concerning the inability to execute the agreement with the STA on the performance of public service in 2020 and to conclude the agreement on the performance of public service in 2021.
In a written response, the Pensioners' Party (DeSUS) said it believed the STA to be fully fulfilling its mission and abiding by the principles of independent and unbiased reporting. The party said it deemed UKOM's proposal completely unacceptable.
"DeSUS demands immediate withdrawal of the resolution whereby the government is strongly intervening in the Slovenian media space without prior and argument-based discussion," the party stated in the response.
Speaking in the parliament building, the leader of the DeSUS deputy faction Franc Jurša added that "intervening in the media fast is not all right".
He said the heads of coalition deputy groups agreed today to "conduct discussions with those most responsible in the coalition parties", that is at the level of party leaders "for the matter to be suitably resolved".
The deputy group of the Modern Centre Party (SMC) labelled the suspension of financing of a "media outlet that performs public service" as unacceptable and without a proper legal basis, calling for immediate retraction of the government's decision.
Meanwhile, Zdravko Počivalšek, the SMC's leader and economy minister, responded on Twitter by saying the government as the founder and shareholder had a right to demand data on financial operations of agencies, while the STA management had the obligation to provide those data.
"Muscle flexing and dealing with individuals' personal grudges is creating out of a recognised commercial practice a needless conflict that is neither in the interest of the government nor the public," he tweeted.
"It would be wise and responsible for both parties to meet their share of obligations while sticking to their responsibilities an allowing for cooperation between the government and the STA to continue," the minister urged.
Blaž Pavlin, an MP for New Slovenia (NSi), another junior coalition partner, said the deputy faction had decided to request additional explanations regarding the decision on the STA from UKOM. "As far as we have been able to learn is that the suspension of financing is temporary and will be resumed once the STA has responded to some of the government's questions that are yet to be answered.
"If the owner demands of you certain explanations concerning the amount of pay and bonuses, the STA probably has a duty to reply to those questions in good time. Our ministers have been assured the financing is to be resumed as soon as they get the required replies," said Pavlin.
Meanwhile, the centre-left opposition parties condemned the government's decision to suspend the financing on the grounds that the STA failed to provide requested documents, as an unacceptable attack on media freedom and democracy.
"The government's decision to deny financing to the STA in a way signifies the STA's abolishment since an institution cannot exist without financing," said Jerca Korče, an MP for the Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ).
She said the attack on the STA started with Prime Minister Janez Janša labelling the wire service a national disgrace. "When you've thought Janez Janša has reached his ceiling, we will always go a step further still, without the coalition partners stopping him," said Korče.
"The government has arbitrarily decided to simply stop financing the STA, that is a media outlet that provides information to all other media. It has decided to destroy the media space with the central media agency at the forefront," commented Luka Mesec, the leader of the Left.
Mesec said that Janša had been trying unsuccessfully to subjugate the STA for months, "while now he has decided to simply destroy or starve out what he cannot subjugate", challenging the SMC and DeSUS "to show whether they are willing to go as far as to destroy democracy".
Tanja Fajon, the leader of the Social Democrats (SD), expressed indignation that the government should decide "to ruin, degrade the STA and its public service and continue with its flagrant pogrom against the media in the country", adding that PM Janša was pursuing the interests of his party only.
Maša Kociper, the head of the deputy faction of the Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB), sees the development as a repeat of the Hungarian model where "you have to first smear and weaken the media in the public interest, and once those are gone, boost the media that advocate partial political interests".
She praised the STA for its quality and unbiased service in the interests of the public, adding: "We will do all in our power for the matters to be restored where they should be and for the government conduct to be in accordance with the law".
Renate Schroeder, director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), has responded to the suspension of financing of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) by saying it is a great threat to media pluralism and media freedom in Slovenia.
"Suspension of financing of independent Slovenian press agency though it's part of government's contract. This threatens agency's future work! Great threat on #medaipluralism & #mediafreedom in #Slovenia," Schroeder tweeted.
The secretary general of the European Alliance of News Agencies (EANA), Alexandru Giboi, has notified European press agencies of the Slovenian government's move, warning of the difficult situation in which the STA has found itself due to the suspension of financing.