Govt legal office says STA independent also from government
Ljubljana - The Government Office for Legislation has issued an opinion on the suspension of financing of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) by the Government Communication Office, saying this could only be the ultimate penalty, as a stoppage of public service would be unlawful. It also says the law secures the STA independence, also from the government.
In the opinion requested by Government Communication Office (UKOM), which argues that its suspension of funding is based on the STA director refusing to disclose certain documentation to UKOM, the office refers to the companies act, the contract on the funding of public service between UKOM and the STA, and the Slovenian Press Agency act.
In the opinion published on the office's website on Wednesday, it says that the relevant Article 512 of the companies act obliged the director to immediately inform a partner in the company upon its request about the company's matters and enable insight in books and documents.
The office notes that this might be limited with another legal act, and that the director might reject requests for information or insight if it is possible that this could be used for objectives that run against the company's interests.
Article 6 of the contract between the STA and UKOM obliges the press agency to disclose to UKOM on its request all documentation on the performance of public service (financial, legal and substantial), and to cooperate with and respond to UKOM's requests.
According to the office, these provisions enable UKOM to ask for explanations about the operation that are required so that the state/government or UKOM could finance the STA in an appropriate scope, for information that is needed for the implementation of the contract and for information related to the use of public funds.
"Considering the completely loose provision of the contract, UKOM could in principle also request other information and documentation, but in the office's opinion, one should be careful and restrained in this respect," the opinion adds.
One of the reasons to be careful is that "it should be established that the position of the STA is somewhat different than the position of ordinary limited liability companies", as the STA act "establishes independence and autonomy of the STA in relation to the sole partner".
For this reason and considering the role of the STA and the principles under which it operates, the state/government or UKOM "should not ask the STA for information disclosure of which could hurt these principles (for example, requests for explanations related to editorial policy, to why the agency has concluded a specific deal with a specific person) or encroach upon other legislation (for example, personal information protection)".
The Government Office for Legislation notes that it should be taken into account that the STA is independent and autonomous organisation- and finance-wise, which is why the government or UKOM should not have requested information from the STA in order to carry out substantial supervision over the editorial policy or supervision in the sense of feasibility of its operation.
What needs to be noted is that, in accordance with the STA act, neither the government nor UKOM has the power to systemically supervise the operation of the STA, which is the task of its supervisory board, the Court of Audit and auditors.
As for UKOM's request for information related to the agency's commercial activity, Article 512 of the companies act is applicable as commercial activity is not public activity and in its essence is comparable to activity in ordinary companies.
Regarding the question of who could request from the STA to disclose information, the office said that "in accordance with the STA act this could only be the government, which exercises the rights of the sole partner," adding that this in particular holds true for documents related to the financing of commercial activities.
The state as the sole partner in the STA may request information with a court order. "If the dispute between the STA and UKOM continues, it should be considered whether this legal remedy should be implemented so that the dispute is resolved ... and that an adequate authoritative interpretation for the valid legal order for the given case is obtained from competent courts."
As for the financing of the STA, the office sees possible basis for suspension of financing in Article 6 of the contract with UKOM in the case that the STA fails to meet its obligation to be cooperative. But it also notes that in that case the main question is "who is competent to take such a measure".
It could be interpreted from the contract that this is indeed UKOM, but this may be disputed with an argument that such a solution is unlawful, as in accordance with the STA act it is the government who implements the tasks of the partner.
The office adds that "in such a dispute between UKOM and the STA an argument could also be made that the contract, in the part that enables suspension of financing, is unlawful, as such a penalty is not envisaged in the STA act."
It also thinks that "justifying the suspension of payments or the rejection to conclude a new contract with the failure to disclose documentation related to commercial activity is disputable, as neither the STA act not the contract envisages such a penalty."
In any case, the Government Office for Legislation notes that suspension of financing should really be the ultimate penalty. "It should be taken into account that such a measure could ... suspend the performance of public service stipulated by law, which on the other hand could represent an unlawful state."
As the monthly compensation for the STA for the work performed in October is due for two weeks, STA director Bojan Veselinovič has addressed a letter to the speakers of the lower and upper chambers of parliament, prime minister, government ministers and heads of the deputy groups.
The letter calls on them to end "this impossible situation" by respecting the principles of the rule of law and journalist autonomy and do everything in their power so that the suspension of financing of the STA is lifted.
UKOM director Uroš Urbanija meanwhile said on Twitter today in response to a report by the newspaper Dnevnik that UKOM never asked from the STA information whose disclosure could violate the principle of independence and autonomy of the STA.