Constitutional Court stays parts of new RTV Slovenija law
The Constitutional Court has stayed several key provisions of the amended act on public broadcaster RTV Slovenija which determine the appointment of the newly created governing council and members of the management. The decision appears to open new dilemmas while causing further divisions in the country.
Articles 23, 24 and 25 were stayed in a narrow 5:3 vote after several rounds of deliberations. The court said its decision means that procedures for the appointment of the new governing council and management can proceed while it continues deliberating, but the appointments will not take effect until it has reached a final decision on the matter.
Announcing the eagerly awaited decision on 20 February, the court said it would reach the final decision on the constitutionality of the law as a matter of priority. But dissenting judges said it was naive to expect a final judgement soon, considering it took two months to reach the present decision.
The judges are examining the law at the request of Peter Gregorčič, the head of the broadcaster's programme council, who challenged several provisions of the law on the grounds that rules for emergency parliamentary procedure were not followed. He also contested the legality of provisions that would terminate the terms of current senior management.
The amended act on RTV Slovenija was passed in summer 2022 with the argument that it would depoliticise the public broadcaster after close allies of the previous, centre-right government were appointed to key posts at what is Slovenia's largest media outlet.
However, it was first put to a , where it was upheld, before the RTV Slovenija leadership mounted a constitutional challenge.
The court stayed only the implementation of those transitional provisions which govern the final constitution of the RTV Slovenija council and of the other new bodies of the broadcaster.
Meanwhile, the management, operation and oversight of RTV Slovenja continue in accordance with the transitional provisions in the amended law pending the court's final decision. So can the procedures continue for the appointment of the members of the new council.
As the amendments came into force late last year, the terms of the RTV Slovenija director general, directors of Radio and TV Slovenija ended. The officials were relegated to acting capacity and they can only perform caretaker duties.
The court's decision was split with five male judges voting in favour of staying the provisions concerned and three woman judges voting against. A ninth judge recused himself from the case.
In their dissenting opinions the three women judges warned that the suspension would not restore the offices of the RTV Slovenija leadership, but it merely extended the transitional period. They believe this could lead to a situation where the broadcaster will have no functioning bodies except for the acting directors with limited powers.
Like the debate accompanying the adoption of the law and the referendum campaign, the reactions to the decision were split along the ideological divide.
The lead petitioner Gregorčič and Matej Avbelj, the lawyer who drew up the legal challenge, hailed the decision, saying "the system of checks and balances" worked. They believe the court "temporarily protected the institutional independence of RTV Slovenija".
They say their petition was the only possible legal avenue "to prevent arbitrary, capricious and blatant political subjugation of RTV Slovenija by the current government".
"The Constitutional Court of any European country that would not stay the consequences of such a law (and later not find the law unconstitutional) would send every government in power at any one time a clear and obvious signal that political purges are allowed in that country," they wrote.
Andrej Grah Whatmough, the broadcaster's acting director general and one of the petitioners, was glad that the Constitutional Court nodded to their warnings "that such a political takeover of a public media outlet is unacceptable".
The Democrats (SDS), the party that challenged the law in the referendum, believe the court will follow up by declaring the law unconstitutional.
"This is surely a defeat for the coalition if they thought they drew up a good law," SDS MP Alenka Jeraj commented. She noted the party had been warning of unconstitutional solutions in the law and of emergency procedure being abused to adopt a hastily prepared law.
"The ruling coalition were in a such a hurry to behead RTV Slovenija and replace all key bodies that they wouldn't listen to anyone. They behaved as if they can do whatever they wanted, even break laws," Jeraj added.
Meanwhile, the staff at RTV Slovenija, the government and all those who have been supportive of the new law expressed concern over what the court's decision means for the public broadcaster and the people working there. They urged he court to honour its commitment to reach a final decision as a matter of priority.
Culture Minister Asta Vrečko, whose department was responsible for amending the law, does not think the court's decision prejudges the final decision on the law's constitutionality.
She would like the judges to take a final decision on the matter as soon as possible as the situation because the situation at the broadcaster "is intolerable".
Speaking for in-house journalist trade unions, Helena Milinković said the Constitutional Court placed "the constitutional right to keep your term above the constitutional right of the public to be informed".
"As well as above the employees' constitutional right to freedom of expression and to dignity and above the citizens' right to a democratic decision in a referendum," she added.
She fears the court's decision can mean "giving a carte blanche to the current RTV Slovenija management, programme council and supervisory board to continue with their work unhindered, which means a further disintegration of the public broadcaster".
Part of the staff at the broadcaster have been technically on strike for months and many have quit their jobs. Milinković expressed concern that more will follow suit in the face of the court's decision.
"As a union we fear that those who have persevered for a year and a half, exposed themselves, will give up because we cannot fight this fight on our own any more," she added.
The sentiment was echoed by the RTV Slovenija works council, which spoke of new harmful and irreparable consequences occurring each day that the current state at the public broadcaster continues.
Similarly, the Slovenian Journalists' Association (DNS) argued the court's decision prolonged the "agony" at the public broadcaster, while creating new legal risks.
But the rival Association of Journalists and Commentators hailed the court's decision, expressing the hope that the court will find the provisions unconstitutional and annul them.