The Slovenia Times

Row over public broadcaster escalating

Boy with Flute, a statue by sculptor Zdenko Kalin (1905-1990) that has become a symbol of public broadcaster RTV Slovenija.
Photo: Nebojša Tejić/STA
File photo

The Slovenian public broadcaster is caught up in a tug-of-war between the government and the management appointed by its predecessor that has escalated in recent days amid a legal conundrum.

The incumbent government amended the legislation governing RTV Slovenija soon after taking office to put the civil society and institutions other than parliament in charge of appointments to key management and supervisory bodies.

The law was overwhelmingly upheld in the November 2022 referendum, but the RTV Slovenija management, who stand to lose their jobs under the new law, appealed to the Constitutional Court, which continues to deliberate on the matter although it has stayed key provisions which determine appointments of the newly created governing council and members of the management.

Move to dismiss nine councilors

The ruling coalition has now mounted an attempt to dismiss nine of the 29 members of the programme council, the main governing body whose term formally ended as the new legislation came into force at the end of last year, but which like the management continues to serve in an acting capacity.

The coalition's main argument for the dismissal is that the councillors broke the law when they voted to appoint Andrej Grah Whatmough as the broadcaster's director general in January 2021 and by preventing his dismissal of the former director of TV Slovenija in August 2021.

The argument is based on a recent decision by the Higher Labour Court, which ruled Grah Whatmough's appointment to have been unlawful because he lacked managerial experience required for the job. The court also found the dismissal of TV Slovenija director Natalija Gorščak to have been in breach of the law.

Coalition and government officials pointed to the worsening "agony" at RTV Slovenija, most of whose staff have been formally on strike for over a year, protesting against what they see as deteriorating reporting standards and encroachment on editorial and journalist autonomy under the incumbent management.

However, the programme council's chairman Peter Gregorčič noted that the councillors' terms ended on 28 December when the new act took effect so it was impossible to dismiss them and such a decision by parliament would be unlawful.

This was also pointed out by the opposition Democrats (SDS). "Legally speaking, the councillors cannot be dismissed", the party said. Its leader, former PM Janez Janša, tweeted that the potential endorsement of the proposal for the dismissal by the relevant parliamentary commission would warrant an impeachment.

Matej Tonin, the leader of the opposition New Slovenia (NSi), suggested the row would in the end have zto be resolved by the EU court.

Management fights back

Meanwhile, Grah Whatmough has asked the Supreme Court to review the ruling on his appointment being unlawful, a request that the court has rejected.

In another development, Grah Whatmough announced that the broadcaster had filed a €24 million damages suit against the government, claiming compensation for higher labour costs.

He said the government pledged to compensate the public broadcaster for the cost of higher wages under a 2018 strike agreement but failed to deliver on the promise.

Speaking on 16 May, Grah Whatmough said that he and his team had managed to stabilise the public broadcaster's finances. By identifying redundant employees, they made €5 million in savings on labour costs and the broadcaster broke even in 2022 for the first time ever, he said.

He said that after paying salaries, the broadcaster still had €3 million in its account. However, some insiders have been warning that this money is the result of a sale of Eutelsat shares that the government says was unlawful.

It will be the government's "responsibility if the public broadcaster faces bankruptcy, or the Greek scenario," he said in response to Borut Sajovic, an MP for the ruling party, alleging that "the incompetent RTV leadership is taking the broadcaster into bankruptcy and the Greek scenario".

Grah Whatmough has also sent a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova asking for a meeting over political pressure exerted by the government on the management.

The letter quotes Culture Minister Asta Vrečko as saying that the RTV Slovenija management needs to be replaced and PM Robert Golob as saying that they are looking for loopholes to replace the management.


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