Ljubljana – The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, EUR 2.5 million granted by Slovenia to the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) in compensation to fulfil its public service mission.
“The public funding will contribute to the independent news provision to the Slovenian public without unduly distorting competition in the single market,” the Commission said in announcing its decision on Thursday.
“Today’s decision will enable the Slovenian Press Agency STA to continue deliver its important public service. Independent news agencies play an essential role in news media,” said Margrethe Vestager, the Commission vice-president who is in charge of competition policy.
“The preservation of an independent national press agency in a member state ensures that news media can refer to a news stream which reports on national and international developments, from the perspective of that country,” said Vestager, adding this contributed to the plurality of media and information sources throughout the EU.
Vera Jourova, the Commission vice-president for values and transparency, tweeted: “Funding should be unlocked as soon as possible for the agency to continue its public service – and its independence should remain protected.”
Considering that Slovenia had notified the Commission of these funds, the Commission considers that Slovenia intends to pay out the funds, competition speaker Arianna Podesta said.
Podesta said the Commission had made the decision because Slovenia did not wish to withdraw the notification even though the Commission made it clear that a decision is not required for Slovenia to pay out the funds.
The Commission took the decision based on Slovenia’s notification in late January of its plan to compensate the STA with EUR 2.5 million for carrying out its activities of informing the Slovenian public about national and international news in 2021.
Having examined the measure, the Commission concluded it is in line with EU state aid rules, as it “fosters a service of general public interest and promotes media plurality, without unduly distorting competition”.
It found the STA performs a service of general economic interest, which it could not provide for its national market to the desired extent by its own means and revenues.
“The funding is limited to what is needed to perform STA’s public service tasks, which it has to offer free of charge. An annual external and independent audit is ensuring the supervision of these conditions,” reads the Commission’s argument.
The decision has been welcomed by the STA, which has been without state funding as granted by the law for its public service for the 119th day. The agency said the decision “removes yet another obstacle that the government as the agency’s sole shareholder has set to undisrupted financing of the STA”.
However, Prime Minister Janez Janša said on the sidelines of his visit to France today that the decision referred to the funds that had already been paid out.
“As far as I know it is the money that has been paid out after the bill was passed in the National Assembly. It was, however, necessary to request for the European Commission’s consent under the existing rules. The Finance Ministry has done this and as you say the consent arrived today. But this concerns the funds that have already been paid out,” Janša told the public broadcaster RTV Slovenija.
STA director Bojan Veselinovič said this was “pure manipulation and a lie”. He noted the government had requested for the Commission’s opinion on the financing in line with the seventh stimulus law in January, meaning after it entered into force on 31 December 2020.
“The STA has not received a single euro for this year although the Government Communication Office announced in a press release in January that everything would be paid for when the European Commission makes its final decision, which happened today,” Veselinovič said.
Janša responded to this on Twitter saying that the STA had received full payment for last year based on its contract with the Government Communication Office (UKOM) “although the STA did not forward the due documents”. “All the rest will be transferred after the STA fulfils its legal obligations, government decisions and when a contract is signed with the UKOM. As is the common practice.”
The Finance Ministry has not responded to the Commission’s decision, while the UKOM told the STA it had not yet received the decision and could thus not comment.
In its first reactions to the notification in January, the Commission said European state aid rules could not serve as an excuse to suspend financing of press agencies in the EU and that state funding may be provided to the STA without a prior notification or the Commission’s approval.
The Commission’s spokesperson for competition Arianna Podesta said today the Commission had made the decision because the Slovenian authorities would not withdraw the notification of STA financing.
Asked whether the Commission could launch a procedure against the Slovenian authorities if they did not grant the state aid, the Commission said the decision on state aid was in the hands of member states. The EU rules on state aid do not obligate member states to grant state aid, it added.