STA, 13 July 2022 - As the European Commission released its third annual Rule of Law Report on Wednesday, its Vice President Vera Jourova said past developments in the media in Slovenia, including the suspension of financing of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), have prompted the Commission to start considering media rules that will apply to all EU member states.
"I will not hide that the situation in Slovenia, especially what we saw in the past, with the difficulties in the financing of the STA, and some other issues caused that we started thinking about having some legally binding rules, which will apply across all EU member states and which will protect media space better," Jourova said in response to a question about the developments at RTV Slovenija.
The Commission reacted with the preparation of a media freedom act where the Commission addresses the issues of public and private media, also with respect to financing and stability of functioning of especially public media.
In presenting the Rule of Law report, the commissioner said it would be a basis for discussion with representatives of EU member states, also about the media and the condition of journalists.
Press conference on 2022 #RuleOfLaw Report⚖️— EU Justice (@EU_Justice) July 13, 2022
with @VeraJourova and @dreynders
?Watch live on @EC_AVService after today's @EU_Commission College meeting⤵️https://t.co/0RoQwWDNoW pic.twitter.com/pUEZPxvnBU
In the report, the Commission recommends Slovenia to strengthen "the rules and mechanisms to enhance the independent governance and editorial independence of public service media taking into account European standards on public service media".
It finds that the situation of media freedom and pluralism in the country has not improved since last year's report.
Despite legal safeguards providing for the independence of public service media, the report notes challenges regarding the effectiveness of those safeguards in practice in limiting political influence.
The report, which refers to a report by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom for 2022, points to the procedures to appoint the programme council of RTV Slovenija as most members are appointed by parliament, political parties and the government.
The Culture Ministry agrees with the main findings of the report, noting that it has been striving for greater independence and autonomy of public media, plurality, transparent ownership and transparent spending of public money for advertising. It also plans to improve working conditions for journalists.
The ministry noted in its response to the report that the new government had put forward a bill to reform council and management of the public broadcaster in a bid to de-politicise it.
The current programme council and supervisory board would be replaced by a single 17-member council none of whose members would be appointed by parliament. The bill is expected to be passed on Thursday.
EU sources commented on the proposed bill by saying that Brussels welcomed the government's willingness to take action and introduce more safeguards to protect the independence of journalists. However, the Commission's recommendation should also be seen in this context, they said.
The Commission's report finds that while funding of the STA has been restored and it gives the agency greater stability, some of the provisions in the financing agreement could indirectly affect its editorial autonomy.
The Commission also notes "a hostile environment, online harassment of and threats against journalists" as growing sources of concern, noting that several lawsuits against journalists with intimidating effect have been reported.
It recommends the country establish legislative and other safeguards to protect journalists, particularly online, taking into account European standards on the protection of journalists.
The Trade Union of Journalists (SNS) responded by saying Slovenian media landscape was at a crossroads and that future developments would depend on the new media policy and national media strategy.
The union also stressed that RTV Slovenija staff had been warning of the issues raised by the Commission for at least two months before they had announced a strike.
"For now the government is only trying to put out the fire with changes to the RTV act, while the issue of financing of the public RTV is not its priority," the SNS said.
Commenting on the Slovenian justice system, the Commission noted "some improvements in quality and efficiency, and regarding issues raised in the 2021 Rule of Law Report, such as the nomination of European Delegated Prosecutors".
However, it also pointed to concerns over the interior minister's powers to instruct the police in individual cases, potentially affecting independent work of state prosecutors and the European Public Prosecutor's Office.
"Rules governing parliamentary inquiries lack safeguards on independence of judges and state prosecutors - as required by Constitutional Court judgments. The government decreased, without consultation with judicial authorities, the previously agreed budget for courts, the Judicial Council and the State Prosecution," reads the report.
The Justice Ministry welcomed the report, saying that it reflected the actual situation in the country in the last two years under the previous government and that the new cabinet had already started to tackle some issues highlighted by the Commission.
As for fight against corruption, the Commission calls for removing obstacles to the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases, including by ensuring the operational autonomy of the National Bureau of Investigation, increasing the resources of State Prosecution and revising the statute of limitation.
Slovenia should adopt and start implementing without further delay the anti-corruption strategy, the report says.
In the section on institutional issues related to checks and balances, the Commission pointed to deficiencies of the public finance act in securing the financial autonomy of certain independent bodies, and called for safeguards.
Human Rights Ombudsman Peter Svetina welcomed the report and called on relevant institutions to study them and transpose the proposed solutions into Slovenian legislation as soon as possible. He also called for a public debate on the report among experts.
EU member states will discuss the rule of law situation in the EU based on the Commission's report in the autumn. EU affairs ministers will discuss the rule of law in Slovenia, Romania, Portugal, Poland and Slovakia in November.