By: Ana Horvat (Nova24tv.si)
Andrej Grah Whatmough, Acting Director-General of the national media outlet Radio-Television Slovenia (RTV Slovenia), has sent a request to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Vice-President of the European Commission, Věra Jourová, for a meeting between senior representatives of the European Commission and the management team of RTV Slovenia. “From the very first day the Fifteenth Government of the Republic of Slovenia took office, the management of RTV Slovenia has been subject to clear political pressures, which leading politicians continue to express without any restraint in their statements,” he said, among other things, underlining the desire for the public media service to breathe freely and independently after years of political influence and meddling.
He prefaced his request by expressing his agreement with Věra Jourová‘s view, who said on a recent visit to Slovenia that our country urgently needs high-quality public media that are sufficiently funded and led by respected management board members. “The management of RTV Slovenia, the Slovenian public service broadcaster, wholeheartedly agrees with this statement.” He added that the management team believes that an independent and autonomous public service broadcaster must take its place at the centre of a healthy and diverse media landscape that is not influenced by the day-to-day politics of the authorities.
According to Andrej Grah Whatmough, recent developments at the top of the country show that despite the government’s declaratory assurances to act in favour of a free and diverse media landscape, its actions in relation to RTV Slovenia show quite the opposite. “From the very first day the Fifteenth Government of the Republic of Slovenia took office, the management of RTV Slovenia has been subject to clear political pressures, which leading politicians continue to express without any restraint in their statements. Let us mention only a few statements of the key representatives of the current government.” He went on to recall that last October, the Minister of Culture, Asta Vrečko, told the Slovenian Press Agency: “The current events at RTV Slovenia have exceeded all limits of common sense and the management must be replaced.” According to Grah Whatmough, the Minister of Culture never met with the RTV Slovenia management to ascertain whether there were any grounds for her claims, even though she was asked to do so several times, but she repeated her statement about the need to replace the RTV Slovenia management team several times even in public and also posted such statements on social media.
They follow the public slander and political pressure exerted on the Constitutional Court of Slovenia, the highest body of the judiciary branch of the government, by the ruling party, with great concern.
According to Grah Whatmough, the Slovenian Prime Minister, Dr Robert Golob, made it clear last September that they were looking for loopholes in the law in order to change the management of the public institution RTV Slovenia as soon as possible. Golob said at the time: “RTV is the only minus I see and this inability, this legal inability to take care of that are clear to everyone and that require action, but we are legally prevented from acting upon, is really the only weak point I see after the election. But unlike my colleagues, I am always an optimist. Maybe we will still manage to find something before the referendum. We are looking every day for ways to circumvent this legal blockade.” But since the government, according to Grah Whatmough, has not been able to circumvent this “blockade” in a democratic and legal way, it has stepped up unbearable pressures which are increasing every day. “And even if the pressures on the autonomous public broadcaster RTV Slovenia are inadmissible from the point of view of the rule of law, we are now witnessing with even greater concern the public slander and political pressure on the Constitutional Court of Slovenia, the highest body of the judicial branch of government.”
In the next part of his request, the Acting Director-General pointed out that the Constitutional Court is currently deliberating on the Act Amending the RTV Slovenia Act (ZRTVS-B). “On 16 February 2023, the Court decided to temporarily suspend the implementation of the Act until a final decision is made.” He said that the management of RTV Slovenia respects the decision of the Constitutional Court to suspend the implementation and is also aware that this is a complex and multi-faceted problem that may take time to resolve. “We will of course respect and put into motion any decision of the Court when it is adopted.” However, he said, the opposite seems to be true for the highest representatives of the current government. “Let us mention just a few controversial statements that should concern both the Slovenian and the European public, as they threaten the democratic and legal principles on which the European Union stands and continues to exist,” he wrote, highlighting the Prime Minister’s statement at a press conference in March of this year, when the latter appealed to the Constitutional Court to come to a decision as soon as possible, saying: “At the same time, I would like to take the opportunity to again call on the Constitutional Court to quickly adopt a decision on the constitutionality of the Act, regardless of the fact that the public interest is clearly at risk, which was overwhelmingly supported in the referendum and which clearly shows what people think about the current independence of RTV’s current management.” Grah Whatmough pointed out that with the above statement, the Prime Minister, in their view, attempted to influence the work of the Constitutional Court judges to come to a hasty decision, and at the same time, he also issued a thinly veiled call as to what specific decision the judges should come to.
According to the Acting Director-General of RTV Slovenia, the Prime Minister’s statements addressed to the Constitutional Court a few weeks later were even harsher. In fact, he said the following on the ‘Stopkast’ broadcast: “No one is above the Constitutional Court, not even the government, because it is the foundation of our legal system. However, they have imposed a great responsibility on themselves (by suspending the Implementation of the Act, explanation added). Not to the government, but to the people. And that is what we should be talking about. Today, the responsibility is entirely in the hands of the Constitutional Court because they have judged it that way themselves, not because someone has imposed it on them.”
The Constitutional Court is the primary guardian of the rule of law
As Grah Whatmough then said, the Prime Minister, therefore, fails to attribute responsibility for the situation to his own government, which has potentially drafted an unconstitutional law, and instead pins the blame on the independent judicial branch of government, the Constitutional Court. Golob also expressed his dissatisfaction at the court taking time to come to a decision. In the same broadcast, he also said the following: “Our hands are tied today. When the Constitutional Court rules, even if it rules negatively, we finally have certain legislative options again. I will not go into details, but finally things will be in our hands again… That is why we want them to come to a decision as soon as possible, because then we will have the entire case in our hands again, because today, unfortunately, we do not have it, because the Constitutional Court took it away from us.” Grah Whatmough said that his statement is seen as unequivocal pressure on the Constitutional Court, which is worrying – to say the least – from the perspective of the rule of law. “The Constitutional Court is the supreme guardian of the rule of law and is obliged to judge in accordance with the constitutional and legal foundations of the Republic of Slovenia rather than in accordance with the will of any group of people or this or that political option.”
In his request for a meeting, Grah Whatmough also pointed out that he also found the words of the Freedom Movement party (Gibanje Svoboda) MP Mojca Šetinc Pašek inappropriate, who called for another session of the Mandate-Electoral Commission of the Slovenian Parliament to be convened, at which certain members of the RTV Slovenia’s Programme Council would be dismissed and replaced with others. She said that “We will have to start dismissing these people who, after the Constitutional Court suspended parts of the RTV Act, remain incumbents, indefinitely.” As Grah Whatmough pointed out, dismissal at a time when the Constitutional Court judges have suspended the implementation of part of the RTV Slovenia Act, would be in direct contradiction to the decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia and represents a drastic interference with the public broadcaster’s autonomy. “Dear Ms von der Leyen, dear Ms Jourová, the words and actions of the current Slovenian Government in our opinion indicate a profound misunderstanding of the fundamentals of the rule of law, and the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of power. A system of effective checks and balances is crucial for the legitimate functioning of the state. It would be naïve to expect complete independence and non-interference of the three, but such obvious attempts by one power to influence and pressure another give the uneasy impression that our society and country are heading in the wrong direction.”
He also said that the management of RTV Slovenia wants the public broadcaster to finally become absolutely free and independent again after five years of interference by daily politics. They have absolutely no doubt that this goal will be more easily achievable with the help of the European Union, as media freedom ranks high on the European scale of values. “To provide a more comprehensive picture of the Slovenian media landscape, and especially the situation of the RTV Slovenia public broadcaster, we kindly ask for a meeting with you,” he concluded.