Bojan Veselinovič, General Manager of STA

Bojan Veselinovič (General Manager of STA): The ulterior motive behind the proposed amendments to the STA's law is no doubt the desire for political interference in our content production

With the agency currently being targeted for legal restructuring by the Slovenian ruling coalition, its management claims the real reason behind the move is gaining political control over STA by changing the way its Supervisory Board is elected. During this time, STA announces a 10-15% jump in social media followers and 100 new livestreams with over 2.9 million views on their main platform. More news from the Slovenian National News Agency, in the interview below with General Manager Bojan Veselinovič.

The STA is going through a rough time now, because of the proposed changes to its functioning law. What are those changes and how would they affect the STA?

Journalists, as well as the broader public, have long been convinced that the government of Prime Minister Janez Janša will interfere with public-service media. The current government started its term just as the Covid-19 epidemic was declared. As long as the virus was spreading dangerously, the government refrained from the media legislation, it needed the media. But even during the epidemic it was palpable that mainstream media were not the primary tools the prime minister and his cabinet were counting on. Yes, there were daily media briefings with the official government spokesman, but there was no way of asking questions at first. It was not until media outlets and journalists’ organisations cried foul that they made it possible to ask questions “remotely”. The speakers at the government’s media briefings were thus in one part of Ljubljana, whereas the journalists were relegated to an improvised TV studio in another part of the nation’s capital – and they were still unable to ask follow-up questions.

In early May, while the epidemic still lasted, Prime Minister Janša published an essay on the government website entitled War with the Media. He states that the professional group that “initially called itself the seventh force, then the fourth (non-elected) branch of power, and finally the moral arbiter of political correctness, as something good, reality it is no longer the first nor the second nor the third«. And he added: “You have probably heard many times that a war against the media cannot be won. This is one of the folk sayings people good-naturedly repeat without thinking of what they are actually saying. If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will quickly jump out. But if you throw it into lukewarm water and heat it slowly, it will stay in the pot until the bitter end.”

And this is what’s happening now. Amendments to the Act on Public Broadcaster RTV Slovenija, the Act on the Slovenian Press Agency and the Media Act have now been published. Experts had no say in any of the bills; the unknown authors of the legislation consulted neither the management of RTV Slovenija nor the management of the STA, which makes it difficult to believe the “good intentions” that government representatives keep mentioning in their vacuous reasoning.

After the bills, which were written in secrecy, were made public by one of the coalition parties, the government “declared” a five-day public consultation period. What followed was an ominous reaction from all domestic media as well as foreign media organisations, including EANA, the European Broadcasting Union, the International Press Institute any many others. Government representatives reacted by quipping that these people abroad probably do not know what is going on, that they are not familiar with the specifics of the situation in Slovenia. At the request of the Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS), a member of the ruling coalition, the public consultation period was eventually extended until the start of September. However, the proposed wording of the bills is so bad they hardly form the basis for any debate, let alone a basis for reasonable legislative changes.

And what are the changes affecting the STA?

The most profound change is how the members of the STA supervisory board would be appointed. Under the current legislation, there are five members of the supervisory board, one named by the employees and four elected by the National Assembly with the absolute majority of all votes. One of each has to be an expert in business, media, IT and law. The proposed amendments stipulate that the supervisors would simply be appointed by the government, which would be done immediately, 15 days after promulgation of the act.

The government claims this is in line with the Slovenian Companies Act, but this is a misguided argument since the existing law governing the STA contains the provision that says all issues not specifically regulated by the STA Act are governed by the Companies Act anyway.

When the act governing the STA was being written ten years ago, the provision that supervisors are appointed by the National Assembly was built in on purpose: to ensure the autonomy of the national press agency as a public-service media outlet. It also contains a limited number of grounds on which the supervisors may be dismissed, again as a bulwark protecting the autonomy of the STA as a company in sole ownership of the state.

The ulterior motive behind the proposed amendments to the STA's law is no doubt the desire for political interference in our content production. Notably, the proposed legislation changed the rules on the dismissal of the general manager, with one of the ground for dismissal being “the director’s inability to manage the STA”. This is absurd since the Companies Act already determines that the director may be dismissed at any time.

The authors gave this so little thought that they failed to name examples of countries where governments do actually appoint supervisors at national press agencies. Instead, they named as role models Slovakia and Croatia, countries where parliaments elect the supervisors of national press agencies.

The amendments further propose crossing out the provision stating that “the STA must not become de facto or de iure dependent on any ideological, political or economic group”. In the existing law, this provision is modelled on the Agence France-Presse statutes and the proposal that it be crossed out speaks volumes about the intentions of the unknown authors.

The other major “novelty” is how the STA would be financed. Our agency generates 50% of revenue independently, on the market. The national budget contributes just half of the total funding, 2 million euros, which corresponds to under a euro per capita per year.

The amendments now propose that the funding of our public service would no longer be secured from the national budget, instead the STA would get 3% of the RTV Slovenija subscription fee. This means that the “argument” of the unknown authors of the legislation – that the new scheme will reduce the burden on the budget – is completely invalid. First of all, two million euros out of an annual national budget of ten billion euros cannot represent a burden: we are the national press agency and as such one of the cornerstones of statehood, we were established as soon as Slovenia won independence. Any secondly, the RTV Slovenija subscription fee is a quasi-tax too.

Neither is the proposed financing scheme a guarantee that STA financing will be more stable. True, in the first year after the legislation takes effect, if it does, the STA would in fact get more money than it got from the budget last year, but there is no provision guaranteeing that the amount of subscription fee RTV Slovenija collects will be at the same level as it was last year, 95 million euros.

Indeed, Prime Minister Janša has been making appeals to people to stop paying the subscription fee, and we have to consider that the public is increasingly disinclined towards traditional media, both of which may result in the number of those paying the subscription fee declining. Another reason to doubt the sincerity of the intention to provide the STA with more funding for the performance of public service is a Twitter post by Prime Minister Janša during the Covid-19 epidemic, when he labelled the STA a “fake news ventilator”. This tweet was in response to a completely innocuous STA article.

The proposed amendments also include a provision under which the STA would perform market activities at a “limited scope”. Nobody is willing to say what exactly this is supposed to mean, but it no doubt implements the Hungarian model of melding the press agency into the public broadcaster. When Hungary adopted a law devising common financing for the MTI and their public broadcaster, the next step was to effectively merge the two institutions, centralising the production of news and controlling it from a single centre of power.

Perhaps this is what awaits us in Slovenia: the proposed legislation stipulates that only the public broadcaster would have free access to STA content. It provides no explanation as to why newspapers or radio stations should not have the same kind of access, even though they are in a much worse financial position. All in all, the proposed legislation is just a step short of the Orbanisation of Slovenian public media.

In another indication of just how senseless the proposed legislation is, one of the amendments stipulates that livestreaming would be one of our market activities, to be used for the production of verbatim transcripts. We already provide livestreaming services anyway, while transcripts would not interest anyone, they would just require a profound restructuring of the workflow and sap our already limited resources.

One other major proposed change would be that our English-language service would no longer be a public service, which devalues the only daily source of information in English in Slovenia.

We are immensely grateful to anyone who will present these “new ideas” to their readers, viewers and listeners. And we would like to thank EANA for help in a battle that may well culminate in a referendum in the event the bills are adopted by the National Assembly in autumn.

The main topic of the EANA Top Voices interviews is now the corona-crisis. How did it affect the STA? Did any special problems arise?

Thank goodness we have not lost any subscribers. Just like us, our subscribers are in an unenviable position, but no one has cancelled their subscription. We immediately adjusted the work processes to the new situation, took care of the health and safety of our staff, organised remote work, and offered new products, in particular virtual events that we either organised or hosted on our channels. In March and April alone we created 100 livestreams and had a record 2.9 million views just on our main platform.

The Slovenian and English live infographics on coronavirus infections, which have also been used by other media, have over 500,000 and 100,000 views, respectively. The number of followers on social media jumped 10-15%, on Youtube the increase was as much as 48%.

Do you foresee any permanent changes in the STA’s activity after the pandemic?

Our long-standing policy is the sustainable and ongoing conception of new products and marketing avenues, whereby we make sure the products and content are of a high quality, topical and credible. This also applies to the post-corona period. As far as work organisation, we will continue to rely heavily on remote work, which will represent a more permanent form of organisation.

What is your opinion on the relevance of news agencies during crisis times? Are they less or more relevant?

The coronavirus era has shown the true value of traditional media, which have had higher ratings, page views and reach. The same goes for the STA, as you can see from the data I mentioned above.

How is the Slovenian media market? Is public media stronger than the private media? Does the public look more towards traditional media or towards the new media (social networks, blogs, etc)?

The Slovenian media market has a few specifics. The market is small and saturated. In terms of ad spending, TV is still strongly dominant despite all the technological changes, online ad spending is still far behind, unlike in many other countries. Aside from the public TV, there are at least two strong commercial TV providers. One of them had been in para-state ownership (owned by the majority state-owned Telekom Slovenije) and was acquired in July by a Hungarian magnate with close ties to Hungary’s ruling party. The second commercial TV station, POP TV, is owned by a Czech billionaire.

The radio market is gasping for air; there used to be dozens of local radio stations, now there are far fewer and they are concentrated in two privately-owned networks. There are five daily newspapers, but they are likewise struggling. Their circulation is in the 20,000 range, compared to peaks of 60,000-120,000 in the early 1990s. And here’s the paradox: the few good, cutting-edge journalists still in the trade are concentrated in the newspapers. Yes, some also work for online outlets, but these have a more limited reach.

In this ecosystem, the STA plays the role of provider of credible news with its own distribution channels on social networks and strong technological know-how that it has developed in-house . As a result, more subscribers use our content on mobile devices than on the traditional online platform. 

Interview by Alexandru Giboi (EANA Secretary General) for the "EANA Top Voices" project.