Journalists have described an apparent decision to halt funding to he public news agency STA as a serious threat to media freedom – with some claiming it is a result of government irritation with its reporting during the pandemic.
The Slovene Journalists’ Association, DNS, said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by the government decision to stop funding the Slovenian Press Agency, STA, the independent public news agency, allegedly because it did not file the requested documentation to the Government Communications Office, UKOM.
“This is yet another attempt to destroy the national press agency, which is a pillar of high-quality and unbiased reporting. We have seen the same thing happen in neighbouring Hungary,” the DNS said in a press release.
As local media – but not the government press release – reported on Tuesday, the UKOM informed the government of Janez Jansa that it was unable to implement a contract with the STA for the rest of this year or conclude a contact for next year.
The STA as a result has not received any monthly compensation for October from UKOM, which its leadership says threatens its future, and is a serious threat to media pluralism and media freedom.
Suspension of financing of independent Slovenian press agency though it’s part of government’s contract. This threatens agency’s future work! Great threat on #medaipluralism & #mediafreedom in #Slovenia @MediaFreedomEU @CmpfEui @EFJEUROPE @IFJGlobal https://t.co/ObaHPiuwWi
— Renate Schroeder (@renatemargot) December 1, 2020
BIRN asked UKOM to respond to these accusations but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
However, UKOM director Uros Urbanija told public television on Tuesday that there had been “no decision to stop funding the STA”, and that UKOM had only informed the government about the impossibility of financing the agency because it “did not get the information we need to be able to verify the credibility and sustainability of [STA’s] funding”.
The pensioners’ party, DeSUS, a partner in the coalition government led by Prime Minister Jansa, on Twitter on Tuesday “demand the immediate withdrawal of the decision, by which, without prior and reasoned discussion, the government is strongly interfering in the media space”.
The DNS claims that, as the founder of the agency, the Republic of Slovenia is required by law to finance the agency.
The STA said on Tuesday that the UKOM decision was preceded by a series of letters addressed to the director and Supervisory Board since mid-October, and was responding to it “in a manner and within the scope envisaged by the legislation”, but that some questions submitted by the UKOM have no legal basis.
“In the letters, UKOM demanded a series of explanations: from content-related questions about the journalistic work of the STA editorial board and specific news content and responses to that content which run against the editorial autonomy provided by law; to issues related to business operations, which are, in accordance with the ZSTAgen [Slovenian Press Agency Act], supervised by the Supervisory Board of the STA,” the agency said.
Some observers suggest that Jansa’s right-wing government is dissatisfied with the STA’s reporting during the pandemic, as it gave more space to anti-government protests than to government and prime ministerial appearances.
But the DNS defended its work. With its news wire, live streamed press conferences and radio news service, “the STA has made it significantly easier for journalists to access information at a time when they have had to work remotely, due to various restrictions”, the DNS said.
A number of local and international press freedom watchdog organizations have accused Jansa of using the pandemic to restrict media freedoms and make often personal attacks on journalists.