Slovakia must withdraw public broadcasting bill that makes a mockery of European requirements

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Slovakia’s culture minister to withdraw a bill that would enable the government to control public media content although the European Commission has asked the government to reinforce public media independence in order to safeguard the rule of law.

Using an accelerated procedure, Prime Minister Robert Fico’s government has embarked on an attempt to assert political control over public broadcasting that is unprecedented in the history of Slovak democracy.

The bill published on 11 March envisages replacing the existing public broadcasting group, Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS), by a new entity, Slovak Television and Radio (STaR), whose director-general and programme content would be chosen by the ruling coalition. The government says the bill is set to be approved by the council of ministers by the end of March and by parliament in the summer at the latest.

The bill defies the report on the rule of law in Slovakia adopted by the European Commission in July 2023, which asks the government to “continue with the process of strengthening the rules and mechanisms to enhance the independent governance and editorial independence of public service media.”

RTVS director-general Ľuboš Machaj said the proposed law would allow “a political takeover of public broadcasting” – a view shared by more than a thousand RTVS staff members who have called for the bill’s withdrawal.

“The Slovak government is surreptitiously trying to deprive public broadcasting of its independence. Going completely counter to the recommendations of the latest European Commission report on the rule of law in Slovakia and the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), this bill is an affront to European law. We urge Culture Minister Martina Šimkovičová to withdraw her bill and, after consulting public broadcasting stakeholders, to submit a new reform proposal that respects European Union requirements.

Pavol Szalai
Head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans Desk

Machaj, who was elected by parliament to be RTVS director-general until 2027, has been the target of baseless accusations of bias by the ruling coalition, which would be able to dismiss him if the bill is adopted.

A new management would then be elected by a new STaR Board consisting of seven members, four of them appointed by parliament and three by the culture minister. A new Programming Board, tasked with ensuring that the public media respect their public service missions and composed mainly of members elected by parliament, could dismiss the director-general if it considers that the programming does not comply with the law. The STaR Board would also have the power to fire the director-general without having to give any grounds.

Although a representative of the culture ministry announced on 14 March that this last point would be removed, STaR’s political subjugation would be further reinforced by the bill’s provision for a contract with the state. It would allow increasing the broadcaster’s annual funding from the state budget from 0.12% to 0.14% of GDP on the condition that it undertook to produce content required directly by the government.

RTVS was due to receive 0.17% of GDP in state funding in 2024 before the current ruling coalition reduced it at the end of 2023 to 0.12% – a fall by 30%.

Bill contrary to European law

With the EMFA now in the final stage of adoption and the European Commission drafting a new rule of law report, the European Commission Vice-President responsible for the media, Věra Jourová, has expressed concern about the Slovak bill. It “deserves our attention (...) not just by the Commission, but by everyone who understands that every country must have strong public service media, and not media that serve as the mouthpiece of the party and the government,” Jourová said on 13 March.

Article 5 of the EMFA – which RSF has hailed as a major step forward for the right to information in Europe and which is supposed to be implemented within 15 months of its taking effect – contains several provisions regarding public media that the Slovak bill would directly violate.

Under article 5, public media management may be dismissed before the end of their term of office “only exceptionally” and by means of a “duly justified” decision. This article also says that procedures for appointing and dismissing public media chiefs should be such as to “ensure effective independence of the public media.” These provisions will clearly render culture minister Martina Šimkovičová's proposal inconsistent with European law.

Slovakia is ranked 17th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

29/ 180
Score : 76.03
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