Marko Milosavljević, Tanja Kerševan Smokvina
The small Slovenian media market is characterised by a complex structure of media ownership, with several cases of cross chaining of ownership. That makes the access to information on the beneficial media owners a lengthy process, especially given the fact that the Media Register does not contain full and regularly updated information. The Media Register, operated by the ministry of culture, is a public record of the media, which was designed to contain the basic data on all media outlets under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Slovenia, including data on entities that have a 5% ownership share or share of voting rights. Regardless of the incompleteness of the data in this register, which should be improved, the transparency of media ownership can in principle, with certain reservations, still be described as satisfactory, especially after Slovenia transposed the 2015 Anti-Money Laundering Directive which contributed to the transparency of company ownership in general. Given the importance of media ownership, it would be however beneficial for the public to have all the essential data on media owners collected in one database and regularly updated. The conditions for this exist, but care must be taken to implement them regularly and consistently.
In this highly concentrated media market, the highest horizontal concentration is in the radio sector, followed by magazines and audiovisual services markets. Vertical integration is also present. There is however a lack of data on the market shares of specific media outlets, as there is no regular annual analysis of the media market with exact data. The radio sector is dominated by one person and their family members through complex ownership structures. Since the magazine sector is dominated by the same actor (i.e. Martin Odlazek), cross-media concentration is significant (Škamperle, 2021; Kučić, 2020). Media24 Group, with Odlazek as one of the strongest beneficial owners, publishes more than sixty different outlets of radio, print and audiovisual media via a group of different publishers connected into a complex ownership network (Kučić, 2020).
Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) under the now former prime minister Janez Janša (currently member of the Slovenian parliament) invested heavily in the growth of its own online and television news network with significant help of Hungarian capital linked to the Hungarian pro-government media and the Hungarian government (Kučić, 2019) and individual investments of SDS party members. Over years they have built party-controlled TV company Nova24TV, print and online political magazines (such as Demokracija and Škandal24) and a multitude of more than 30 micro local websites (Mekina, 2022). Hungarian owners with links to Viktor Orbán also purchased one of the main commercial TV stations, Planet TV, which was established during one of the previous Janša’s governments by Telekom Slovenije, the state-controlled national telecommunications operator. The last Janša’s government, 2020-2022, was characterised also by systematic efforts to undermine critical media, smear campaigns against journalists, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), funding cuts and pressures on the national press agency STA and on independent media applying for public subisdies, political appropriation of the public service broadcaster’s management and supervisory bodies, appointments of RTV Slovenia editors close to the ruling party and other destabilising actions against the public media.
Another example of political pressures on the state-owned media, which are the public service broadcaster and the national press agency, were methodologically unfounded analyses of RTV Slovenia’s reporting with the purpose of demonstrating its biases to the detriment of the ruling parties. These “analyses” were launched by the Government Communication Office (Ukom) at the end of 2021 (Petkovič, 2021) and became Ukom’s regular activity, although there was no legal mandate for this. This and other reported cases of political interference in the media sector in Slovenia demonstrated dimensions not seen in the three decades since Slovenia’s independence and were criticised by representatives of the EU bodies such as Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission; Věra Jourová, EU commissioner for values and transparency; as well as the European parliament, which adopted a resolution on fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in Slovenia, which also included concerns and calls regarding pressures on RTV Slovenia and the atmosphere of hostility in the country (Žerjavič, 2021). Among those that called on the Slovenian government to provide the necessary funding to the national press agency STA and refrain from pressures on the media were also Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe (CoE) commissioner for human rights, and several international organisations and professional associations, such as EFJ, IPI, RSF, MFRR and others.
Assessing the figures of media revenues is very challenging in Slovenia, since most information is not (publicly) available. Some consulting companies consider the whole income of certain media companies (like TV companies) as advertising income, although not all the revenues of a media company come from advertising. It is also difficult to separate income of specific sectors within a specific company offering services in different media branches, e.g. broadcasting, newspapers and magazines.
There is not enough transparency of public funding of media outlets, which includes direct subsidies to the media, both at the local and national level, as well as state advertising and advertising of companies owned or controlled by the state. Advertising funds of national, regional or local governments or state-owned companies continue to be allocated without a clear set of rules and in a non-transparent way. There is a general lack of data on the media receiving advertising funds from state companies. As regards the public subsidies, in 2021 five radio stations with a status of special significance and a few influential dailies and magazines did not get funding from the annual call for co-financing media content, which for many of them represented an important source of funding (Kotnik, 2021). In February 2021, the opposition filed an interpellation against the minister of labour, social affairs and family Janez Cigler Kralj after the media reported that the tender commission at his ministry, which also included his closest colleagues, chose to finance Institute Iskreni, whose founding member and volunteer was minister Cigler Kralj himself. The institute publishes two online portals iskreni.net and domovina.je (Kršinar, 2021). These online portals also acquired funding for the promotion of vaccination from Ukom (Košir, 2021). In March 2021, the opposition also unsuccessfully interpellated minister of culture Vasko Simoniti for numerous reasons related to his policies on media, including among others the alleged attempts of “destruction of public service media, such as RTV Slovenia and STA” (Dernovšek, STA, 2021).
After years of public controversy, in February 2021 the constitutional court confirmed that free advertising of political parties in municipal media was against the law (Rus, 2021), as it represented a detour past legislation on the financing of political parties.
Due to the chaining of media ownership, it is almost impossible to establish how many journalists are employed (or work) in content production of certain media outlets. There is no legal obligation on making this information public.
The number of employed journalists has been decreasing, and young journalists often work as freelancers or contract workers, sometimes employed in other companies controlled by the media owner. In pursuit of profit, media owners are interested in less binding contractual relationships with journalists. There are no specific mechanisms safeguarding social security of journalists in case of changes of ownership or editorial line. The Union of Slovenian Journalists offers free legal help; membership is not obligatory. There are also no effective regulatory or self-regulatory safeguards to ensure that decisions regarding appointments and dismissals of editors-in-chief are autonomous and not influenced by commercial interests. The Mass Media Act and The Code of Journalism Ethics include some measures to prevent commercial influence on journalists and content, however these measures, as well, are not always effective.
In Slovenia, there is no legal requirement according to which the media should publish information about their circulation or audience (reach).
Due to the significant decline in print runs in recent years, newspapers have stopped publishing this information. Only a few do so, and even there the published data are unrealistic. Until 2018, there were revised data on sold editions publicly available under a joint project (RNP) of Slovenian publishers and Slovenian Advertising Chamber (SOZ). Later the RNP data became available only to project participants which fully fund the project. Same is true for the information on daily reach of television and radio broadcasters, which are available only to subscribers of dedicated market research, and their unauthorised public use is not allowed.
In Slovenia, only data on website visits are available to the public on a regular basis and free of charge, within the framework of Moss, which is a regular media survey with a uniform methodology.
Data from the first quarter of 2021 (Akos, 2021) shows the top four online distribution service providers are the following: Telemach Slovenije (31.1%), Telekom (28.5%), T2 (20.7%) and A1 Slovenija (14.4%). Slovenia ranks overall 13th among the EU member states in the 2021 Digital Economy and Society Index (Desi). In connectivity, Slovenia is above the EU average (ranked 9th) and the same is true for the integration of digital technology in businesses where Slovenia ranks 8th. Regarding the open data indicator, Slovenia ranks 10th among EU countries. The country also performs well in the take-up of broadband services, and the Slovenian internet users actively engage with e-government services (77%) compared to the EU average of 64% (Desi, 2021).
Concerning the traditional distribution services, Slovenia faces problems in print media distribution infrastructure and services which do not safeguard timely and geographically widely available delivery of newspapers. The circulation of the country’s daily newspapers is rapidly decreasing over the last decade, partly due to the changing consumer patterns and partly due to poorer quality and accessibility of distribution services. In the past, there were also cases of discriminatory practices of key operators of newspapers’ sale points network, both state-owned companies (such as Pošta Slovenije) and private-owned companies (such as Mercator), against some newspapers which could be attributed to their critical reporting or simply to anti-competitive practices.
The media legal framework is outdated and not fit for the contemporary digital communication environment. Two of the three most important media laws were adopted in 2001 and 2005, namely the Mass Media Act and the Act on RTV Slovenia, respectively. The latter was changed immediately after the new government of prime minister Robert Golob took office in mid-2022, but the previous ruling group, now the opposition, led by the former prime minister Janez Janša, impeded its implementation by announcing a legislative referendum.
The Mass Media Act is the main legal instrument governing media ownership concentration and transparency. As stipulated in the Mass Media Act, media are obliged to disclose information of 5% or higher individual ownership or management stakes in the publishing or broadcasting company to the ministry of culture. The information is published in the Media Register, which is a public database on media outlets operated by ministry of culture. As indicated above, it is however not regularly updated and includes outdated, inconsistent or missing data.
On the other hand, the Slovenian business register operated by the Agency of the Republic of Slovenia for Public Legal Records and Related Services (AJPES) offers information on the beneficial owners of all companies, including media, provided that they are not organised as joint stock companies. In case of media, acquiring such information often requires lots of digging in the online records due to complex ownership structures and ownership chaining. This information is not aligned with the Media Register and media companies publish such information on their own websites only rarely.
To prevent cross-media concentration, the Mass Media Act establishes a threshold of an ownership stake of more than 20%, when a publisher of a daily informative printed medium needs the approval of the ministry of culture to also publish or co-found a broadcaster of a radio or television programme service and vice-versa. Combining radio and television activities, advertising, radio and television activities, or telecommunications, radio and television activities is not permitted, but these limitations can be easily circumvented and therefore not always implemented.
The legislative articles regarding horizontal and cross-media concentration in the media sector do not specifically regulate the digital environment in the way they regulate the radio, printed media and television environment, but even as regards broadcasting these provisions are hardly applicable as they are not technologically neutral and some of them refer to analogue distribution techniques which were already abandoned. There are also no indications that concentration in the digital environment is being monitored at all. The current legislation makes it possible for different publishers to connect in complex ownership networks and hide their concentration in the market (European Commission, 2020).
The audiovisual law was reviewed and aligned with the 2018 Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS) in December 2021. The transparency provisions were transposed to the minimum required and apply only to audiovisual services.
The Slovenian Competition Protection Agency (AVK), organised as an independent administrative authority responsible for the enforcement of antitrust and merger control rules in Slovenia, is not particularly active in the media field.
The procedures related to media concentration and anti-competitive practices take long and often do not end with measures that would put the public interest in the field of media in the forefront. The slowness in decision making was for example the case in the event of the attempted United Group takeover of Pro Plus. In the end, it was decided that Slovenia Broadband, owned by United Group, could not merge with the media company Pro Plus, as in this case there would be horizontal effects of concentration in the markets of television advertising, transmission rights of sports TV content as well as supply of children’s TV programmes. In the case of the merger of two of the three most important print press publishers, ie. Dnevnik and Večer, AVK however assessed that the concentration complied with competition rules despite resulting in 40% common share of the print media advertising market, and did not oppose the merger.
The management of the newspapers welcomed the decision of the agency, while the Slovene Journalists Association (DNS) called for maintaining the plurality of media content and jobs. According to DNS, not only the economic interest but also the public interest should be taken into account in the merger processes (L.Š. / N.P. / STA, 2019).
There were high-profile cases of political abuse of the Law on the Slovenian Press Agency (ZSTAgen, adopted in 2011 and minimally amended in 2021). The Slovenian Press Agency (STA) reached the verge of financial collapse because the government refused to allocate the legally mandated state funding (Bayer, 2021b). This was criticised by representatives of the EU bodies and several other international organisations and professional associations. Among those that called on the Slovenian government to safeguard STA the necessary funding and refrain from pressures on media were Dunja Mijatović, CoE commissioner for human rights; Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission; and Věra Jourová, EU commissioner for values and transparency. Also, in December 2021, the European parliament adopted a resolution on fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in Slovenia, which also included concerns and calls regarding pressure on RTV Slovenia and the atmosphere of hostility in the country (Žerjavič, 2021). In 2021, more than 30 verbal and physical attacks on journalists and media outlets were reported (Slovene Association of Journalists, 2021), some of them with grave consequences, but no deaths.
Slovenia was added to the Civicus human rights watchlist based on the assessment that Covid-19 measures were “used as a pretext to restrict civic freedoms”, freedom of association was threatened as civil society organisations were “increasingly targeted”, and “journalists repeatedly attacked by prime minister as media freedoms decline” (Civicus, 2021). In the latest edition of World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Slovenia was down 18 spots to rank 54th among 180 countries. The main factors of poor ranking were political pressures and strategic lawsuits against public participation (RSF, 2022). Furthermore, the findings of the Media Pluralism Monitor for 2022 indicate an overall high risk to media pluralism in Slovenia, similar to the one identified in 2021 (CMPF, 2022). Within the monitored areas, the highest risks to media pluralism were indicated regarding illegal and harmful speech online; independence of public service media governance and funding; political independence of media; as well as commercial and owner influence over editorial content. These were followed by concentration of online platforms and media concentration, as well as state regulation of resources and support to the media sector (CMPF, 2022).
Also, the independence of regulatory authorities is not entirely safeguarded due to either vague appointment criteria (as in case of the governing bodies of the communications and media national regulatory authority Akos) or due to the role of the state in the appointment procedure (as in case of the competition protection agency AVK).
There is also no independence at all in the procedures on approval of media concentration, since the body responsible for decisions in such cases is the ministry of culture. The remit of Akos is defined by the law, and the authority has a wide scope of enforcement mechanisms, e.g. warnings, suspension or revocation of licences and fines. However, media issues are often marginalised due to the extensive and varied scope of Akos’ responsibilities, including, among others, electronic communications, radio frequency spectrum, infrastructure investment, broadcasting and other electronic media, universal postal service and postal market, as well as a railway service market in Slovenia
The independence of Akos and AVK was further threatened under Janša’s government. In October 2020, the government proposed the draft law (Zakon o Javni agenciji Republike Slovenije za trg in potrošnike in Javni agenciji Republike Slovenije za finančne trge, predlog, 2020), which envisaged to merge the national regulatory authority responsible for audiovisual media services (Akos) with five other regulators, namely the energy agency, competition authority, the traffic safety agency, the civil aviation agency, and the railway agency. According to the government’s proposal, the new authority would be called the Public Agency of the Republic of Slovenia for the Market and Consumers. Akos (2020) claimed the bill was in conflict with several EU directives, including the AVMSD with strong legal safeguards of national regulatory authorities’ independence. Despite the fact that all the involved agencies opposed the merger, the government insisted on the continuation of the legislative procedure with probably an intention to subordinate these agencies and replace their governing bodies. The bill was debated in the national assembly on 24 April 2021, but was not adopted.
Evidence shows that the parliament as well sometimes tries to interfere in media ownership issues. Namely, the Parliamentary Committee of Culture discussed media concentration in October 2021 and ordered Akos to re-check the previously issued licences of radio stations and the Financial Administration (Furs) to check purchases and sales of some companies from the circle of Martin Odlazek (Grgič, 2021).
There are no effective legal safeguards for occupation safety of journalists or against managerial and political interference in editorial processes. The calls and requests of journalists’ associations often go unanswered either by publishers or the state authorities. In the absence of public policies, the Slovene Association of Journalists (DNS) has set up a platform to collect reports of physical attacks and threats, verbal attacks that go beyond argumentative criticism of a journalist’s work, including systemic and financial threats to the media. However, this platform is intended only for external pressures on journalists, and not for those that occur within a media company (Slovene Association of Journalists, 2021).
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