Slovakia’s cabinet approves legislation to restructure public broadcaster

Slovakia’s cabinet approves legislation to restructure public broadcaster
Robert Fico (centre) and Minister of Culture Martina Simkovicova (far right) at the government press conference on April 24. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera April 25, 2024

Slovakia’s left-right government of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico approved at its session on April 24 the much-criticised legislation aimed at restructuring the country’s public broadcaster RTVS.

“I am very glad that cabinet has today approved the new law on Slovak television,” Minister of Culture Martina Simkovicova said in her opening statement at the press conference following the cabinet session held in the countryside in Dolna Krupa at a farm owned by the Agrofert conglomerate of the Czech populist leader Andrej Babis.

Simkovicova stated that “a new public broadcasting institution is born” and that the legislation will help “fix the political activism, which has settled in the public opinion-making media”.

Fico has repeatedly accused RTVS reporting of being biased against his cabinet.

Simkovicova herself previously worked at TV Slovan, a platform criticised by analysts of the Slovak disinformation scene for disseminating pro-Kremlin and Covid-related hoaxes and conspiracies and undermining trust in public media. Simkovicova has also been facing resignation calls over her renewal of cultural cooperation with Belarus and Russia in January, and over 180,000 Slovaks signed a petition calling for her resignation in response.  

According to the legislative proposal, the new institution will be called STVR (Slovak Television and Broadcaster), stating that the current name is allegedly degrading the state nation Slovakia to a mere region. Once dissolved, the current RTVS management will be effectively dismissed.

“This argument [to rename the public broadcaster] is one of the reasons given why RTVS needs to be dismantled and founded anew,” commented sociologist Marina Urbanikova for RTVS ahead of the cabinet session. “It is not clear to me; I do not see a reason for dismantling and setting up the institution anew because of its name,” Urbanikova continued.    

Fico himself repeated that RTVS is in a “permanent fight with the government” and that the ruling coalition is responding to its voters who “demand that something is finally done about RTVS.”

The legislation is seen by the opposition, the Slovak journalist community, and international media associations as tightening government control of public broadcasting. It will need to be approved by the country’s National Council (parliament).

At a press conference, Fico said he expects the legislation to be passed in June, which is also when his ally and leader of the Hlas party, Peter Pellegrini, will take over the Presidential Palace after winning the presidential runoff vote earlier this month, mobilising electorate with fear-spreading messages. Once in office, Pellegrini is not expected to oppose the cabinet-backed legislation as the outgoing President Zuzana Caputova did in case of previous controversial bills pushed through by Fico’s ruling coalition.   

The ruling coalition, which includes Fico's Smer party, centre-left Hlas and far-right SNS, has a narrow majority of 79 out of 150 legislators in the parliament, but the opposition, led by liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS), has vowed to do its utmost to block the legislation.

“We in PS stand by RTVS,” Simecka declared in response to the cabinet approval of the legislation and called on Slovaks to wear dark clothing “in support of RTVS employees and their fight for media freedom”.

“We will fight in the parliament, protest, object to the coalition's nonsense at the Constitutional Court and finally, we need to beat Fico in every other election that are ahead of us,” Simecka also stated.

PS is projected to beat Smer and Hlas by a wide margin in the June elections to the European Parliament, in which liberal parties are traditionally doing well due to the lower interest of the populist electorate in the EP elections.

RTVS employees recorded a video ahead of the cabinet session in which its employees describe their daily reporting work in the studios and regions of Slovakia.

“Approving of the STVR legislation is an instrumental change which does not have backing and is in conflict with legislative standards,” RTVS statement reads, adding that the estimated costs of the change are “several millions of euros”.

The ruling coalition softened the legislation following a wave of criticism, including European Broadcaster Union, whose Director General, Noel Curran, called the legislation "a thinly veiled attempt to turn the Slovak public service broadcaster into state-controlled media" in March.

Most poignantly, the coalition scrapped the provision that the new STVR head could be dismissed without providing reasons for it, which conflicted with European legislation. The STVR head will newly be elected by the overseeing Council (Rada Slovenskej televizie a rozhlasu), four of whose nine members will now be directly appointed by the Ministry of Culture and five by the parliament.  

Fico's cabinet appears to be attempting a balancing act in fear Brussels could take a tougher stance in response to ongoing changes in Slovakia, which critics argue undermine the rule of law and media freedom. 

Fico has recently been attempting to address one of the opposition parties, Christian Democratic KDH, and its electorate by luring KDH to join him in opposing the adoption of children by homosexual couples and what he termed "super-interruptions."

KDH also addressed a letter to the European Commission warning against possible freezing of EU funds for Slovakia. "We don't want an ordinary citizen to be punished for misdoings of this government," KDH explained its move, which sparked criticism from the remaining opposition parties.