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Funding resumes for Slovenia's press agency — but at a cost

Gasper Andrinek
November 17, 2021

For the first time in over 300 days, Slovenia's STA press agency has received payment from the government for its public service, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy.

Aljoša Rehar, the future editor-in-chief of Slovenia's press agency STA
Aljosa Rehar will assume the role as STA's editor-in-chief on December 4Image: STA

After nearly a year since cutting off funding for Slovenia's lone news agency STA, the government has said it will resume payments. But journalists and editors have warned that the new contract can still leave staff vulnerable. 

The agreement, which came 312 days later, ended a period of huge uncertainty for the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) and narrowly avoided bankruptcy.

Prime Minister Janez Jansa's government had halted funding in January after he had previously slammed the news agency, calling it a "national disgrace" over STA's coverage on a meeting between him and his populist ally in the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. 

The EU had condemned the move and Slovenia's Supreme Court later ordered the government to resume funding. 

"Signing this deal constitutes neither a victory nor a defeat. It is simply the basis for the STA to receive all the funds allocated to it by the parliamentary deputies," said Igor Kadunc, acting director of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), when the deal was reached with the Government Communication Office. 

Slovenian Slovenian Press Agency journalist Alenka Potocnik
STA journalist Alenka PotocnikImage: Privat

Kadunc, who took the agency's helms on October 31 following the resignation of Bojan Veselinovic, also surprised STA employees with the agreement: "We did not expect the new director to finish things in one week and find a compromise acceptable to both parties" said STA journalist Alenka Potocnik to DW.

That same day the agreement was reached, November 8, STA received the first transfer of funds, for its public service during the month of August.

Outstanding payments to STA settled in court

Kadunc and the director of the Government Communication Office (UKOM), Uros Urbanija. also agreed on a court settlement regarding payments for the first four months of 2021.

Urbanija said in a press statement that the contract stipulates that STA will receive €2.028 million for this year, as envisaged by STA's own business plan.

For the remaining months, UKOM said it will pay STA according to the regulation currently in force, which STA is still challenging in court. The regulation requires STA to report to UKOM on the amount of news it publishes, which is then remunerated accordingly — on a monthly basis — by the government office.

STA journalist Potocnik maintains that it is impossible to compare or adequately quantify journalistic work: "You cannot compare the amount of time, knowledge, background knowledge one journalistic product needs with easier tasks that a journalism student may do for us as work experience. That is why this kind of counting is unacceptable."

STA publishes an average of 300 news items per day.

The incoming editor-in-chief, Aljosa Rehar, who will assume the role on December 4, has said the new contract is not ideal. "For example, the contract stipulates that the work of the STA be paid by the piece. Those providing the funding decide how many of the pieces produced actually get paid. In the absence of adequate safeguards, such an arrangement carries a high risk of potential abuse."

European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand has urged Slovenian authorities to ensure the STA's independence is fully preserved. "We will continue to monitor the situation very closely, both in terms of financial sustainability and the agency's independence."

'No longer a reliable company'

Some uncertainty remains at the agency. During 312 days of constant struggle for financial survival, the STA suffered many upheavals. Sixteen employees left the agency, 13 of them journalists.

"It's hard to replace these people. After all, people no longer see us as a reliable company. The situation was very different a year ago," said Potocnik, who is also president of the Slovenian Journalists' Union.

STA, she says, used to be the company with the highest credit rating. "We never had any losses; we were never in debt. In terms of the business, everything was fine."

But the pressures over the last year have not only been financial, Potocnik points out. "Unjustified criticism, discrediting our work, has also soured the atmosphere. According to some, we are a national disgrace."

Calls to safeguard financial viability

Sandra Basic Hrvatin, a professor at the University of Primorska and export on media studies, told DW: "STA has been damaged irreparably."

"Three hundred days ago, STA was a successful and efficient news agency that performed a role that was very precisely defined in law," she said. "After 300 days of genuinely orchestrated attacks, financial blackmail, and abuse of power, the collective has practically ceased to exist. The government is using this to chilling effect on anyone who disagrees with their policies; it is intended as a warning — if anyone else decides to resist, it will act."

Sandra Bašić Hrvati portrait
Sandra Basic Hrvatin, a professor at the University of PrimorskaImage: Borut Krajnc

The Association of Slovenian Journalists, which raised more than €385,000 as part of a campaign to support the STA, warns that it would be unacceptable if draconian contracts were to have a major impact on the evaluation, financing and use of the service provided by STA.

This was also pointed out in a joint statement issued on 12 November by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited), International Press Institute (IPI), and OBC Transeuropa):

"Under the conditions of the current contract, the agency will see an overall drop in monthly funding for the rest of the year. In the next agreement for 2022, a careful balance must be struck to safeguard its financial viability."

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan, Rüdiger Rossig and Stephanie Burnett

Gasper Andrinek (DW-correspondent in Ljubljana, Slovenia)