Slovakia raises alarm with planned revamp of public broadcaster

By Thomson Reuters Mar 14, 2024 | 8:57 AM

By Jan Lopatka

(Reuters) – Slovakia’s new government led by populist Robert Fico launched a planned revamp of public broadcaster RTVS on Thursday in a bid to bring it under direct state control, raising alarm at the television and radio station as well as with EU media.

The proposal, introduced at a press conference and to be sent to parliament for its approval, is the latest step by Fico’s government to tighten control over the EU and NATO member country.

It has already dismantled a prosecution office that battled high crime, replaced heads of the police and secret service, and turned foreign policy away from its previous staunch support of Ukraine.

Fico has long railed against critical media and has refused to answer questions from several independent outlets since taking office.

Accusing RTVS of bias in favour of the liberal opposition, Culture Minister Martina Simkovicova said mainstream media including RTVS failed to allow different opinions. The aim of the legislation was to strengthen public service broadcasting, she said.

“For a long time, only one and the same opinion is allowed in mainstream media on topics such as COVID or Ukraine,” Simkovicova told the briefing broadcast on television.

“It is not all right that certain opinions are being censored in the public medium.”

The proposed law would replace the current RTVS board with members appointed by parliament and the government. A new director could be removed at any time by the board, and not by parliament as in the past.

“This appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to turn the Slovak public service broadcaster into state-controlled media,” Director General Noel Curran of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), a group of public media, said in a statement.

“That would be a dangerous step backwards for democracy and for freedom of expression.”

The EBU said the proposal went directly against recommendations in last year’s EU rule of law report to strengthen independence of the media.

The EBU and public Czech Television in neighbouring Czech Republic both said it went against the EU’s forthcoming European Media Freedom Act, especially with the ease in which the director could be dismissed.

RTVS director Lubos Machaj has called the plan a power grab.

“The law has, in my view, a single aim: to seize an independent public medium and subject it to government power,” he said this week.

Government officials fended off the criticism, saying the proposal was aimed at ensuring balanced broadcasts and that the law respected the European Media Freedom Act.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague; Editing by Nick Macfie)