Government disregard of law on the STA is a defeat of the rule of law
Ljubljana, 12 January - The Slovenian Press Agency (STA) remains without payment for the performance of statutory public service and commercial services for the public administration. Under legislative amendments to the 7th economic stimulus act, which entered into effect on 31 December, the STA was supposed to receive overdue payments within seven days. The provision was added to the law specifically to dispel any uncertainty regarding the state's obligation to finance the STA's public service as stipulated by the act governing the STA. No payment has been transferred to date.
Instead of settling its debt, the government has asked the European Commission whether such financing is in conformity with EU state aid rules, arguing that the new legislative provision has transformed the payments into a direct budgetary obligation. The Government Communications Office says the payments will be made once it has received the green light.
The government has thus failed to honour its commitments and violated its obligations under the law, in what marks a defeat of the rule of law. We believe that despite soliciting an opinion from the European Commission, the government should continue financing the STA as required by law until such time it has received an opinion from the Commission.
Not only is this a direct commitment under the original law on the STA as well as the 7th economic stimulus act, but the overdue payments are subject to an agreement on the performance of public service for 2020 and as such cannot be considered state aid under any circumstances. What is more, a portion of the outstanding debt is for the performance of separate commercial services for the public administration determined in a special agreement, which cannot fall under the purview of state aid either.
Under the law, the Government Communications Office is also supposed to sign a new agreement with the STA on the performance of public service for 2021 based on the financial plan for 2021 that the supervisory board adopted in December. No such agreement is in sight.
The government's continued refusal to honour its obligations will cause enormous damage, especially if it turns out that the European Commission does not have any remarks about the implementation of the law. Its conduct constitutes nothing but yet another attempt to find new excuses and drag out the process with the intention of financially draining the STA.
Despite having last received payment for its public service for September and not having received any public funding since, the STA continues to perform all of its services as required by law.However, should this situation persist, it may be forced to stop performing the public service or terminate its operations altogether, just as it approaches the 30 th anniversary of its founding, an event that coincided with the declaration of Slovenia's independence.
Cessation of operations would cause a huge information gap for the clients served by the STA, and the loss of almost a hundred jobs, jeopardising the social security of STA employees and their families. More than that, it would mark a severe blow to Slovenia's democratic image in a year when the country is slated to preside over the EU Council.
The latest development comes after the Government Communications Office suspended financing in November 2020 with the argument that the STA had failed to deliver documentation that it demanded. Alas, its request ignored the legal opinion of the government's own Office for Legislation, which said that by suspending public service financing this way, the Government Communications Office would exceed its legal authority and create an unlawful situation.
The STA has always delivered all documentation required under the law and the agreement for the performance of public service, which it has been doing quarterly ever since the STA law was adopted in 2011. There have never been any problems before.
The STA management has made it clear that some of the demands the Government Communications Office has made encroached on the agency's editorial independence, which is enshrined in the STA law and the media law. For example, the Government Communications Office demanded explanations about the choice of interviewees and length of interviews.
Access to some of the other documents that it requested, for example individual payroll information and access to complete commercial service agreements with commercial clients, is reserved only for the shareholder - in this case the government - according to the companies act, as evident from a legal opinion solicited by the STA and drawn up by one of the most renowned experts on corporate governance and company law in Slovenia. By requesting such documents, the Government Communications Office was forcing the STA management to break the law.
The latest developments raise the spectre of political and social consequences of a government ignoring the law and the will of MPs from the ranks of the parties that support it; fact is that the STA amendment to the 7 th economic stimulus act was tabled by a coalition party, the SMC, and the final version of the act was endorsed by all three coalition parties as well as an opposition party and MPs for the Italian and Hungarian minorities.
Recent international events make it patently clear what the persistent undermining of the rule of law and attacks on independent media bring.
STA Editorial Board
STA Works Council
STA Editorial Staff Representation
STA Trade Union of Journalists