EU commissioners say state aid to STA may be provided without prior notification
Ljubljana, 13 January - Two EU commissioners have stressed that the state may support news agencies as entities performing a service of general economic interest under EU state aid rules if they so wish, and without prior notification, as they responded to an STA letter on the suspension of the agency's financing.
Margrethe Vestager, the commissioner for competition, and Vera Jourova, the Commission vice-president for values and transparency, said that "the Commission is well aware of the Government Communications Office's suspension of payment for work [of the STA] performed in the last three months of 2020 and its refraining from signing a new public service agreement for 2021."
Assuring the STA that the Commission considers this to be a matter of utmost importance, the commissioners say that "member states may support news agencies as entities performing a service of general economic interest (SGEI) under EU state aid rules if they so wish."
The letter, sent on Wednesday, notes that the Slovenian state had continuously financed the STA during the past decade without requesting the Commission's state aid approval.
"Indeed, member states are entitled [...] to grant public service aid without prior notification to the Commission, provided the conditions of these rules are fulfilled and the annual aid amount is not higher than EUR 15 million. These rules apply also to the public services of a news agency."
This means that the Slovenian authorities are themselves competent to verify the relevant rules and implement the aid without the Commission's approval, as they have been doing for almost ten years.
An additional assessment by the Commission is not necessary and, in light of the urgent need for funding, the Slovenian authorities are therefore well-placed to proceed with the granting of aid without notification.
"The services of the Competition Directorate General have already drawn the attention of the Slovenian authorities to this fact," the commissioners add.
The last month for which the STA received compensation for the performance of its public service was September, whereupon the Government Communication Office (UKOM), which is in charge of disbursing the funds, suspended financing due to a dispute with the STA management over documents that it believes the STA should deliver.
At the end of the year, a legislative amendment was added to the 7th economic stimulus package stipulating that the STA must receive funds for all overdue claims by a deadline that expired last week.
The government argued the new provision turned the financing into a direct obligation and hence needed to be checked for compliance with EU state aid rules, a move described by the STA management and staff as an attempt to defer the funding and financially drain the agency.
The response by the commissioners comes after STA management and staff addressed a letter to several commissioners and the Commission Representation in Slovenia concerning the situation, asking the Commission to take timely action regarding the government's query.
The STA also asked the Commission to take a position on the developments from the aspect of media freedom, rule of law and democracy.
In today's letter, the commissioners say "it is crucial for democracy and for our common EU values that media should be able to work freely and independently everywhere in the European Union - this lies at heart of media pluralism.
"Public media play a special role in the European Union and member states should refrain from attempts to put pressure on them. The Commission is also aware of and supports the important role of independent news agencies for the media environment," they added.
According to unofficial information, the Commission has already replied to Slovenian authorities, calling on them to withdraw the notification on the financing of the STA.