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Proposed budget threatens Slovak broadcast regulator and independent media

The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), express concern that proposed changes to Slovakia's 2014 state budget could threaten the political independence of the country's broadcasting regulator and lead to media self-censorship.

A draft budget currently before Parliament would cut overall funding for the Slovak Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission (RVR) while more than doubling the yearly revenue it is expected to collect.

Parliament's Culture and Media Committee last month approved provisions that would cut the amount of state funds allocated to the RVR from almost €1.19 million in 2012 and 2013, to €1.13 million in 2014. At the same time, the RVR would be expected to collect €340,000 in revenue from fees and fines in 2014, up from the 2013 expected amount of €160,000.

Slovakia's Association of Independent Radio and Television Stations (ANRTS) said the 2013 amount of expected revenue was calculated based on the average amounts collected from 2010 to 2012, and that 97 percent of revenue the RVR collected in 2012 came from fines.

“Politicians should not be dictating a minimum amount in fines that an ostensibly independent media regulator must issue,” IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. “The ability of the regulator to rule independently and fairly on the fines to be issued for breaches of the broadcasting code is challenged if an external authorities sets the amount that should be collected, even more so if such amount is out of line with the results of previous years.”

Observers have expressed fears that the dramatic increase in the amount of revenue called for – and the implied threat of losing future funding if the RVR fails to raise it – gives the regulator an incentive to find violations based on pretexts and to issue greater numbers of fines in increasing amounts. They say the likely targets would be broadcasters that express unwelcome political opinions, leading to the potential for a growing cycle of self-censorship as regulators push the envelope ever further to raise the revenue demanded.

Slovak broadcasting law allows the RVR, an administrative body whose nine members are appointed by Parliament, to issue warnings to broadcasters for violations of the law and to fine broadcasters for certain violations. The RVR has authority to issue fines ranging from €99 to €165,959 depending on category of violation and how serious it decides a violation was.

Parliament sets the RVR's yearly operational budget, which comes from state funds. The yearly budget also predicts an amount of revenue that the RVR will collect from fees and fines, which is turned over to the state.

According to the ANRTS, Slovak law governing the financing of state institutions allows the Ministry of Finance to reduce the regulator's funding if it fails to fulfil its duties, which includes raising the amount of revenue set forth in the budget.

The Ministry of Finance, which produced the proposed budget, has declined to provide a rationale for the increase in expected revenue collection by the RVR, leading to concerns that lawmakers are seeking to balance the budget, in part, on the backs of independent media.

The proposed 2014 budget currently before Parliament anticipates an overall deficit of about 2.8 percent of GDP, which would allow the country to comply with a European Commission (EC)-imposed deficit cap of three percent. A recent EC analysis put the deficit under the proposed budget at 3.2 percent, but Slovakia's Finance Ministry has announced that improvements in tax collection would lower the deficit and bring the budget into compliance.

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