Slovak parliament approves government's contested public broadcaster revamp

(Reuters) -Slovakia's parliament approved the government's planned revamp and leadership change at public broadcaster RTVS on Thursday, overruling concerns the changes will bring the broadcaster under political control and harm media freedom.

Robert Fico's leftist-nationalist cabinet is pushing to reshape Slovak institutions and policy, including among state prosecutors and police, environment policy, and non-governmental organisations.

Some of the changes have sparked public protests and concerns in the European Union over democratic controls.

The new legislation will change how RTVS's oversight council is chosen at the broadcaster, which the government has accused of being biased and ignoring opinions outside what it called the mainstream.

RTVS workers, along with the opposition, some EU observers and media advocacy groups, fear the changes will harm media independence and stifle government criticism.

"The draft law ... has the goal of strengthening the public-law character of (the broadcaster) and ensure respect for plurality and the principles of democracy and free creation," Culture Minister Martina Simkovicova told lawmakers on Thursday, while defending the bill.

Slovak media reported opposition parties walked out of parliament before the vote on the bill, which 78 government lawmakers backed. The bill will take effect from July once the president signs it.

Under the law, RTVS's director will be replaced years before his term expires. A reworked nine-member council, appointed by the culture minister and parliament, will be responsible for filling the position. RTVS will also change its name to Slovak Television and Radio (STVR).

RTVS Director Lubos Machaj called it a "black day" for public broadcasting and media in Slovakia.

"The failure to establish precise processes for the change from RTVS to STVR, combined with the absence of full leadership, could destabilise the institution and jeopardise production," RTVS said in a statement.

Michal Simecka, head of the biggest opposition party, Progressive Slovakia (PS), called the law shameful and said he would challenge it at the Constitutional Court.

The European Broadcasting Union and European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova have also voiced concern, while Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said this month it allowed "for the politicisation of the public broadcaster by the government that would fatally compromise its independence."

Since taking power last year, Fico's coalition government has taken aim at media and others that it has said had been hostile to it.

In May, a gunman seriously wounded Fico, who is recovering at home. The attack deepened the political divide in the central European country of 5.4 million.

Simkovicova said criticism of the bill was adding to the polarisation in society.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague; Editing by Alex Richardson and Richard Chang)