New Government, Old Agenda – Press Freedom Under Strain Again in Slovenia

Few countries in Europe have experienced such a swift downturn in press and media freedom with a new government as has Slovenia under veteran Prime Minister Janez Janša.

In the last six months, the outspoken PM, who took office in March 2020 and after having governed the country twice previously, has immediately renewed long-standing grievances with the press and denigrated critical media outlets.

Going far beyond reasonable criticism, experts say, Janša has launched a series of vitriolic Twitter attacks on reporters, enabling wider digital harassment from online trolls and contributing to an increasingly hostile climate for watchdog journalism.

Janša’s inflammatory claims, often denouncing critical reporting as #FakeNews, have also drawn uncomfortable parallels with other leaders and brought Slovenia to the attention of press freedom groups, the OSCE and top EU bodies.

But the attacks on journalists do not end on social media. Janša’s right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) has again begun to exert greater influence over the country’s small media market, as part of a purported effort to promote greater media pluralism.

In addition to proposed legislation aimed at defunding the public broadcaster, Janša has also attempted to personallyamplifyhis party’s pro-government media system, much of which is funded by Hungarian media companies linked to Viktor Orbán.

Taken together, this represents a worrying decline in press freedom in a very short space of time in a country previously considered a relative safe haven for independent journalism.

New Administration, Old Agenda

For many Slovenian journalists, however, the overriding feeling is one of déjà vu. As one of the most prominent figures within Slovenian politics in the last three decades, this is certainly not the first time 61-year-old Janša has courted criticism for undermining press freedom.

After serving as defence minister in Slovenia’s first democratic government following independence in 1991, he then went on to lead two administrations from 2004 to 2008 and from 2012 to 2013 before spending almost a year in prison on corruption charges, until his conviction was unanimously overturned by the Constitutional Court in 2015.

Throughout this turbulent career, he has been accused of censorshipabuse of state advertising, and faced an ongoing criminal case for calling two female journalists “washed-up prostitutes”Propelled to office again in mid-March as the Covid-19 pandemic began, he and his administration have wasted little time in taking on perceived enemies in the media.

“History is repeating itself in Slovenia,” said Anuška Delić a Slovenia-based journalist and founder of Oštro, a centre for investigative journalism in the region, in an interview with IPI. “Except this time around, SDS have taken the gloves off.”

Attacks on Media and Journalists Begin

“From the moment they took power, literally within days and during one of the worst crises we’ve faced, they started verbally attacking members of the media,” Nataša Briški, an editor and former journalist at Slovenian outlet POP TV, told IPI. “The viciousness of the attacks is hard to comprehend and the number is growing, not decreasing.”

“What’s new is the extreme level of public bashing and smears,” Primož Cirman, founder and editor-in-chief of Slovenian investigative news website Necenzurirano, added. “Previous governments would of course be angry at coverage and there would be some level of criticism. But press freedom was respected.”

Much like the U.S. president, 280-character Twitter jabs are the main weapon here. “Criticism of the media during previous administrations was always there, but now we have Twitter, so it’s even more direct”, Marko Milosavljevic, an associate professor at the Department of Journalism atthe University of Ljubljana, told IPI. “Fundamentally the press are seen by the Janša government as adversaries. The mentality is: Be aggressive, always attack.”

Established outlets such as Dnevnik and Mladina are among the most common recipients. Soon after re-election, the prime minister also fired off tweets accusing left-leaning daily Delo of serving “deep-state tycoons,” adding the hashtags #FakeNews and #Presstitution after it criticised him.

In mid-March, a government account retweeted a claim that well-known investigative journalist Blaž Zgaga was an “escaped psychiatric patient”. Soon after he began receiving numerous online death threats and smears. When press freedom groups including IPI wrote to EU leaders over the pressure on Zgaga, Janša then retweeted an article suggesting the groups were under the influence of cocaine.

Long-Held Contempt for Media

Important for an international audience to understand here is where this contempt for the media comes from. “After independence from Communist rule in 1991, media in Slovenia began to be privatized and often it was moguls and tycoons from the previous regime that took over,” Cirman, of Necenzurirano, told IPI. “Since then, despite democratization and generational changes in structure, editors and journalists over the last 30 years, Janša has always seen the media as retaining residue from the Communist era and an inherent bias against him and his right-wing party.”

Under this view, the current public broadcaster is the heir of the Yugoslav-era state media, he explained, while much of the mainstream media represent a “deep state” legacy of Communism. For Janša the liberal press embody the spectre of cultural Marxism, which he recently described as the main ideological threat facing Europe.

The clearest example of this thinking was crystalized in a letter written and signed by Janša in May that was published on the government website, simply entitled “War with the media.” In the text the prime ministeroutlined his long-held views on distrust and disdain for mainstream media.

Officials Enabling Increase in Online Harassment

This animosity from officials has enabled increasing harassment of journalists online, experts say. These concerns have been spelt out by the president of the Slovenian Journalists’ Association (DNS), Petra Lesjak Tušek, who warned in August of growing hateful rhetoric and threats against journalists online.

Previous analysis by IPI also found that the trolling of journalists has intensified markedly in recent months due to increasing polarization, with female journalists suffering disproportionately. “Online harassment is a big issue”, explained Delić. “Journalists, including myself, are being attacked on a daily basis, often with vicious insults.”

This situation has even drawn condemnation from within the academic community in Slovenia. In May, several scholars at the Department of Journalism at the University of Ljubljana signeda joint statement criticizing what they saw as the increasingly hostile climate for media under the new administration.

Slovenian Public Broadcaster in the Firing Lane

None are more aware of this than those journalists working for the public broadcaster, Radiotelevizija Slovenija (RTVSLO). A long-standing opponent of the broadcaster, Janša wasted little time in renewing his attacks after re-entering office. Weeks into the new administration, Janša accused the broadcaster of spreading lies about the government and issued a veiled threat over its funding.

“Do not spread lies. We pay you to inform, but not to mislead the public during these times. Obviously, you are overpaid and well paid,” Janša posted on Twitter, garnering a strong response from RTVSLO Director General Igor Kadunc and criticism from the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

On June 8, Janša openly accused the public broadcaster of trying to “overthrow” his government through its coverage of anti-government protests. On other occasions Janša has called the broadcaster “totalitarian” and a “media killer,” accusing it of feeding “an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred (…) created by a narrow circle of female editors with family and capital ties to the pillars of the deep state”.

In recent months, online harassment has also spilled over into verbal and physical attacks. On March 31, a RTVSLO crew was verbally abused as they were reporting on the coronavirus lockdown in Ljubljana. The assailant then returned to the crew’s vehicle and deflated its tyres. Days previously, another company vehicle was vandalized. In another incident, a team of journalists from theDobro Jutro(“Good Morning”) show were harassed.In June, journalist Eugenija Carl received a letter containing a threatening handwritten note and a mysterious white powder.

RTVSLO: Financial Future in Jeopardy

While PM’s Twitter attacks on RTVSLO were in part aimed at firing up the party’s base, they was also aimed at creating a groundswell of public opinion for what was to follow – an effort to undermine the broadcaster’s independence that goes beyond social media vitriol.

In early July, the government announced a package of draft amendments to three media laws which would overhaul the financing of the public broadcaster and allow greater government control over the executive body of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA).

According to RTVSLO’s Director General, if approved this would result in an overall annual budget reduction of approximately €13 million, leaving the broadcaster in a precarious fiscal position. To offset these losses, it would be forced to cut budgets to staff and production costs, which according to trade unions could result in up to 400 job losses.

Equally as concerning are changes to the Media Law affecting the Press Agency which would hand the government greater powers to select the supervisory board and dismiss its director. In response, the Media Freedom Rapid Response raised serious concerns that the amendments appear politically motivated and could potentially pave the way for further interference over the institution’s executive body and editorial policy.

Control and Amplify: SDS and Pro-Government Media

At the same time as trying to undermine the country’s mainstream media, Janša’s administration has also been attempting to amplify pro-government media close to SDS and influence coverage at other outlets.

Starting in May the PM also began appearing regularly on Nova24TV, a right-wing news outlet founded in 2015 by a group most of whom were supporters of the SDS party. Though its viewership remains low, Janša has made every effort to boost the visibility of the station. Much of this takes the form of daily retweets and a weekly exclusive show entitled “Conversation with the Prime Minister”.

Support for outlet has been financial as well as political, however. In a move reminiscentof previous Janša administrations, advertising revenue from state-owned companies has also been channelledto its owner

As well as receiving increasing amounts of money from state funds, has also allegedly received €1.5 million from Hungarian businesspeople close to the ruling FIDESZ party of Viktor Orbán.Three Hungarian media companies have also acquired a combined majority stake in Nova24TV since it was set up by the SDS in 2015.

In the latest sign of expanding Hungarian influence, in July 2020 it was confirmed that state-owned telecoms company Telekom Slovenia had agreed to sell 100 percent of its stake in Planet TV to the Hungarian company TV2 Media, owned by a businessman linked to FIDESZ.

Conclusion: Deteriorating Press Freedom

Taken together, the combined effect on press freedom in Slovenia over the last six months has been rapid and significant, with journalists now working in a far more antagonistic climate where criticism of the Prime Minister risks immediate rebuke.

Much of this animosity towards the press stems from a history of grievances and perceived bias. Moves to undermine mainstream media are justified as creating a “fairer and more pluralistic” media landscape. In reality, over many years the SDS has helped create a system of deeply partisan, far-right outlets bloated by public funds and propped up by Hungarian businessmen linked to Viktor Orbán, the EU’s worst enemy of press freedom.

Concerns that Slovenia will become another illiberal democracy akin to Hungary are, for now, premature. Nonetheless the exporting of Hungarian methods to Slovenia and other states in Central and South Eastern European countries should worry EU leaders.

This week, the public consultation into the legislative amendments to the public broadcaster and press agency will come to an end. If little changes in the proposals, and the SDS and its coalition partners are successful, the overhaul of the country’s media will have gained considerable momentum – one which may well gather speed in the months ahead.

This statement is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. This project provides legal and practical support, public advocacy and information to protect journalists and media workers.

Jamie Wiseman
Jamie Wiseman is a European Advocacy Officer at the Vienna-based International Press Institute, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists defending media freedom.

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