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SLOVENIA: Far-right leader Janez Janša loses election, sparking new hope for civic space

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European Civic Forum update to CIVICUS Monitor, published on 10/05/2022

Introduction

The parliamentary elections held in Slovenia on 24th April 2022 marked a change of political regime: newcomer Robert Golob and his Freedom Movement (launched in January 2022) won with nearly 35% of the votes. Golob is now expected to form a government with the support of smaller left-wing groups, ending the far-right government which has been led by Janez Janša and his SDS party since 2020.

During Janša’s two-year mandate, Slovenia has experienced the sharpest democratic decline in eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to Freedom House. Although citizens’ rights and freedoms were “generally respected”, the NGO reported that Janša’s government had made “continued attempts to undermine the rule of law and democratic institutions, including the media and judiciary”. A rapid decline in civic space was noted as a result of Janša’s relentless crackdown on media freedom and targeting of civil society organisations, resulting in a ratings downgrade to “narrowed’ and the country being added to the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List in 2021.

Association

New state funding cuts & hostile legislation targeting cultural and environmental CSOs

Civil society organisations working on culture and environment rights have increasingly faced significant funding challenges from the government, in what civil society believe is a continuation of the government’s attempts towards “destabilising the sector”. As previously reported on the Monitor, on 8th December 2021, the Slovenian parliament approved the state budget for 2022, with projections for 2023 and 2024 that hampers funding available to CSOs working on culture and environment. The biggest cut was made to the item of promoting cultural creativity (decreased from 6,4 million to 3,6 million EUR), while no funds were allocated for environmental projects for 2022 or 2023. In addition, the climate fund for which environmental CSOs are eligible has been reduced by 70%.

Furthermore, earlier in January 2021, the Ministry of Environment proposed new changes to the Environmental Protection and Spatial Planning Acts which would exclude environmental CSOs from key relevant procedures (see previous update). The draft bill would have allowed only individual citizens demonstrating legal interest (and not environmental and nature conservation CSOs) to initiate an administrative dispute under the Spatial Implementation Act. While the law was passed in March 2022, the concerning articles were changed, but restrictive criteria for nature conservation CSOs remained in place. Hence, many nature conservation CSOs without public benefit status are unable to participate in environmental impact procedures.

Pre-parliamentary elections showdown by authorities targeting CSOs

Ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for 24th April 2022, the NGO 8 March Institute (Inštitut 8. marec) had been running a “Let’s go vote” campaign (Gremo volit) to encourage voter turnout. The CSO also prepared a draft law to overturn the decisions of the incumbent government, collecting signatures for the law to be submitted to the parliament (under the Law on civic initiative and referendum, any draft law can be submitted with only 5,000 citizens’ signatures).

At the beginning of April 2022, the 8 March Institute received a notice from the Inspectorate of Internal Affairs, headed by former Trbovlje police station assistant Marko Kandolf, who has close ties to then Prime Minister Janez Janša and his SDS party. The Inspectorate accused the Institute of “leading an undeclared electoral campaign”, asking the CSO to prove otherwise. As Kandolf wrote in his letter, the Chief Inspector was summoning the organisation after receiving several anonymous reports.

As reported by Dnevnik, the content of the Inspectorate’s notice was quite unusual, since it asks the Institute for evidence on “the content and programme of the election campaign” and the name of the person responsible for it. The Institute responded that they do not run election campaigns, as they don’t disseminate political advertising content. During a press conference on 7th April 2022, the Institute announced that they were also considering an appeal against Chief Inspector Kandolf for abuse of official position.

“It is clear that the ministry has approached the matter in a completely illegal manner”, said the NGO’s lawyer Nataša Pirc Musar, pointing out that an offence authority should never ask someone who is accused of an offence to provide evidence. The Inspectorate of Internal Affairs placed the burden of proof on the defendant, the 8 March Institute, as the letter of notice did not state what offence the NGO was being accused of, nor cite any evidence of the allegation.

The Institute, its leader Nika Kovač, the Gremo volit campaign and their collection of signatures in support of the bill against the harmful measures passed by Janša’s government have been targets of several attacks by the former ruling party coalition, and especially by the SDS party. Katarina Bervar Sternad of the Legal Network for the Protection of Democracy announced that they would report the attack on the 8 March Institute as a so-called SLAPP action (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). According to STA, the Legal Network will also report this attack to the European Commission in the framework of the reporting mechanism on the rule of law in Slovenia.

Peaceful Assembly

Cases against so-called unauthorised protests

As previously reported on the Monitor, in December 2021 the State Prosecutor’s Office stated that it would beginbringing cases against so-called organisers of unannounced/unregistered protests in order to recover the costs of police intervention during these rallies. The first case was brought against prominent protester Jaša Jenull amounting to 2,255 EUR for a protest held in October 2020; in mid-February 2022, he subsequently received a second claim of 3,778 EUR for a protest held in September 2020.

In March 2022, a third claim amounting to approximately 34,340 EUR was issued for a June 2020 protest during which protesters (including Jenull) sat on the ground of the Republic Square and read out the Constitution. Police responded with violence by dragging away protesters. According to the claim, the costs being recovered are for: 247 police officers, 35 police vans, three police intervention vehicles, five police cars, six police motorcycles, six police off-road all-terrain vehicles, four police dogs, four police horses and 230 pieces of fencing. Protesters believe that these claims are an attempt by the government to silence, intimidate and harass them. 

Expression

Attempts of political interference at RTVSLO continue

As reported previously on the Monitor, there have been ongoing attempts of political interference at RTVSLO. For example, in December 2021, Jadranka Rebernik was appointed as editor-in-chief of a news programme at TV Slovenia despite more than 80% of the newsroom staff rejecting her. According to the Slovenian Journalists’ Association (DNS) and Journalist Trade Union (SNS) the appointment was not in line with the law, which gives staff the right to put forward their candidate if the one nominated by the director general does not enjoy their trust. Once appointed, Rebernik failed to oppose controversial programming changes.

Additionally, on 7th March 2022, staff from RTVSLO staged a protest against the political pressure they are facing. A few days later, on 11th March 2022, another protest was staged in reaction to the appointment of Igor Pirkovič as acting editor of the public broadcaster’s web portal Multi Media Centre (MMC), whose staff said is biased in favour of the former ruling SDS party. They also raised concerns that the appropriate appointment procedures were not followed and that the current acting editor, Kaja Jakopič, received no notice of dismissal. However, the leadership of the public broadcaster said that there was no specific decision needed for her dismissal.

Additionally, Prime Minister Janez Janša has continuously targeted RTVSLO staff. For example, in a tweetat the beginning of March 2022, he criticised the public broadcaster’s political debate channel Tarča for its coverage of the war against Ukraine as “Pro-Russia” and for playing “Putin’s agenda”. Following this, the programme council of RTVSLO criticised the broadcaster’s reporting, adding that journalists had failed to respect the professional standards and instructions of the editors-in-chief. As a result, it decided to broadcast BBC World News on the war in Ukraine, with a Slovenian translation. The government communications office (UKOM) has also published its own bi-weekly critical media analysis of RTVSLO.

New attack on journalist

In February 2022, a criminal indictment was filed against investigative reporter Blaž Zgaga over his critical reporting on the police force and its chief. In over 35 tweets between November 2021 and February 2022, Zgaga defined the police force as ‘fascist’ for its response to the anti-government protests. He also claimed that the police were working “under the command” of the former Prime Minister Janez Janša and used the hashtag #diktatura (in English, #dictatorship) referring to Janša. If found guilty, Zgaga could face up to six months in prison or a fine of 250 EUR for each of the 35 alleged offences, totalling up to 8,750 EUR. As reported on the Monitor, the journalist who has investigated alleged corruption cases involving Janša has been subjected to harassment and death threats on social media and by Demokracija weekly magazine and Nova24 TV (media controlled by the SDS party, as they are funded by parties close to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán).

Between January 2021 and February 2022, the Slovenian Association of Journalists registered 36 different kinds of attacks on media and journalists.

Press Freedom experts call for declining media freedom to be addressed

Following the election outcome, Slovenia’s ombudsman and human rights experts have called for steps to be taken to address declining press freedom in Slovenia. The new Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index ranked Slovenia at 54, a massive drop from 36 the year before. The ombudsman has called on the new government to take on changes to the media laws as a priority, while the Slovenian Journalist associations called for urgent steps to be taken to depoliticise RTVSLO, given the ongoing attempts at political influence.