SLOVENIA: Janša’s government continues its attack on media freedom; spreads misinformation about CSOS

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– ECF Update to the CIVICUS Monitor, published on 13 May 2021, available here.

Association

Controversial draft law on bureaucratisation

The Strategic Council of the Slovenian government, a body appointed by the Prime Minister with no formal role in the system of law making, has drafted a law on de-bureaucratisation, another ‘super law’ with provisions that would change 20 other laws and abolish more than 200 laws. Of particular concern is that the preparation of this law has failed to include any form of public consultation, and the government’s office for legislation declared that the law was prepared neither in accordance with the Constitution, nor with the system of law making in Slovenia.

As the office of the Prime Minister is not formally entitled to submit draft laws for the government’s sessions, and the Ministry of Public Administration refused to do so, the government’s Rules of Procedure were changed to allow the President of the Strategic Council of the Government, who is appointed by the Prime Minister’s office, to submit a draft law to the government. Based on the change in rules, the draft law on de-bureaucratisation was adopted by the government and submitted for the parliamentary law-making procedure. Similar to anti-COVID-19 law packages, this “super-law” also contains many “intruders”, i.e. provisions with no connection to de-bureaucratisation.

In addition to the constitutionally controversial way in which this law was introduced, other key concerns include the proposal for the introduction of electronic service consignments in administrative and civil proceedings, including the collection of phone numbers and emails (discriminating against those without telephone or internet access); a so-called social cap (which should fall under the system law, not bureaucratisation law); and the speeding up of the issuance of fines (meaning that police can issue fines without a statement from the offender and without a description of the offence). Critics argue that the bill is harmful to the state, financially burdensome, and has little to do with de-bureaucratisation, particularly due to its interference with other laws under the pretext of reducing regulations.

Changes proposed to regulations between the public prosecutor’s office and the police

Head of Advocacy from CNVOS, Tina Divjak, reported that the government has submitted changes to the parliament regarding the regulation of relations between the police and the public prosecutor’s office. The proposed changes propose transferring powers from public prosecutors to the police in some investigations and making it possible for the Minister of the Interior to have direct insight into ongoing criminal investigations.

CSOs vilified again

In February 2021, the Slovene Democratic Party sent out a questionnaire to all households with a series of misleading and suggestive questions about the media and non-governmental organisations. In the questionnaire, CSOs are depicted as draining the country’s budget at the expense, for example, of the renovation of homes for the elderly. For example, one of the ten questions reads as follows:

“From 2009 to 2019 inclusive, 31,841,020 EUR was allocated from the budget of the Republic of Slovenia for the renovation of homes for the elderly, and we did not build any new ones. At that time, only 35,672,609 EUR was earmarked for the maintenance and construction of student dormitories. At the same time, the 20 best-funded so-called “non-governmental organisations”, mostly from Metelkova 6 in Ljubljana, received as much as 70,481,020 EUR from the budget. This order of funding seems to me to be:

a) fully appropriate, “non-governmentals” are the most important;

b) inappropriate, the essential needs of students and pensioners must be given priority; c) scandalous, because they are pointlessly spending our money”.

Notably, the questions are posed in such a way that the answers are known in advance. It is thus questionable how necessary the questionnaire is in the first place.

PM uses misleading data on CSO financing during speech

CSOs reported that Prime Minister Janez Janša once again used incorrect data regarding NGO financing during a vote of no confidence in parliament. In his speech, Janša claims that annual public expenditure for NGOs amounted to 4,675,034.43 Euros in 2019, and 3,819,843.89 Euros in 2020. CSOs stated that the figure is 90 to 100 times more than the correct figure. Coupled with the regular smear campaigns by media close to the ruling coalition which target CSOs, the government continues its attempts to delegitimise and undermine civil society.

NGOs facing eviction claim PM wants them silenced

A group of NGOs in Ljubljana reported facing administrative harassment, including an eviction case in which the government terminated the lease of a building on Metelkova Street which serves as offices for internationally renowned NGOs. The building, which is state owned, houses 20 non-governmental organisations and collectives in Slovenia, including The Peace Institute and the Legal Information Centre, PIC. The Slovenian Ministry of Culture, which owns the building, justifies the need for eviction by saying it needs to renovate it. However, many NGOs suspect the eviction is a political move to silence critical voices in the NGO sector (see previous Monitor update).

“It is just one of the symptoms or indicators of the current government’s general attitude towards the NGO sector,” Goran Forbici, from the Centre of Non-Governmental Organizations of Slovenia, CNVOS, reported.

It was also noted that the lease termination date coincided with the beginning of curfew, when the government advised against all unnecessary contacts and movement of people, another clue that the eviction was not simply a “building issue”. Iztok Sori, from the Peace Institute (that has used the building as an office for 23 years) explained that there is a wider motivation for this move by the government, “in taking away our basic infrastructure and thus the foundation for our operations, with the goal of shutting down critical voices and independent cultural production”.

Brankica Petković, Head of the Center for Media Policy at the Peace Institute, said in an interview with CIVICUS,

Prime Minister Janša, his party and their media are, on a daily basis, portraying the organisations in this building as privileged and as parasites, and they openly claim they will deprive us of offices and public funds.”

Whilst the NGOs have managed to successfully litigate to preserve their rights via a complaint to the Constitutional Court, the government continues to undermine CSOs through inserting similar restrictions in other bills, which are now up for parliamentary consideration.

Peaceful Assembly

CSO challenges the constitutionality of a decree banning protests

On 2nd March, two representatives from the Legal Network for the Protection of Democracy (PMVD) filed an initiative to assess the legality of the temporary restriction of the movement of persons and the prohibition of the gathering of persons for the prevention of COVID-19 infections. The PMVD provided professional support in filing the case, and several law firms, university teachers and other experts in the field of constitutional law contributed to the argumentation with their legal knowledge. Katarina Bervar Sternad, director of the Legal Information Center of Non-Governmental Organizations – PIC, said:

Peaceful protests, freedom of expression and assembly are constitutionally protected rights, so it is permissible to restrict them only by a strict test of necessity, proportionality and appropriateness. Even during an epidemic, rallies should not be completely banned; any such gathering should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and restrictions can only be imposed for as long as and to the extent necessary to limit the spread of the disease.”

She added that the purpose of such a ban is primarily to limit criticism of the government and to severely punish all those who violate the ban.

The significant need to involve people in democratic processes has been demonstrated by the response of people who applied to PMVD for legal knowledge and free assistance since its inception on 21st January 2021. Nearly 40 per cent found themselves facing legal proceedings for exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

While the ban on protests in Slovenia was later repealed as lockdown restrictions eased between 19th and 31st March 2021, allowing gatherings of up to 10 people (but not for the purposes of political expression), it was reintroduced when the country entered a new lockdown for 11 days on 1st April 2021. On 15th April 2021, the Constitutional Court declared that a new decree should be adopted with due consideration for the right to gatherings being a fundamental human right. The Court stated that from 18th April 2021, new regulations should be adopted to consider not only the human rights aspect but also the fact that gatherings are an important means of expressing political positions.

Neo-Nazis and riot police spread fear at Metelkova

As published in the Legal Network for the Protection of Democracy Rule of Law report, on 6th February 2021 a group of Neo-Nazis went to Metelkova street – the autonomous zone and alternative venue that houses the only LGBTI Clubs in Ljubljana (Tiffany and Monokel). Neo-Nazis posed for pictures with signs: “Let’s demolish Metelkova, too”. The group wore yellow vests, with the aim of presenting themselves as concerned citizens (as seen in France with the yellow vest movement), but have previously been identified as Neo-Nazis and also as individuals with clear connections to the ruling party.

Riot police intimidate and scapegoat LGBTI community in Metelkova

On 8th February 2021 (Day of Culture in Slovenia), cultural workers organised a ‘funeral of culture’ protest in Metelkova for the closure of cultural activities due to COVID-19 regulations. On the evening of the same day, around 30 members of special police forces arrived in Metelkova in full riot gear, with the initial explanation that they were there to police the ‘funeral for culture’ protest that had started hours before. Later, however the police’s explanation changed – with the explanation that they were checking if the clubs were closed. After that, a far-right portal “exclusively published the real reason” for the visit – the news was shared and retweeted by the Prime Minister – that the Police had received a call from two LGBTI women under the influence of drugs and alcohol, who were at the LGBTI clubs and were afraid to go out, claiming that the Neo-Nazis in yellow vests had returned. Based on this call, the police supposedly sent special forces to help, but it was established that people in yellow vests were only public utilities workers who were cutting trees. This was later established as a fictional news story which was used to scapegoat the LGBTI community after police confirmed they did not receive a call and the public company Snaga confirmed that there were no workers cutting trees there on Sunday. In a statement, the Tiffany club commented that the presence of a special police unit was “uncalled-for intimidation and a sign of violence”.

Student appears in court over school protest

On 15th April 2021, around 100 people rallied in front of the Maribor District Court. The peaceful rally was organised in support of one of three students who protested on 9th February 2021 to demand the re-opening of schools and was the first to appear in front of a magistrate. At the protest on 9th February 2021, police issued fines to six people and ordered three minors to appear before a magistrate over alleged violations of the communicable diseases act. All three minors are students of the II. Gimnazija Maribor secondary school. The head teacher of the school, Ivan Lorenčič said

“These are young people, who demanded nothing more than the right to go to school. They adhered to all regulations and there were no riots.”

At the rally on 15th April 2021 there was a strong police presence, but no arrests were reported. The magistrate has not yet reached a decision regarding the charges facing the first student to appear in court, while the other two students are expected to appear in court in the coming weeks.

Expression

Correspondent threatened via Twitter

On 8th April 2021, the Slovenian State Secretary for National Security, Žan Mahnič, threatened Delo newspaper’s Brussels correspondent, Peter Žerjavič, via Twitter. This occurred in response to a previous tweet from Žerjavič which criticised comments made by the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša regarding the German public broadcaster ARD. Mahnič commented: “Who in the EU cares what some irrelevant ARD thinks. You should better worry about how many more Thursday afternoons you will be having fun at Place du Luxembourg if Petrič fails to get annexes for the second rail track.” Co-owner and Director of Delo, said that the tweet was a clear reference to Stojan Petrič, owner of a construction company bidding for the biggest contract with the Slovenian government. The Place du Luxembourg is a square in the European Quarter of Brussels, where Žerjavič works.

In response, on 12th April 2021, Delo journalists, the paper’s editorial board and journalists’ associations condemned these threats and called on the government to stop the media pressure immediately.

Slovenia is threatened with the end of journalistic independence and credibility. A country without free media falls into non-freedom, intimidation, poverty, backwardness”.”

The European Federation of Journalists highlighted how the Slovenian government is known for publicly attacking and discrediting critical journalists and media outlets. In their press release, they reiterated their call on the Slovenian government to stop fueling hostility towards the press.

Hostility towards journalists has been a key trend over the last year, with the Slovene Association of Journalists reporting that increasingly more journalists are facing verbal attacks from strangers on the street and receiving insulting messages via their private phone numbers and on social media.

The rapid deterioration of media freedom

As reported in the Liberties report on democracy by the Peace Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies, concerns have been raised regarding the

rapid deterioration of media pluralism, characterised by a lack of transparency on media ownership and political pressure by the government on the national press agency, including through smear campaigns, funding cuts and changes to the regulatory framework that endanger the agency’s independence.

The report also highlights the impacts of harassment and regular attacks, stating that self-censorship has become increasingly common among targeted journalists in order to protect their safety and mental health. Furthermore, women journalists are the target of particularly disturbing harassment, with the term “presstitute” commonly used to label them. This stems from an expression used by the current Prime Minister against a female journalist when he was the opposition leader.

PM fails to appear before European Parliament

After having accepted an invitation and negotiated ground rules, PM Janša failed to appear for a hearing on media freedom at the EU parliament on 26th March 2021. During the hearing, experts presenting testimonies to the Democracy, Rule of Law & Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (part of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) described how government officials, included PM Janša have sought to encroach on media freedoms.

At the hearing, EU Commission official Emmanuel Crabit described a report on the state of the justice system and media environment in Slovenia, mentioning how “online harassment and threats against journalists are an issue of concern and the response of the criminal justice system is lacking”. Further issues that were highlighted included the lack of controls for use of public money in financing propaganda in political activities, the ownership of a private parallel media system by the Slovenian Democratic Party, which is also part of Hungarian regional expansion with links to the Orban circle, and the introduction of four new pieces of media legislation that seek to tighten controls and endanger media independence.

PM Janša has reacted negatively to the allegations of media repression, whilst also publicly attacking journalists and other critics on Twitter.

Concerns over governments attacks on national press agency

CSOs have raised concerns about the government attacks on the country’s national press agency, STA, including moves to cut funding and exert pressure on its management, gradually working to dismantle the agency.

Moves to undermine the agency started in 2020, when Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party attempted to push regulation through parliament which proposed transferring powers for the appointment of governing body members (responsible for the appointment of the STA director) from parliament to the government. Whilst the attempt to pass such legislation failed, the government meanwhile moved to include the STA among public companies forming part of the National Demographic Fund, thereby making the state the founder and sole shareholder of the STA. This raised concern from the STA staff, who questioned if it was “another manoeuvre to undermine the agency’s independence or at least put it into uncertainty”.

Publicly, PM Janša has further undermined the STA by referring to them as a “national disgrace” on Twitter. When the human rights NGO, Peace Institute, defended the independence of the STA, an MP from the ruling party publicly targeted the NGO, tweeting “Look who is talking! One more user of the state budget which we don’t need. Nice to hear from you. We have almost forgotten about you. We will target you soon. For the amount of financing you have, we will build at least one dormitory for elderly people who worked for minimum wage for 40 years.”

In February 2021, the Government halted funding to the STA. This is the second time funding has been halted by the government and has sparked allegations of the administration trying to threaten the agency’s independence. The International Press Institute stated that the decision raises serious concerns:

“We believe the move to temporarily halt funding for the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) will seriously jeopardise its ability to keep citizens informed during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and is the latest example of a wider effort by the current administration to undermine and stigmatise the country’s public service media.

Funding was restored to the STA following a warning from the EU against this attempt to pressure public media outlets. When asked if the Slovenian Press Agency’s independence is at risk, editor-in-chief Barbara Štrukelj said: “Absolutely.”

PM continues attacks on journalists

Publicly, PM Janša has also accused public broadcaster Radiotelevizija Slovenija (RTV) of spreading “lies” and misleading the public, tweeting that “obviously there are too many of you and you are paid too well.” The Prime Minister labelled RTV — along with a private broadcaster — “irresponsible virus spreaders.”

On 16th February 2021, Politico Europe and journalist Lili Bayer were criticised on Twitter by the Slovenian Minister of Culture and the Prime Minister for producing an article on the state of media freedom in Slovenia. The Minister of Culture accused the publication of “political bias” alleging that Slovenian “private media is predominantly owned by media tycoons close to leftist political parties.”In addition, Janša remarked that Bayer “was instructed not to tell the truth”. He added “That’s @POLITICOEurope, unfortunately. Laying [sic] for living.” According to media commentary, the misspelling in the tweet was intentional and an attempt to attack Bayer as a woman journalist.

In another incident, on 9th March 2021 the director of the Government Communication Office (UKOM), the official Twitter account of the Slovenian government and the PM attacked STA by accusing its director, Bojan Veselinovič, of lying. The PM tweeted on his private account: “Since @STA_novice led by director Veselinović, they fire sick journalists and often sell lies for the truth. It is time for the director, as a political tool of the far left, to step down and be held accountable for his illegal actions. And enable STA normal work and development.” In addition, the official Twitter account of the Slovenian government website amplified the attack on Veselinović by posting an image with the caption ‘#StopDisinformation’. The government has called for a police investigation into the STA director.

On 2nd April 2021, the PM accused the daily news show 24ur and its editor-in-chief of “persistently lying” about the COVID-19 pandemic and contributing to the death toll in the country through its reporting, via twitter. The tweet was in response to the show’s coverage and commentary on the government’s COVID-19 regulations.

Violent threats against journalists

  • On 3rd April 2021, an article which attacked RTV Slovenia journalist Erika Žnidaršič was published in a far-right magazine, Časnik.si. A paragraph in the article references violent threats towards the journalist: “There may even be someone who will maliciously stab you in the ribs. Then you may realize: The truth is not only dazzling, it is also relentless.”
  • In April 2021, Bojan Požar, a journalist and editor of the news and opinion website Požareport, was threatened through an online message from a fake account after he published an article about competition issues regarding the taxi drivers’ union in Slovenia. The threat was reported to the police. The Board of Directors of the Association of Journalists and Publicists (ZNP) condemned the attack.

“We are concerned that there are more and more similar verbal attacks on journalists and that they are becoming more and more brutal. The ZNP therefore calls on the state authorities to protect freedom of speech and journalistic integrity and to carry out all official proceedings against the perpetrators.”

UKOM attempts to censor media

The Slovenian Journalists’ Association and other media watchdog organisations have raised red flags about UKOM’s attempt to censor the media by preventing ministers and officials from appearing on news broadcasts to provide commentary. This practice of banning officials from appearing on news broadcasts was applied when UKOM did not give its approval for the head of the advisory group at the Ministry of Health, Bojana Beović, to appear on Odmevi Televizija Slovenija to provide comments in relation to COVID-19 developments. In addition, during the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists and media outlets report being restricted or prevented from posing questions during government press conferences held online.The Trade Union of Slovenian Journalists (SNS) and the Slovenian Journalists’ Association (DNS) condemned the decision by UKOM as censorship.

“Ukom cannot be a selector of content for the media and adapt it to its own measure or the measure of the government, thus preventing the integrity of informing the public and the work of editorial offices.”

“New Slovene fascist media medium” set up

Member of the ruling party Aleš Ernecl has founded a new “National News Agency” (NTA), which has received a statement of admiration from PM Janša. Among the listed collaborators on the website of the new press agency are mostly opinion-makers, spin-doctors and political advisers close to the ruling party, including a Holocaust denier. In an online talk with the NTA founder and a Canadian far-right white nationalist, the NTA founder said that he is an editor-in-chief of a “new Slovene fascist media medium called NTA”.