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As Slovenia takes over the presidency of the council of the European Union, some are questioning the country’s commitment to one of the bloc’s key principles, that of the freedom of the press.
A new report by Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a coalition of non-governmental organisations that tracks press freedom in EU Member States, says Slovenia “is no longer a relative safe haven for free media” and that prime minister Janez Janša and the ruling Slovenia Democratic Party (SDS) are “undermining critical journalism, reaching for control of public service media and reshaping the media landscape to boost SDS propaganda channels while pressuring mainstream media”.
The report reveals that journalists in the country are facing rising threats of violence and women journalists in particular are facing misogynistic and sexist insults that have been legitimised by the government’s actions.
Janša, for example, has openly questioned the legitimacy of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), which covers events in the country, and launched a vicious and completely unfounded attack on Bojan Veselinovic, its director, accusing him of murder.
Janša posted a tweet, a familiar tactic employed by the prime minister to put pressure on opposition voices online, which said: “Amazing for the EU in the 21st century that a collaborator in the murder of a journalist is still leading the STA and therefore cashes in 8,500 euros per month, more than the president of the republic.”
The allegations are unsubstantiated, but the STA is one of many opposition voices that has faced attacks this way.
Meanwhile, investigative journalist Blaž Zgaga, who questioned the government’s Covid-19 response in April, has received multiple death threats.
Slovenia’s 2006 media law is viewed as outdated and offers journalists little protections against smears and political interference.
It is clear there is a combination of the government attempting to change the media narrative, as well as defunding critical voices. It means journalists in the country are facing increasingly difficult circumstances.
The STA had its state funding revoked and will not receive it again unless it submits to direct financial oversight from the government’s communications office (though Slovenian media have since reported that funds are to be given). The move would essentially put the agency under the direct control of government communications.
It is indicative of a strategic ploy by the government to remove state funding from opposition voices, but reward its cheerleaders. The report says that “propaganda outlets parroting the party line are rewarded with lucrative advertising contracts from state institutions and companies”, for example.
Janša’s schemes have been likened to the strategy implemented by Hungarian autocrat prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has faced heavy criticism for his record on free speech, as has the government in Poland. Hungary and Poland are known to be two of the most concerning cases regarding free expression in Europe.
Ties between Janša and Orbán are known to be close, as Anuška Delić, journalist and founder of Oštro, a centre for investigative journalism, wrote in the winter 2020 edition of Index on Censorship magazine.
Motivation for Orbán’s interference in Slovenia is obvious, as he looks for supporting voices in a Europe when there is concern over his actions.
Hungarian funds, with ties to Orbán and his Fidesz party, are being funnelled into pro-SDS media outlets, which, in a country where media revenue is declining and funds are desperately sought, should be of great concern.
The outlook is not entirely bleak, the report said.
“Despite these pressures, the Slovenian independent media sector has proven to be resilient and has continued to display high-quality watchdog journalism during the pandemic. Importantly, support and solidarity between civil society, journalists’ associations and newsrooms has been strong, giving hope for the future of the media landscape in Slovenia.”
Yet not everyone is convinced.
Delić has welcomed the report’s findings, but questioned the notion that media freedom in Slovenia is not as threatened as elsewhere, and said that it will not take much for Slovenia to become the next Poland or Hungary.
“We have just witnessed a new case of meddling where the prime minister asked Val202, a public radio station, on Twitter whether it was true that they played a current protest song on Independence Day,” said Delić, who was consulted by the authors of the report. “On that day one of the speakers at the official celebration was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán whose government’s malign influence in Slovenia is clearly portrayed throughout the report.”
As Slovenia takes on the Council presidency, the report’s authors have called on the country’s government to stop the defunding of journalism, amend current media legislation and publicly condemn threats against reporters.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”115932″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]As part of the launch of the new Index on Censorship magazine, which looks at the underreported stories of the last year, we will explore what has been happening in Poland and Slovenia when it comes to our freedoms. Two experts from those countries will tell us what life is currently like on the ground.
Anuška Delić is the founder of Oštro, Center for investigative journalism in the Adriatic region. She is a Balkans regional editor at OCCRP, and a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Katarzyna Kasia is a philosopher, author and assistant professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw. Index on Censorship magazine editor and head of content Jemimah Steinfeld will be chairing the conversation.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]
It was February 2013 when the police knocked on the door of Anuska Delic’s mother. The two officers had arrived at the house in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana at 8am to speak with her daughter concerning a criminal investigation.
Delic, a journalist for the well-respected daily newspaper Delo, was being charged with disseminating classified information. According to the stern-faced officers at her mother’s door, she could face up to three years in prison if found guilty.
“She called me up and was freaking out,” Delic said. She was furious and didn’t understand why the police went to her family home, as she is registered as living elsewhere. “I told my mother to give the phone to one of the police officers,” she said. “I first asked them to apologise to my mother.”
Delic learned that she was to be charged with a criminal offence and was summoned to come in for questioning at the police station in Ljubljana. The charge, she would soon learn, related to her work reporting on alleged connections between the ruling right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) and the controversial neo-Nazi movement Blood and Honour.
“The charges were ridiculous,” she said. “They said that I had published classified information from the Slovenian Intelligence and Security Agency. But all the information they came up with was public information. They really didn’t have a case.”
It was the beginning of a long and exhausting legal process. For over two years Delic juggled her time between working as a journalist and defending herself in court, before finally being acquitted.
Delic is known as one of Slovenia’s best investigative journalists and is a member of Association of Slovenian Journalists and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
In 2011, she began researching Blood and Honour, a neo-Nazi punk rock music promotion group which was founded in the United Kingdom in 1987. The name comes from the motto of the Hitler Youth. The group has “divisions” all over the world but has been banned in Germany, Spain and Russia.
Delic discovered connections between Blood and Honour and the then-opposition — and now-ruling — Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) in the town of Ziri. She also wrote about an investigation by the Defence Ministry into Blood and Honour members who were working for the army.
Delic’s investigation also uncovered, she said, that members of the neo-Nazi movement were involved in a mainstream political party. “This party, the SDS, is the largest and most influential right-wing party in Slovenia,” she explained. “These people [Blood and Honour members] are still active among them. The party has not denounced them until this day.”
Delic discovered that some Blood and Honour members were even candidates for local elections in 2014. “This is a democratic state so you are welcome to run elections on your neo-Nazi agenda,” she said. “But you can not hide within the confines of a big mainstream party.”
When her report was published it created a scandal in Slovenian politics. But, rather than look at the contents of her reporting, the state prosecutor instead pressed charges against Delic, believing that she could only have gotten the information from classified intelligence sources. Under article 260 of Slovenia’s criminal code, publishing classified information is punishable by up to three years in prison.
“The right wing was having a field day,” she said of the reaction her reporting provoked among those sympathetic with the SDS. “The right-wing media were doing everything they could to discredit me and their newspapers published blatant lies about me,” she claimed. But she also got support. “In general, people were shocked that this was going on,” she said.
Delic and her lawyer always believed that the state prosecutor did not have enough evidence to pursue criminal charges, and considered the trial a case of political prosecution. “I knew it was a sham,” Delic stated firmly. “I knew immediately that they were just trying to put pressure on me. They were after my sources.”
Although Slovenia did not have a law at the time that explicitly protected journalists from revealing their sources, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of journalists prosecuted in EU member states for refusing to give up their sources to the authorities. As soon as Delic realised she was going to be charged, and afraid that she might be monitored by Slovenia’s secret service, she broke all contact with her sources. “I went public immediately because I wanted to send a message to whomever my source was,” she recalled. “To let them know that our agreement was safe.”
On April 15, 2015, Slovenia’s news agency STA reported that state prosecutor Sndreja Zvanut had withdrawn all charges against Delic because of a “lack of evidence.” Zvanut, however, stated before the judge and the media that she believed Delic was guilty. “After dropping the charges against me, the prosecutor spent ten minutes explaining why she was definitely sure that I’m guilty as charged,” Delic recalled. “This really upset me — I felt there was another injustice. Although I was acquitted, I was still guilty. That’s not the way the legal system should work.”
After two long years in and out of a court room, Delic was exhausted. “No journalist wants to be the story,” she said. She believes a huge injustice was done and the trial had put a lot of pressure on her. Yet, looking back, she also believes that it might have been worth the battle. Not only were the charges against her dropped, Delic’s case resulted in a change in the law. Since October 2015, journalists and their sources are now protected under a “public interest” defence.
Although media freedom in Slovenia has improved drastically over the years — and in spite of being the most prosperous of the former Yugoslavian states and the first to join the EU in 2004 — the country still has room for improvement. Slovenian journalists working for the public broadcaster have reported political pressure when covering elections or politically sensitive topics, according to the 2015 Freedom House report on the country. The report also states that, unlike other former Yugoslav republics, journalists are generally free from physical harassment and intimidation. Slovenia is ranked 35th on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2015 World Press Freedom Index, just below Great Britain. It is the highest ranked former Yugoslavia republic.
Delic has had enough, for a while at least. She doesn’t want to see the inside of a court room ever again. After her acquittal, and the prosecutor’s post-verdict statement, Delic considered pressing charges. In the end, she decided against it. “It would take another three years in court for me to get justice,” she said. “I decided that my life is worth more than that.”
This article was originally published on Index on Censorship.
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