For the next six months Slovenia will preside over the European Union, a body dedicated to the highest democratic values. But critics say that when it comes to upholding press freedom ideals, Slovenia is not up to scratch.
Two separate organizations, including the Council of Europe, released findings on what they say is a deteriorating situation for journalism.
In a memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Slovenia, the COE’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, said she was concerned about steps by authorities “that risk undermining the ability of critical voices to speak freely.”
The COE platform that documents threats and harassment of media registered 13 violations in the past year, compared with one the year before, the report said. The memo also cited physical attacks on journalists; a rise in hate speech, both online and from political representatives; polarization of public debate; and stigmatization of independent voices.
The Media Freedom Rapid Response group, a Europe-wide coalition that monitors violations, reported similar issues based on findings from conversations with journalists, academics and government officials.
“Over the last 14 months, independent journalism has come under sustained pressure on multiple fronts from the coalition government led by the Slovenian Democratic Party,” the MFRR said.
Slovenia’s center-right government dismissed the criticisms as “fake news.”
Prime Minister Janez Jansa responded to the COE report on Twitter, saying Mijatovic is “part of fake news network” and “spreading lies.”
Many journalists and academics who spoke with VOA believe that a hostile environment and uneven access to government officials and information is hurting audiences and presenting a threat to journalists.
Although most agree that conditions are better in Slovenia than in fellow EU member states Poland and Hungary – where media are under a significant clampdown – they say the country is declining along a similar path.
Renate Schroeder, director at the European Federation of Journalists, which contributed to the MFRR report, told VOA: “Is Slovenia becoming another Poland or Hungary? … No, not yet.”
There appears to be a drive to follow the same pattern as Hungary, “slowly but surely, and that I find very, very frightening,” added Schroeder, whose organization was involved in the MFRR research.
Findings that Schroeder said surprised her included the government’s decision to stop financing the national news agency STA, which receives about half its income from the state budget; polarization among journalists; and smear campaigns against critical journalists, which she says in some cases are led by the prime minister.
“This attack on the press agency is unprecedented, we do not have that in other countries,” said Schroeder. She added that Jansa is the first prime minister in Europe who “is doing smear campaigns … in such a way by using Twitter.”
Some journalists have said Slovenia’s media are laboring under the harshest conditions since independence in 1991.
“The media situation has worsened very much under this government. I have been a journalist for 27 years, and we have never seen something like that,” Evgenija Carl, a prominent journalist with the state broadcaster RTV Slovenia, told VOA.
“We can see that many journalists are scared. They do reporting but are afraid to voice their own opinions. They have stopped participating in the social media for fear that as soon as they write something critical about the government they will be attacked,” Carl added.
Online attacks can be prompted by coverage of politics and alleged corruption, or even the amount of space given to specific articles. Jansa in October described STA as a “national shame” on Twitter after it gave more space to an article on a rapper’s album than Jansa’s meeting with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban.
Carl is one of two female journalists whom Jansa called “prostitutes” on Twitter in 2016, while leader of the opposition. The journalists filed a defamation suit against him.
Since 2018, Carl said, she has received three envelopes containing white powder and threatening letters mentioning the lawsuit.
Commissioner Mijatovic said in her memorandum that anonymous threats online and via phone, email and in letters, as well as in graffiti sprayed on media buildings, leave some journalists fearful for their safety.
Mijatovic’s office told VOA the commissioner could not comment on relations between the EU and the Slovenian presidency, but that she stood fully by her assessments and was “hopeful the government will use it in order to improve the situation related to media freedom and freedom of expression.”
In a response to the Council of Europe’s memorandum, the Ministries of Justice, Interior and Culture said that the current climate “cannot in any way be considered as an attack on the freedom and independence of journalistic work but represents a normal democratic process.”
Their response stressed that journalists should “not be exempt from criticism, particularly when they [sic] reports are untrue and they deliberately spread lies.”
The statement cited a potential “erosion of journalistic freedoms exclusively in private media,” and said owners of large media companies have an influence on journalists’ reporting.
Government officials have stated previously they believe large media companies are overly critical of the government.
The Ministry of Culture told VOA in a written statement that it explained to MFRR why the group’s findings were “a result of incorrect information,” but did not elaborate.
Some experts in Slovenia also believe that the COE and MFRR reports are not credible.
Matevz Tomsic, a professor of sociology and the president of the Association of Journalists and Publicists – one of three large journalist groups in the country – told VOA he was interviewed for both reports but that his views were not represented.
MFRR lists Tomsic’s name among those interviewed. The Council of Europe did not immediately confirm whether it had interviewed the academic.
“The media freedom has not worsened under the current government. The situation is similar to what it was under previous governments,” Tomsic said.
“It is possible that media which are favorable to the government get more advertising of state firms, but that has also been happening under the previous governments and is not unique to this one,” he added.
Schroeder, of the European Federation of Journalists, believes the EU should do more to prevent attacks on media freedom in its member states. But, she added, “legally speaking that is very difficult as they do not have the means, the tools.”