Experts tell MEPs of media curbs in Slovenia

After accepting invitation and negotiating ground rules, Prime Minister Janez Janša fails to appear for hearing in European Parliament.

Experts tell MEPs of media curbs in Slovenia

Slovenian government officials, including Prime Minister Janez Janša, have sought to encroach on media freedoms and fomented hostility and attacks against journalists they regard as unsupportive, two panels of experts told the European Parliament on Friday.

In testimony before the Democracy, Rule of Law & Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group, which is part of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, the experts described an increasingly repressive climate in Slovenia, in which Janša’s government has sought to exert control over media organizations using proposed legislation as well as public financing, and private corporations controlled by political allies, including some tied to associates of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The experts also described concerted efforts by the Slovenian government and its allies to intimidate journalists perceived as critical.

“First you check the media to see who attacked you, who wanted to discredit you, or who is spreading lies to discredit you,” Petra Lesjak Tušek, the president of the Slovenian Association of Journalists, said, describing what might be a typical Slovenian reporter’s day. “You read that and then you start working. You follow current events and you try to come up with ways to write stories. If you want to have answers from any government bodies you have to wait a long time, maybe you don’t even get your answers.” 

Lesjak Tušek accused the government of establishing pro-government news agencies and media outlets to create “a parallel system that increases media pluralism but that’s nothing else than propaganda.”

“They are supposed to give us the only real truth and we the journalists are liars,” she continued. “We are not only accused of spreading lies at home, but also abroad … When as a journalist you finish your day, you can see the evening news and see how this or that politician attacked your colleague journalist. Before you go to bed, you answer some attacks on social media, not the old ones from the morning, but new ones. There are allegations of all sorts.”

Janša and Culture Minister Vasko Simoniti — who have long rejected all accusations that they are working to limit press freedom — had accepted an invitation to appear before the panel, and even negotiated ground rules by which the session would be streamed live. But the officials canceled at the last minute and requested to appear at another time, while Slovenia’s human rights ombudsman also did not appear at the session, despite receiving an invitation.

Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch MEP from the liberal Renew Europe group, who heads the monitoring panel, proceeded with Friday’s hearing anyway. She said another session would be held with the Slovenian officials but also said there was no clear explanation for the cancellation.

To start the hearing, Emmanuel Crabit, a European Commission official who works on justice issues, described a report on the state of the justice system and media environment in Slovenia.

“Online harassment and threats against journalists are an issue of concern and the response of the criminal justice system is lacking,” Crabit said.

Lenart J. Kučić, a reporter with Pod črto, an independent nonprofit investigative news site, said he and his colleagues had written more than 20 articles on media ownership in Slovenia and found that many outlets were controlled directly or indirectly by politicians, especially at the local level.

“There is no control under how public money can be used for financing propaganda in political activities especially in local and municipal media, where especially mayors are usually the owners de facto and the editors,” Kučić said. “They are using this media and public money for self-promotion and even for attacks on their political opponents.”

Kučić said similar tactics were also used on a national level by Janša and his Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), a member of the center-right European People’s Party alliance.

“Another big problem is that one political party which also happens to be in power owns a private parallel media system that consists of a political weekly, TV station and a series of 17 or 18 online internet portals,” Kučić told the MEPs. “And this is also a part of this Hungarian regional expansion and what we see is there are also vested interests here, because for example the minister for the interior and the secretary-general of this government, they were both running some media outlets, in the media system of the political party SDS.”

He added, “From our latest research we also found the system is now put into place where politicians, the party media system and social media strategies allow very efficient and very fierce attacks on either activist journalists or just normal citizens that dare to comment something critical about either government or certain political parties.”

Marko Milosavljević, a professor of journalism and media policy at the University of Ljubljana, testified that the government in the past year had proposed four major pieces of media legislation that seek to tighten controls.

“All four of these laws … they further endangered the independence and sustainability of the Slovenian media system,” Milosavljević said.

Janša has expressed fury over the allegations of media repression, while simultaneously lashing out on social media at journalists and other critics, including Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, whom he attacked on Twitter with a reference to colonialism in Congo.

Romana Tomc, an MEP from Janša’s SDS, posted a tweet accusing in ‘t Veld and other MEPs who questioned the panelists of “lack of knowledge,” adding, “They really have no idea.”

In her testimony, Lesjak Tušek suggested that Janša’s behavior was partly tied to Slovenia’s upcoming tenure of the presidency of the Council of the EU, which will begin on July 1.

“The pressure on the media is coordinated and systematic,” she said. “It’s not about what the Prime Minister Janez Janša tweets. No. It’s about power. He wants to subjugate the media. He wants to establish a parallel media system. Of course, he cooperates with the Hungarian Orbán circle. Slovenia is about to take over the presidency and before that happens he wants to break the Slovenian Press Agency. He wants to bury credible journalism because he wants to give out his own image.”

Source : Politico EU More