The statue outside the headquarters of Slovenian public broadcaster Radiotelevizija Slovenija (RTV) in the capital Ljubljana Library

Slovenia: Government faces hurdles in effort to ‘depoliticise’ public…

Slovenia: Government faces hurdles in effort to ‘depoliticise’ public broadcaster

By IPI contributor Katja Lihtenvalner

Since coming to power in April 2022, Slovenia’s new centre-left government led by Prime Minister Robert Golob has pressed ahead with a campaign pledge to reform the country’s outdated media law and strengthen the independence of Radio-Television Slovenia (RTV).

The centrepiece of this reform is a legislative effort to depoliticize the management of the public broadcaster through a restructuring of its two main oversight bodies, the programme and supervisory boards.

 

However, challenges started immediately after the government brought forward a draft version of the amendment to the RTV law in July. At the same time, new management within the broadcaster is leading to continued accusations of pressure on journalists and editorial freedom.

 

Depoliticization of public broadcaster

Back in July, the country’s 90-seat National Assembly approved the government’s draft amendment to the RTV Act, with 50 MPs voting in favour.

 

“Today’s debate shows that a new broadcasting law is urgently needed. The public reckoning with employees, the trade unionist – all this shows the mismanagement of public service broadcasting”, newly appointed Minister for Culture Asta Vrecko said in the parliament at the time.

 

The amendment to the RTV Act proposes changes to the management, administration and supervision of the RTV Slovenia. Instead of the existing programme and supervisory boards – which have for years been seen as a tool for a new government to stamp its influence on the broadcaster through politicised appointments – the revised law would introduce a single management and supervisory body, the RTV Council. This body would consist of 17 members, with civil society and RTV employees playing a decisive role.

 

“The aim is to remove politics from public service broadcasting and ensure its institutional and programme autonomy”, an official government statement said. Vrecko added: “I don’t care who started this politicization. What is important to me is that we put an end to it.”

 

However, this reform process is facing a major challenge from the largest opposition party, the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), which has criticized the initiative as a politically motivated and unlawful attempt to remove RTVS’s director general, who was appointed during its government.

 

“We are witnessing a beheading of RTV that has never been seen before in the history of the country”, SDS said after the adoption of the amendment.

 

When in government, members of the SDS including then Prime Minister Janez Janša were accused of undermining the integrity of the public broadcaster, appointing politicized figures to RTVS’ oversight boards and engaging in several smears against some of its management and journalists.

 

Referendum challenge

In an effort to block the amendments, on September 9 SDS started a campaign to collect the 40,000 signatures needed to call for a legislative referendum on the proposed reforms.

 

“The amendment recklessly introduces a new management and supervisory body which, under the guise of depoliticization, abolishes the programme and supervisory boards, which guarantee impartiality and balance”, SDS said during the signature campaign, which it titled “against the politicization of RTV”. SDS did not respond to questions for this article about its criticism of the amendment.

 

Back in July, Prime Minister Golob commented on the opposition’s referendum initiative: “This is a misuse of the referendum law in order to stop the executive or the legislature.”

 

The second largest opposition party, Nova Slovenija (the Christian Democrats), also opposed the amendment to the Broadcasting Act.

 

“In principle, we support greater involvement of civil society in the RTV Council, but the amendment effectively excludes part of civil society. In fact, only certain civil society organizations could appoint representatives, which in our view do not represent a broad range of viewers and listeners with different views and beliefs”, the party said in a written response for this article.

 

However, Nova Slovenija said it will not actively join SDS in collecting signatures for the referendum.

 

SDS now has until October 5 to collect the necessary signatures of support. After that, the initiator of the referendum has seven days to submit a request. If this is complete, the National Assembly then has seven days to call the referendum by decree.

 

RTV under pressure

While the political confrontation continues, internally RTVS remains mired in disputes between journalists and its new management.

 

The situation has deteriorated since April last year, when 37-year-old lawyer Andrej Grah Whatmough took over the leadership of RTVS. Internal disputes escalated further in June when Uroš  Urbanija, a previous editor at the Slovenian Press Agency and former head of the Government Communication Office (UKOM) under the government of previous Prime Minister Janez Jansa, was appointed as a director of public TV.

 

Both are seen as having political ties to Janša. While Urbanija headed UKOM, the body suspended financing for the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) over a legal dispute, driving it to the point of bankruptcy and leading to strong criticism from EU leaders.

 

“Urbanija, the former head of the government’s Communications Office, is highly political and biased, and his media history leaves traces of unprofessionalism, bullying, conflicts with journalists’ collectives and personal vendettas”; the journalist’s union said when it urged Whatmough not to appoint Urbanija.

 

IPI asked Urbanija for his response to these accusations. Urbanija agreed to comment on the allegations only in a separate interview in which he is the only person interviewed.

 

Claims of harassment and pressure have been made by several journalists in recent months.

 

“What is happening now has crossed all borders of the limits of decency, professionalism and common sense”, one of Slovenia’s most influential television commentators, Igor Bergant, recently said about the developments at RTV.

 

Another TV presenter, Saša Kranjc, said: “It happens that we have to publish stories that we don’t know, that an editor asks for a statement to be retracted from a story and that we are forbidden to publish a piece of news.”

 

As a gesture of support, journalists have now gathered twice during the news programme to point out the problems to the audience. They also wanted to show the support for colleagues who were threatened by Urbanija with “disciplinary action” among them above mentioned Kranjc and editor, Vesna Pfeiffer.

 

“The new management is cancelling programmes, cutting the news bulletin and violating the programme and production plan, which is already seriously undermining public information about what is happening at home and around the world, and thus the public’s right to be informed”, the staff of TV Slovenia’s news programme said in a press release.

 

Journalists and media workers have also staged several strikes organized by the unions. Various open letters have been published and sent to the Prime Minister Golob by the director of RTV and the director of TV.

 

“We are witnessing a kind of staging of an epic confrontation: the management, the supervisory and programming board, on a political mission to destroy the house, confronting the journalistic collective”, media analyst Boris Vezjak explained. “In between, there are the extras, the majority of them, who look the other way and do not get involved.”

This article is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Slovenia flag Library

Slovenia: Concerns over controversial changes to RTV programming

Slovenia: Concerns over controversial changes to RTV programming

The undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express concern over proposed modifications to news programming at the Slovenian public television RTV, which would reduce the broadcaster’s ability to inform the public and scrutinise power. We therefore urge the broadcaster’s management to enter into dialogue with its editorial board to ensure adjustments are proportionate and in the best interest of public interest reporting.

Under the draft Program-Production Plan (PPN) for 2022, shows such as the flagship foreign policy programme, Globus, and many news talk shows would be cancelled. Daily news programs such as Dnevnik and Slovenska kronika would be shortened, while others would be shifted to the broadcaster’s second channel, which has far lower viewership. Election programming would likewise be transferred to the secondary channel, where it would be broadcast in the absence of major sporting events.

The proposed shakeup has already proven controversial. In October, the editor-in-chief of the TV Slovenia news program, Manica Janežič Ambrožič, stepped down in protest. She was followed by three other TV Slovenia editors: Dejan Ladika, Meta Dragolič and Mitja Prek. A letter criticising the scale of the changes was recently signed by more than 90 percent of employees, who argued it would limit their ability to produce quality public service reporting.

Since the letter was sent to the management, headed by new RTVSLO director Andrej Grah Whatmough, only minor amendments have been made to the draft changes. RTV management has said the alterations to programming are necessary due to the current financial situation, the departure of employees and low ratings of news shows. RTV’s program council is due to vote on the proposals during its next meeting on Monday, November 29.

The country’s biggest journalistic unions, the Slovene Association of Journalists (DNS) (DNS) and the Trade Union of Journalists of Slovenia, have spoken out against the changes, which they argue are unrealistic, unfeasible and will be detrimental to the quality of journalistic content and the future development of the broadcaster.

Our organisations are concerned that, in their current form, these changes will marginalise public interest reporting and undermine the broadcaster’s core mission: to provide the country’s citizens with professional and informative reporting on both domestic and foreign current affairs. We are also concerned that these changes have been developed without sufficient consultation. It is vital that such changes to programming must be proportionate and, crucially, have the support of the editorial board.

The quality and content of a country’s public broadcasting is a mirror to the overall strength of its media landscape. Despite its financial challenges, RTVSLO has historically ranked among the best and most independent public service broadcasters in the region. While all parties agree that reform to its funding model is urgently needed to improve its finances, it is crucial this is done without jeopardising its core journalistic mission.

We therefore call on the Radiotelevizija Slovenija program council to postpone its meeting until further dialogue is conducted by management with RTV employees. Separately, we also urge the National Assembly to ensure adequate and sustainable funding for RTVSLO that allows it to provide a high standard of news reporting, as well as uphold the commitment to public service news determined by the RTV Slovenija law.

Over the last year, journalists at RTV have faced increasing intimidation and threats both on social media and on the streets. Conspiracy theorist protesters recently stormed the headquarters and impeded broadcasting. Editors have endured relentless disparaging smears and attempts to discredit their work by elected politicians. Concerns have meanwhile been raised about politicised appointments to oversight bodies. We hope the proposed changes to RTV programming and production will not create additional pressures in the coming months.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

Slovenian Press Agency (STA) Library

Slovenia: MFRR welcomes end to STA funding crisis

Slovenia: MFRR welcomes end to STA funding crisis

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today welcomes the signing of a contract which ends the immediate financial crisis at the Slovenian Press Agency (STA). However, the MFRR also raises concerns that the current conditions of the deal could leave the agency in a financially weaker position in the long term as it carries out its vital public service mission.

On 8 November, the new acting director of the STA, Igor Kadunc, and the director of the Government Communication Office (UKOM), Uroš Urbanija, signed an agreement on the STA’s public service for November and December 2021. The deal restored state funding to the agency for the rest of the year and agreed to a court settlement on overdue back payments from UKOM.

It brings to a close a gruelling 10-month crisis, during which time the STA was forced to operate without legally-mandated state funding for 312 days and narrowly avoided bankruptcy. During this time, the MFRR repeatedly appealed to UKOM to reinstate the financing, raising the issue at the EU level and visiting Ljubljana in mid-October to meet with representatives from the STA.

While our organisations welcome the end of the immediate crisis, the issues for the STA are far from over. Ultimately, these payments were always due to the agency under two separate laws. We note that the agreement came shortly before a court was due to rule on the STA’s lawsuit over unpaid compensation, which should now be resolved via settlement. Moreover, the fact that the contract was concluded under the conditions of a legally dubious government decree rather than a solid legal foundation is regrettable. Meanwhile, several outstanding issues in the contract need to be resolved and a new business plan and agreement for 2022 need to be approved.

Moving forward, based on UKOM’s handling of this dispute, we also retain concerns that its new oversight of STA’s financial activities could infringe on editorial independence. Observation must not morph into interference. We also share the concerns of journalist groups that the commercial aspects of the deal could, if not addressed next year, weaken the sustainability of the STA’s business model in the long term. Under the conditions of the current contract, the agency will see an overall drop in monthly funding for the rest of the year. In the next agreement for 2022, a careful balance must be struck to safeguard its financial viability.

This crisis has left the STA drained psychologically as well as financially. Numerous staff and some of its most experienced journalists have left. As the MFRR heard during our mission, some of its workforce is suffering from mental health problems as a result of stress and anxiety.  Despite these pressures and smears from top government officials, its newsroom has continued to work with great professionalism and dignity. While the STA draws up a fresh business plan for 2022, a period of stability and fresh recruitment is now required to rejuvenate the agency for the future.

We also take this moment to pay tribute to the indefatigable work of the Association of Slovenian Journalists (DNS) and the Slovenian Journalists’ Union (SNS), whose crowdfunding campaign for the STA has raised a total of €385,000 to keep the STA afloat. The phenomenal support displayed by individual citizens and the solidarity expressed by the wider media community both acted as a timely reminder of the extent of the support for independent journalism in Slovenia.

However, the unavoidable conclusion is that this funding crisis should never have reached this point. The STA was financially drained over many months to the point where it had little choice but to accept UKOM’s terms or face liquidation. We maintain that this manufactured dispute was driven primarily by an effort by the government to try and exert greater control over the STA and its reporting. The effects on media freedom have been significant and concerns remain over recent politicised changes at the public broadcaster RTVS.

The STA has been the lifeblood of the Slovenian media ecosystem for the last thirty years. As we move forward it is vital that it continues to carry out its important public mission free from political pressure or further financial coercion. Adequate and fair funding for the STA and the guarantee of its editorial autonomy, as prescribed by law, will be vital. Looking ahead, greater safeguards must be put in place to stop this kind of crisis from happening again. The MFRR will continue to monitor the situation moving forward.

 

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

Library

MFRR in Focus News Webinar — Episode 1

MFRR in Focus News Webinar — Episode 1

Media Freedom Rapid Response’s MFRR in Focus News Webinar in its first episode presents an overview of the press and media freedom violations across the EU states and candidate countries, elaborating on the rapid response mechanisms.

ECPMF’s Antje Schlaf explains the 2021 statistics and all the alerts reported on MappingMediaFreedom.org since the beginning of the year.

The focal topic of this month’s MFRR in Focus news webinar episode is Slovenia where the press agency STA is facing imminent financial collapse following a year long struggle with the government over its independence.

Among the guest speakers of the first episode of MFRR in Focus were Policy & Advocacy Officer at Free Press Unlimited, Guusje Somer speaking on the safety of journalists and impunity; Communications & Project Officer at European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) Camille Petit evaluating the latest Pegasus spyware scandal; Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes at International Press Institute (IPI), Oliver Money-Kryle who talks about State Media Capture with a specific focus on LexTVN and Poland, as well as Coordinator of the Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe at the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), Paolo Rosa who informs the viewers on the criminal defamation laws in Italy.

The MFRR in Focus episode one also features an interview conducted by IPI’s Jamie Wiseman, with Slovenian Press Agency STA’s editor in chief Barbara Štrukelj. The panel discussion during the webinar was also led by Europe Advocacy Officer at International Press Institute (IPI), Jamie Wiseman who hosted the following guests:

  • Lenart J. Kučić, Investigative Journalist, Pod črto, Slovenia
  • Renate Schroeder, Director, European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Petra Lesjak Tušek, President, Slovene Association of Journalists (DNS)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Library

Urgent solution needed as Slovenian Press Agency funding crisis…

Urgent solution needed as Slovenian Press Agency funding crisis passes 250 days

More than 250 days have now passed since the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) last received state funding for carrying out its public service mission from the government of Janez Janša, which currently presides over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

 

Since the beginning of the year, the STA has been forced to operate without public funds guaranteed to it under two separate laws while a contractual dispute manufactured by the Government Communication Office (UKOM) is played out with the aim of forcing the agency to submit to greater government control.

As the Slovenian government took over the rotating presidency of the European Council in July, an end to the crisis appeared to be in sight after the administration pledged to resolve the issue. However, the reworked public service agreement for 2021 included conditions which left the STA’s management with a choice between its existence or independence and it was not signed. Despite repeated calls for negotiations, UKOM refused and the government instead passed a controversial regulation on STA’s financing. Top government officials have meanwhile continued to try to discredit and undermine the STA on social media.

Two months on, UKOM’s summer pledge to resolve the crisis has proven to be hollow and the STA now faces imminent financial collapse. Recent warnings by the agency’s unions are stark. If some form of state funding is not reinstated immediately, the STA could face insolvency by the beginning of October 2021. More than 80 journalists, media workers and other staff would be laid off. A central part of the country’s media ecosystem would fall silent and an important pillar of Slovenia’s democracy would be dismantled.

On Monday, Slovenia’s Supreme Court issued an important judgement confirming that the state has a duty to fund the STA in 2021 in line with the agency’s business plan. Yesterday, UKOM and the STA announced a resumption of negotiations. However, it is the belief of our organisations that this dispute has been  intentionally drawn out by UKOM to drain the agency of resources, heap pressure on its management and ultimately back the STA so far against a wall that it has no choice but to accept its conditions. As detailed in a report by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), this move to strongarm the agency into submission is not an isolated incident but part of a wider attack on the independence of public service media in general.

As new talks begin, the undersigned journalism and media freedom organisations call on UKOM and the government of Prime Minister Janša to immediately end the economic suffocation of the STA and take steps to ensure sustainable funding before its collapse. This will involve making a genuine effort to compromise on the most concerning elements of the agreement and creating a contract which safeguards both the STA’s financing and its independence.

At the very least, the administration must provide emergency funding to ensure the STA’s immediate survival while negotiations continue. Discussions can then begin on providing back payments for lost income. Moving forward, we urge the Slovenian authorities to provide guarantees that the STA’s funding and independence is ensured in the long-term.

The European Union cannot stand by as the leading press agency of a member state heading the EU Council presidency is silenced. We call on the European Commission to redouble its efforts to engage with the country’s leadership to end the crisis. Only then will the STA be able to continue the mission it was established to fulfill 30 years ago.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • Balkan Free Media Initiative
  • European Alliance of News Agencies (EANA)
  • European Broadcasting Union (EBU)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)
  • Index on Censorship
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Media Diversity Institute
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Public Media Alliance
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • Slovene Association of Journalists
  • Slovenian Union of Journalists
  • Society of Journalists, Warsaw
  • South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
  • The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
Slovenia Flag - credit: Balkan Photos Library

Slovenia: MFRR calls for firm response after storming of…

Slovenia: MFRR calls for firm response after storming of public broadcaster RTV

Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners today strongly condemn the attack on the Slovenian public broadcaster RTV Slovenija (RTVS) by Covid-19 deniers and anti-vaccination protesters last Friday.

At around 8:30pm on 3 September 2021, protesters broke into the RTVS studio in Ljubljana. The group of about 20 protesters, believed to be from the OPS group (Aware Residents of Slovenia), entered the building and managed to break into a newsroom. The group’s main demands are to share their views about the Covid-19 pandemic on RTVS platforms, and for RTVS to halt its coverage of the health crisis and vaccination program. The group was demanding greater airtime on RTVS platforms to share their anti-vaccine views and an end to what they said was “censorship” in the broadcaster’s coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Friday’s attack follows four months of demonstrations outside RTVS offices. While protesting outside the building, the group reportedly insulted and harassed staff. RTVS filed official complaints to the Ljubljana Police Centre during this time and police have launched an investigation.

After breaking through the security area and once inside the building, maskless protesters roamed the halls making demands and giving speeches denouncing RTVS through a microphone. No one was injured and the Ljubljana police said they would investigate the incident and act accordingly. RTVS filed a restraining order against the OPS members.

In a press release, the management of RTV Slovenia said that in their “violent intrusion into the premises of Television Slovenia, the protesters grossly abused the right to peaceful protest.” The press release said that security around the building would be strengthened and talks with relevant authorities will be planned.

Manica Janežič Ambrožič, the RTVS news programme editor, said it was an “unacceptable attack on the media, journalism and democracy”. Andrej Grah Whatmough, RTVS director general, condemned “in the strongest terms” a “grave attack”. Whatmough added that the management had been trying to raise the issue for months, but that because the area outside the RTVS building was public property little could be done by the authorities to stop the protesters assembling.

In a statement, the Slovenian Association of Journalists (DNS) denounced an attack on democracy and deplored a general deterioration in the safety of journalists in the country: “The escalation of hostility directed against journalists has been occurring and cultivating in society for some time. The Association has been warning for a long time that hostility on social networks and incitement against journalists and the media we are witnessing can turn into physical violence, which turned out on Saturday with the attack on RTV Slovenia.”

The Media Freedom Rapid Response partners join the Slovenian journalists’ organisations in calling on the authorities to send a clear signal that attacks on journalists, media workers and media outlets are unacceptable. The signatories call for a prompt investigation into this case and a firm response brought to those responsible.

Signed by:

  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • International Press Institute  (IPI)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
Library

Slovenian government eroding media freedom as it takes over…

Slovenian government eroding media freedom as it takes over EU Presidency

The Slovenian government of Prime Minister Janez Janša is overseeing an increasingly systematic effort to undermine critical media, a coalition of press freedom organisations and journalism groups warn today in a new report.

The report concludes that Slovenia, which assumes the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, has seen press freedom deteriorate ever since Janša returned to power in March 2020. Since then, the ruling SDS party has embarked on a multipronged campaign to reshape the media landscape in favour of a pro-government narrative, renewing tactics successful during previous administrations and forging ahead with new forms of pressure.

The front line of this campaign is an aggressive attempt to seize greater control of the country’s public service broadcaster and national news agency using a mix of legal and administrative pressure, as well as vicious, often highly personal smears aimed at undermining the integrity and independence of these institutions.

The Slovenian Press Agency (STA), the lifeblood of the media market, has been drained of state funding since the beginning of the year in a calculated effort by the Government Communication Office (UKOM) to subdue the organisation and cement greater control over its financial and managerial operations.

Though the recent announcement that the government will finally pay an advance of €845.000 for 2021 costs is welcome, serious concerns remain over the conditionality of this agreement and its detrimental effects on the independence of the agency. We believe the government is only making this move because of the sustained criticism it has received for its actions and the need to remedy the situation before assuming the EU Presidency.

More broadly, leading government officials, including Janša himself, are stoking the toxicity of public debate by insulting and denigrating journalists – including via official government channels. This inflammatory rhetoric has led to rising self-censorship and an upsurge in threats against the press, both online and offline. Women journalists are particularly targeted with misogynistic and sexist insults.

Behind the scenes, an effort by SDS is underway to limit critical journalism at mainstream media and strengthen a network of partisan outlets linked to the government. Propaganda media are being rewarded with lucrative state advertising contracts, while government officials have sought to pressure editorial offices and reduce challenging coverage at some of the country‘s biggest commercial outlets.

These tactics raise alarm as they reflect elements of the media capture strategy employed by Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. Moreover, an influx of Hungarian capital linked to Orbán’s Fidesz party is being used to prop up Slovenian pro-government media. Recently, Slovenia’s state-owned telecoms company suspended the sale of a media company after a Hungarian pro-government media outlet was outbid, raising questions about market manipulation and efforts to sell state media assets to SDS‘s political allies in Budapest.

The Janša administration has defended its media policy as necessary to “rebalance” a media landscape it claims is dominated by a historic leftist ideology. Aside from the fact that governments have no business interfering with the editorial lines of media outlets, SDS’ actions and rhetoric do not indicate a genuine interest in fostering greater pluralism but rather in delegitimizing independent media in favour of government-friendly coverage. The depiction of the press as beholden to a political ideology is used to divide the journalistic community down political lines and taint watchdog reporting as biased “opposition journalism”.

While legitimate concerns remain regarding post-independence media ownership concentration and transparency in the Slovenian media market, plans by the ruling SDS party would exacerbate those issues or pose new problems. Legislative proposals to tackle alleged bias at the STA would likewise increase political control over its oversight bodies, rather than lessen it.

While a fragile governing coalition and pushback from civil society and the journalistic community have so far limited the worst of the government’s attempts to erode critical journalism, significant damage has already been caused to the STA and media freedom more widely is once again under sustained threat.

The report follows a two-week online mission to Slovenia carried out by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) between 24 May and 2 June 2021. Jointly led by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI), it was joined by MFRR members Article 19, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Free Press Unlimited and Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa. Representatives of Reporters without Borders, European Broadcasting Union, South East Europe Media Organisation and the Public Media Alliance also participated

Library

Slovenia: MFRR calls on Prime Minister Jansa to stop…

Slovenia: MFRR calls on Prime Minister Jansa to stop tweeting insults

The partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) are dismayed by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša’s disparaging tweet about Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović. On 6 June 2021, Prime Minister Janša said the Commissioner is “part of #fakenews network” in response to her recent memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Slovenia. The Prime Minister’s tweet quoted Mitja Iršič, a public relations expert at the Ministry of Culture, who said their considerations were not properly represented and called the Commissioner’s report “biased and ill-informed.”

We welcome Commissioner Mijatović’ memorandum and share her concerns about the deterioration of media freedom in Slovenia, which align with the findings of our recent fact-finding mission to the country, the report on which is forthcoming. We also note that the Commissioner’s office functions independently and impartially, which we find is reflected in her recent report. Together with the 16-page memorandum, the Commissioner moreover published a 6-page document with comments from the Slovenian authorities, with whom she also met in April during an online dialogue.

We consider the tone and manner in which Prime Minister Janša opted to voice his disagreement with Commissioner Mijatović’ memorandum to be wholly inappropriate for a leader of a democratic European state. The irony of these remarks about a report that expresses concern precisely about the behaviour of public figures, including the Prime Minister, on social media, where they undermine journalists’ credibility “accusing them of lying, and using offensive hashtags such as #fakenews,” is palpable.

The MFRR calls on Prime Minister Janša to cease denigrating the report and instead take action to address its findings. That includes abstaining from making offensive, mendacious or disparaging comments on social media, which contribute to a hostile environment for journalists and media workers in Slovenia and, specifically with regard to the tweet about Commissioner Mijatović, an unwelcome coarsening of the European public debate.

Signed by:

  • Article 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
Slovenia Flag - credit: Balkan Photos Library

Who, and why, is surveilling journalists in Slovakia (SME)

Who, and why, is surveilling journalists in Slovakia (SME)

They would go to the bathroom and turn the water tap on, so the water filling the bathtub would make it harder for anyone to hear them talk about serious issues. They knew which rooms to avoid if they wanted to speak of secret meetings and critical texts they were writing. Phone calls were like scenic plays for the state that they knew was listening: Hi, how’s life? Do we need to buy any milk?

In the 1980s, Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian samizdat authors knew the state was actively intercepting them and keeping detailed records of their talks. Civic courage and disobedience were their working methods.

Journalists of the banned publications engaged in their own rituals. They set up meetings in surprising places. They never came to the meetings together, and they left only one by one. Sometimes, before such a meeting, they would buy a train ticket to a small village where they would get off and then secretly return to the city.

They recognised the faces of some of those that followed them. If they met in a café in the suburbs, and noticed anyone suspicious around, they would gesture each other into changing the topics.

The real messages they wanted to exchange they wrote on small bits of paper, only to immediately burn them in the ashtray as soon as they were read. There were ashtrays everywhere; smoking was allowed everywhere back then.

It was clear who listens and why

Editors of the Hungarian samizdat Beszélő protected their sources. They openly published their own names, to make sure the police would focus on them rather than on the people who were helping them, with information or with distribution. The police would regularly raid their homes. They reckoned with that and learned to live with it.

Beszélő was a quarterly publication and the publishers’ main goal was for the state to miss the printing day. And so, not even the editorial team knew where the publication was printed and who the middleman between the editorial and the printing house was.

Some 2,000 pieces of the issue would be divided immediately into packages of 25 and sent around the country. The state always managed to catch at least one or two distributors, but it never managed to dissolve the entire network. The editors never had more than a few copies with them at a time.

In the Gutenberg galaxy

This is how things worked in the world where it was clear who was surveilling journalists and why. Journalists knew exactly what communication channels were connected to the state, they knew the secret service was trying to recruit people from among them, to report on their colleagues.

The snitches continued to act as revolutionaries and criticise the communist state, but in reality they had already crossed over.

This was a system that the communist power openly admitted to on the ideological basis. It was the Gutenberg galaxy with no Googles or Facebooks, where civic courage could weaken the state machinery. Some samizdats managed to remain sustainable for as long as an entire decade.

Too much of a lure?

Today, journalists in working democracies mostly do not expect the state to surveil them. Wiretapping or surveillance without a reason is always the first symptom of the abuse of power and the technological apparatus of the intelligence services. If anything like that comes out, the media ring a loud alarm. And they are right to do so.

Today, the state power no longer requires a snitch, a whisperer or an informant, to be able to find out who thinks what. They no longer need to collect receipts from cashiers to monitor people’s purchases, or secretly sit near their table in a café to hear whether they are badmouthing the government.

They can find out about everything with the potential help of tech companies. They do not boast about it, nor do they cover up these activities with ideology. That is why control mechanisms are necessary to make sure the state does not abuse its technological means against journalists. Because if it dares to do it to the media, then it will easily dare to do it to an ordinary citizen.

The Pegasus scandal has shown how much of a lure a software originally developed for countering terrorism is for governments. For the government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, among others, which used it to tap into the mobile phones of more than 300 people, including investigative journalists and publishers of independent media.

Does every government tap phones?

In the last 30 years, the Slovak governments followed and wiretapped several journalists.

In the early 1990s, Ivan Lexa led the national intelligence agency, the Slovak Information Service (SIS). Under his lead, the SIS abducted the son of President Michal Kováč. Back then, reasonable people reckoned that the government had all critics of the regime under surveillance. Speaking on landlines, people would greet the undisclosed call participant, imagining them as some rank-and-file state official sitting in a shabby office with his or her headphones on.

With the arrival of mobile phones later on, entrepreneurs would remove batteries from their phones during meetings. Some would go as far as to wrap them in aluminium foil. It was almost like a statement of self-importance, to conspire and to pretend having the phone tapped.

For some, it was more than just a disturbing idea. Under Lexa and the then prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, SIS massively followed and wiretapped journalists.

A change?

Cases of tapping into journalists’ phones appeared also after the fall of Mečiar. For example, the police found in its systems an unauthorised recording of a 2002 conversation between the then economy minister Pavol Rusko and a journalist with daily Sme.

Canadian journalist Tom Nicholson obtained information that the secret services wiretapped his phone calls under the first government of Smer (2006-2010), with Robert Fico as prime minister and Mečiar as one of his two coalition partners. Just because he was a foreigner, the SIS agents wanted to know if Nicholson cooperated with foreign secret services.

The military intelligence service under Ľubomír Galko as defence minister tapped the phones of journalists of the Pravda daily and the head of the private television news channel TA3, with the argument that they wanted to know who leaks classified information to whom.

But the surveillance of journalists only grew into monstrous dimensions with the arrival of the commando that, rather than by the state, was built by Marian Kočner who profited from his relationships with high-ranking public officials and nominees of the then-ruling Smer party.

He had journalists screened through his contacts at the police. Then he hired his friend Peter Tóth to put some of them under illegal surveillance. His commando also followed Ján Kuciak, who later ended up murdered.

What stance will the state eventually take towards such brutal interference with the lives of journalists?

The Pegasus era

There are countries that have leaned away from democracy and that use the “illiberal” label to mask their autocratic traits. They no longer need ideology to justify the surveillance of journalists or opponents.

We are faced with a paradox, when the parliament elected in a relatively free election approves a law for the ruling party to legitimise the use of technology for the surveillance of opponents and government critics. Journalists, too. After all, it has become a routine for government representatives to call journalists the enemies of the nation.

They use technology – mobile phones – that nearly everyone uses in their daily lives.

The existence of critical media and independent institutions plays a crucial role in how such interferences into the lives of journalists or ordinary citizens end. Critical media find out and write about it, while independent institutions then investigate it.

Hungarian government representatives deny the surveillance of journalists. The Hungarian prosecution service announced in July 2021 that they were investigating the use of Pegasus software, but in all likelihood, if Orbán gets re-elected next year, this institution’s investigation will be inconclusive.

If some autocrats manage to grind down the independent institutions in their countries, as is the case in Hungary and in Poland, the effect of the surveillance of journalists and ordinary citizens may be similar as that under communism, but without the state having to build the whole communist-time apparatus anew.

What is worse, traditional tools, like those that the samizdat authors fought by, are not effective in the fight against this new machinery.

This piece is published in collaboration with SME as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.

MFRR 3 consortium logos