MEPs voice concerns in debate on media freedom in Slovenia

Ljubljana – The European Parliament’s Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group held a virtual public discussion on media freedom in Slovenia on Friday featuring representatives from Slovenia and the European Commission. Group members expressed concern about the situation and their expectations for the Commission to take action.

Although invited, Prime Minister Janez Janša and Culture Minister Vasko Simoniti did not take part in the exchange of views with Janša’s office yesterday saying the invitation came at short notice so the pair would not be able to attend in person for logistical reasons.

The group’s head, Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld (Renew/D66) initially explained that all the invitations were sent out on 24 February after which they complied with Janša’s wish to attend in person and for the exchange to be public. They were later informed Janša and Simoniti would not be able come to Brussels.

The MEP said the group would try to have a discussion with the pair in person on 26 March as proposed by Janša, but would have to establish first whether this would be feasible on the proposed date. Attendance at that meeting has been confirmed by Human Rights Ombudsman Peter Svetina.

In ‘t Veld explained the group, which is part of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, is not a tribunal but was monitoring the situation and collecting information.

An exchange of opinions is but one form, and a fact-finding mission to the country is also possible once the coronavirus situation permitted. In response to Janša’s invitation for the European Parliament to join the European Commission in a fact-finding mission to Slovenia that he proposed, in ‘t Veld said the European Parliament was independent and conducted missions itself if it chose to do so.

Emmanuel Crabit, director for fundamental rights and rule of law at the European Commission, noted that in its first annual rule of law report in September last year the Commission expressed concern about online harassment of journalists and a shortage of human and financial resources of the Agency for Communication Networks and Services.

The Commission is now working on a new report, and is planning country visits in this context in April, which will be likely in a virtual format considering the situation. In the new report they will make their assessment about the developments.

Representing NGOs, CNVOS director Goran Forbici noted online bullying and insults, and vulgarities used in communication by those in power including the prime minister not only against media critical of the government but also against civil society, as well as harsh restrictions on freedom of expression in Covid-19 emergency measures.

Restrictions on gatherings were considered particularly shocking by German MEP Sergey Lagodinsky (Greens/EFA), who asked whether Slovenian petitioners had turned to the Constitutional Court, the European Court of Human Rights or the EU Court over the matter.

Petra Lesjak Tušek, the head of the Association of Slovenia Journalists (DNS), spoke of direct online attacks and insults against journalists working for public media such as the public broadcaster RTV Slovenija or the Slovenian Press Agency (STA).

She spoke of “systematic coordinated pressure” on the media and the government’s desire to set up a parallel media system, and to break the STA ahead of Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of the year.

Investigative reporter Lenart J. Kučić described the Slovenian media system from the ownership aspect which he said allowed any one time government to control the media and increasing possibilities for the control to be stepped up. He also offered his analysis of patterns of attacks on Twitter.

Marko Milosavljević, a professor at the Ljubljana Faculty of Social Studies, welcomed the debate, opining that Slovenia needed more international debates, in particular in the EU, being that the practices in the country were in contravention of EU values. He too argued that the government was trying to gain full control of the STA.

Bulgarian MEP Elena Yoncheva (S&D) noted that Slovenia ranked 36th in media freedom index last year and now one man was changing that fast. She called for Brussels to act.

German MEP Katarina Barley (S&D) drew parallels with Hungary, asking Slovenian representatives about the risk of Slovenia going in the same direction as Hungary, and becoming isolated in the EU.

Hungarian MEP Anna Donanth (Renew) called the situation in Slovenia “painfully familiar”, emphasizing the need for European action in defence of media freedom and pluralism and expressed the expectation for the Commission to act.

Similarly, Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola (EPP) noted the significance of protection of media freedom.

The group, which does not include Slovenian MEPs, decided to monitor the situation in Slovenia after PM Janša, in a Twitter post, accused Lili Bayer, the author of a Politco article on the media situation in Slovenia, of being “instructed not to tell the truth”.

The discussion today is a prelude to a debate on media freedom in Slovenia, to be held at the plenary session of the European Parliament next week after the debate on the situation in Poland and Hungary was expanded to include Slovenia.