Ljubljana – The Slovenian government is overseeing an increasingly systematic effort to undermine critical media, a coalition of press freedom organisations and journalism groups warned in a report released on Wednesday after conducting a virtual fact-finding mission to Slovenia in late May and early June.
The report, issued by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) a day before Slovenia assumes the presidency of the Council of the EU, finds that Slovenia has seen press freedom deteriorate ever since Prime Minister Janez 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 frontline 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) has been going without state funding since the beginning of the year in what the report describes as “a calculated effort by the Government Communication Office (UKOM) to subdue the organisation and cement greater control over its financial and managerial operations”.
While welcoming the government’s announcement to pay an advance money to the STA, the organisations are concerned about the conditionality of this agreement and its detrimental effects on the agency’s independence. “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.”
The report also finds that the denigration of journalists and inflammatory rhetoric that government officials, including Janša, engage in “has led to rising self-censorship and an upsurge in threats against the press, both online and offline”.
Meanwhile, “an effort by the 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.”
The report says these tactics “reflect elements of the media capture strategy employed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban”, while Hungarian capital linked to Orbán’s Fidesz party “is being used to prop up Slovenian pro-government media”.
The Janša government has defended its media policy as necessary to “rebalance” the media landscape, but the report finds the “SDS’s 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”.
While the media organisations admit there are legitimate concerns regarding post-independence media ownership concentration and transparency in Slovenia, they say the SDS’s plans would exacerbate those issues or pose new problems and legislative proposals to tackle alleged bias at the STA would increase political control over its oversight bodies.
“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,” finds the report.
The report is based on a two-week fact-finding mission to Slovenia led by the the European Federation of Journalists and International Press Institute in partnership with the Slovenian Association of Journalists (DNS).