Right before Slovenia inaugurated its first Council of the European Union presidency back in 2008, 571 journalists addressed a letter to the EU institutions and citizens to denounce right-winged populist Janez Janša’s government’s policies of restriction of freedom of press and state control over the main national newspapers (1). Despite the petition, initiated by Večer journalists Blaž Zgaga (2) and Matej Šurc (3), prompted several demonstrations of solidarity throughout the European media outlets, the prime minister simply ignored the well-grounded accusation of censorship. In the same period the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders expressed to the prime minister their deep concerns for press freedom condition in Slovenian media. Janša adopted a strategy of indifference and refused to reply to such statements. Moreover, the issue did not draw the necessary attention at the broader national level either, since the international engagement in unfolding Janša’s openly hostile approach towards journalists was eclipsed by pro-government media (4), confirming that media control in Slovenia is not a mere assumption, but a real issue endangering free information circulation and democracy in a EU member state.
A dramatic déjà-vu is currently occurring in the Slovenian media scenario. Once again, concurrently with Slovenia’s upcoming second EU Council presidency, scheduled to begin on 1st July 2021, the issue of government press control and unlawful treatment, pressure and threats endured by journalists and editors has attracted the attention of European media. In this circumstance, the casus belli wasrepresented by Lili Bayer’s article Inside Slovenia’s War on the Media, published on Politico on 16th February, where she reported that prime minister Janša has been attacking Slovenian media on a consistent basis both verbally and with laws restricting the freedom of their professional activity (5). In particular, she wrote that Janša’s government proposed a media reform worryingly increasing the degree of state influence on national media while cutting state funds for news agencies. What is more, he referred to the Slovenian state media agency as a “national disgrace” (6) and accused “irresponsible virus spreader” Radiotelevizija Slovenija (RTV) of reporting misleading and inaccurate content (7). Lili Bayer also gave voice to unheard Slovenian journalists, who denounced the “toxic effect” of the consolidated anti-media crusade and how the “political pressure” is highly impacting the possibility to report on controversial news, such right-winged movements in Slovenia and Janša’s pro-Trump campaign on Twitter. The journalist’s criticism towards Janša’s administration of media and information is also supported by EP Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs report The situation of Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights in Slovenia, updated to 25th March 2021, which clearly states that media pluralism has “too often been decreased by Slovenian politicians to increase the influence of political parties over the media” (8).
While back in 2007 Janša had not replied to the accusation of controlling media and threatening journalists, this time Bayer’s article provoked the prime minister’s strong reaction. He harshly attacked the journalist tweeting that she “was instructed not to tell the truth, so she quoted mainly ‘unknown’ sources from the extreme left and purposely neglected sources with names and integrity”, while Politico’s work was based on “laying for living” (9). Significantly, after denouncing the worrying conditions of press and journalists freedom in Hungary back in 2014, Lili Bayer had already been verbally attacked by Viktor Orban’s government, which discredited her professionalism by accusing her not to be a journalist, but a pro-Soros propagandist (10). Janša’s statements have been followed by great signs of solidarity from European reporters and condemnation from governmental entities worldwide, and especially from EU institutions. Dutch European Parliament member Sophie in ‘t Veld pointed out the need for the Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group to more closely monitor the press freedom in Slovenia (11). The European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans tweeted that “there’s no obligation to like what is written in the media. There is however the obligation to respect media freedom. Vilifying, threatening, or attacking journalists is a direct attack on free media” (12).
EU institutional leaders expressed their concerns for the situation of press freedom in Slovenia, solidarity with journalists, and strong criticism for Janša’s policies and aggressive statements, under the assumption that press freedom is a basic and primary matter of democracy, and that Slovenian journalists are EU journalists and their profession and freedom of expression must be protected since the violation of their rights is unacceptable in the EU framework. Now the question that naturally raises is whether such ‘opinions’ can actually be turned into actual EU legal counteractions against Janša’s government. On this particular matter the Commission spokesperson Christian Wigand clarified that the field of criminal law is to a large extent an exclusive competence of each member state, implying a structural difficulty for the EU to put such condemnations into a real legal practice (13). Moreover, the judicial situation gets even more complex considering that many of the attacks on journalists were spread through tweets, which do not have the legal values of officially addressed political statements. However, especially since the Slovenian government is about to preside the EU Council, and media status can be considered as the thermometer of democracy of any society, Janša’s controversial tweets are to be seriously deemed as worrying symptoms of the democratic situation of the country.