As the European Parliament wrapped up a mission to Slovenia last Friday, Dutch MP Sophia in ‘t Veld cited concerns that public debate in the country is often hostile.
Her comments came after Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Jansa criticized the European Parliament and made what some said were anti-Semitic remarks.
The European delegation were in Slovenia to assess democracy, rule of law, and fundamental rights including press freedom in the country, which currently has the rotating presidency of the European Union.
While public institutions work well, the mission cited areas of concern including harassment and pressure on public broadcasters and critical journalists.
It’s a concern shared by several journalists and media rights groups, including Jamie Wiseman, from the International Press Institute (IPI).
“IPI and other organizations were hoping to see an improvement in media freedom in Slovenia after the country took over the rotating presidency. Sadly, this has not been the case,” Wiseman told VOA.
During their three days in Slovenia, in ‘t Veld, from the EU’s political group Renew Europe, and her team met with government officials, public bodies and members of the media. But Jansa did not speak with the group.
However, Jansa questioned on Twitter why the delegation was focused on Slovenia, and retweeted a photo in which in ‘t Veld and 12 other EU parliamentarians are accused of being puppets of the philanthropist George Soros.
Soros, a Hungarian-born businessman and founder of the Open Society Foundation, is often targeted with anti-Jewish slurs and accusations that he is financing and orchestrating far-left extremism, protests and other conspiracies.
The president of the EU Parliament called for the Slovenian leader “to cease provocations against members” saying “Attacks on members of this house, are also attacks on European citizens.”
When Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, weighed in, calling the Soros tweet “tasteless,” Jansa replied that Rutte should not “waste time with … media freedom in Slovenia” and should instead “protect your journalists from being killed on the streets.”
The remark was a reference to veteran crime reporter Peter R. de Vries, who was murdered in Amsterdam in July.
For in ‘t Veld, who oversaw the mission to Slovenia, the rhetoric reflected the overall hostile environment and pressure that she says the media and public bodies are under.
“It is very striking that members of the government are also engaging in that kind of debate which I think is unfit for a civilized and democratic society,” in ‘t Veld said.
“The tone of the [public] debate is not harmless and it’s not innocent and we have seen in other countries how it can lead to an erosion of trust in the democratic institutions and even an attack on the democratic institutions in the end,” she said.
At the news conference, in ‘t Veld warned that if pressure on media and other bodies continued, “You may end up with a kind of climate wherein the media and the democratic institutions do not function properly anymore.”
The Ministry of Culture, which oversees Slovenia’s media, disputed the European delegation’s initial findings.
“International organizations … know nothing about the Slovenian media and resort mainly to reports from Slovenia,” the ministry said in a statement prepared for VOA.
Most local media are biased in favor of left-wing parties, the ministry said, adding that this is “the biggest proof that media freedom in Slovenia is untouched.”
Representatives from the Culture Ministry declined a meeting with the European Parliament delegation because the mission would not agree to have the meeting recorded.
The ministry told VOA that recording meetings is a precondition, and that without it, “anyone can interpret what was said by himself and according to his memory."
Press advocates, analysts share concerns
Media analysts however, mostly share concerns over the state of press freedom in the country.
Since Jansa came to power, journalists have reported an increase of harassment and online attacks over their coverage by government officials, pro-government supporters, and in anonymous attacks.
“While the situation remains a long way away from the current landscape for the free press in Poland and Hungary, there are tactics used by governments in Warsaw and Budapest that are being replicated in Ljubljana,” said Wiseman, the IPI’s Europe advocacy officer.
Rights groups say independent media in Hungary and Poland face an increasingly restrictive environment, with attempts to discredit media and control public broadcasters.
In ‘t Veld and Wiseman both pointed to the stop on financing for the national news agency STA, which is required by law. The agency normally receives about half of its financing from the government, but earlier this year that revenue was cut off.
If funding is not reinstated, “a central part of the country’s media ecosystem would fall silent and an important pillar of Slovenia’s democracy would be dismantled,” said Wiseman.
STA director Bojan Veselinovic—whom Jansa has accused of being a political tool for the left—resigned last month, saying the funding dispute was “always about [the government] stance on media independence and the attempt to subordinate the agency.”
And Manica Janezic Ambrozic, managing editor of TV Slovenia news programs, resigned on October 15 after what Wiseman said was “months of orchestrated attacks on her by political forces determined to remove her from her position.”
When RTV's director of television programming Natalija Gorscak was dismissed in August, she told VOA she believed it was because she refused to dimiss Ambrozic.
Like other outlets, the station had also been accused of bias and false news over critical reporting on the government.
While many journalists and analysts see the changes at RTV Slovenia as a proof of political pressure on the country’s influential public broadcaster, the station’s new chief executive Andrej Grah Whatmough and the Ministry of Culture have denied any interference.
The full findings of the European Parliament mission is due to be released at a later date.