Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 16, 2020.
FILE - Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 16, 2020.

LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA - Members of the European Parliament have warned of a “chilling” environment for Slovenia’s media, with verbal assaults from senior officials and attempts to cut funding for the state-owned news agency.

The session on media freedom came amid heightened concerns by the European Parliament that declining conditions in Slovenia, Hungary and Poland represent a threat to democracy and could lead to authoritarianism. Slovenia is due to take over the six-month European Union presidency in July.

An increase in pressure on Slovenia’s media, including its public broadcasters, has been reported since the center-right government of Prime Minister Janez Jansa took power last year.

The prime minister and his supporters regularly criticize journalists and news outlets, mainly via social media. Jansa in February accused the news website Politico of “laying [sic] for living” over a report alleging he was waging a campaign against parts of the media.

Jansa and his administration say coverage is overly critical because the majority of outlets support center-left parties. But many journalists and academics say the government is trying to discredit critical outlets through verbal harassment and smear campaigns, and is attempting to increase control over state-owned media.

Ranka Ivelja, a reporter for the privately owned daily Dnevnik, told VOA the situation had worsened under the present government.

"The government pressure on the media echoes in society. It is like a barrier has been opened, allowing people to exercise pressure that would not have been acceptable before,” Ivelja said.

Others argue that the left wing also pressures the media.

“The left side of the political spectrum has control over most media in Slovenia so there are always many conflicts there when we have right-wing parties in power. Most journalists in Slovenia, however, are trying to do their job correctly, as best they can,” said Peter Jancic, chief editor of Siol, which is owned by the state-run telecommunications operator Telekom.

‘Climate of hatred’

The European Parliament did not issue a formal action plan to address the challenges for media, but the debate renewed focus on claims of a more hostile working environment.

Sophia In T’ Veld, a Dutch politician from the centrist pro-European Renew Europe Group, said she was worried by the government’s “habits of attacking journalists.”

“That not only has a chilling effect on the freedom of the media and on the freedom of expression but it actually gives people almost literally a license to kill. It adds to a climate of hatred,“ Veld said during the debate.

Members of the center-right European People’s Party, which includes Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party, defended the government.

FILE - Franc Bogovic of the Slovenian People's Party takes part in a televised debate ahead of elections in Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 26, 2014.

“It is clear that about 80% of internal policy editorial offices of the Slovenian media, including the public RTV [radio and television channel], favors center-left political parties,” said Franc Bogovic, a Slovenian politician and EPP member.

Ahead of the debate, the Slovenian state-run news agency STA published what it said were extracts from an internal document prepared by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.

STA reported that the document included a table of attacks on media from Jansa and other government officials, and highlighted apparent political influence in Slovenia through media ownership and financing by Hungarian companies affiliated with Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party.

When asked for comment on the debate, Slovenia’s Ministry of Culture referred VOA to an earlier statement in which it said the country’s media “are predominantly left wing and fiercely anti-government.”

In the same statement, the ministry said Hungarian investments accounted for less than 1 percent of the Slovenian media landscape.

The ministry added that an earlier European Parliament hearing included “factually inaccurate information,” which it responded to in its statement.

Media bias

The state-funded STA and RTV have found themselves at the center of allegations of government interference and left-wing bias since Jansa returned to power.

STA, which gets about half of its income from the government, was established when Slovenia declared independence. It is bound by legislation to be “independent and unbiased” and to produce accurate and objective news.

The government alleges that the STA supports leftist political views, a claim the agency has denied.

The government stopped financing the STA earlier this year, saying the news agency had failed to supply documents required for its government contract. And Jansa called on its director, Bojan Veselinovic, to resign, calling him “a political tool of the far left” and saying the STA often “sells lies for the truth.”

Veselinovic refused, saying there was no basis for the accusations. He has said the government wants to financially drain the independent agency.

RTV Slovenia and STA can sometimes appear biased, Siol journalist Jancic said, citing coverage of anti-government protests this month that, he said, appeared to tone down threats.

The pressure on the STA led 15 academics from Ljubljana University’s Faculty of Social Sciences to issue a public letter in support of the news outlet.

The letter said the “the hostile destruction of such an important” organization “borders on insanity.”

The government also attempted to replace Igor Kadunc, head of RTV, in October.

Jancic said that when a left-wing government coalition was in power in 2018, it also tried unsuccessfully to oust the head of RTV.