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A slap in the face and the pillory?

The current opposition, which has been in power for 23 years after 1990, commissions articles about its martyrdom in foreign media outlets.

I have been following the controversy surrounding the article “Inside Slovenia’s war on the media,” written by journalist Lili Bayer for the POLITICOEurope web portal, with great interest. I have been following the whole story with great interest because I come from a generation that – once upon a time, in a socialist Slovenia – actually experienced the “war on the media,” meaning the targeted journalism. We saw it with our own eyes. At the time, the authorities actually did abolish magazines and newspapers, remove editors and persecute authors, and some people, such as Jože Pučnik, were even sentenced to prison. Ms. Bayer talks about the “communist past” of the Slovenian Prime Minister but forgets to mention that the Slovenian Communists and their successors actually sent Janša to prison twice: the first time, it happened during socialism, and the second time, it happened in a time of democracy, during the left-liberal government of Miro Cerar, in 2014.

At first, I thought that perhaps, the author missed the deadline by a few hours – I thought she missed the time frame in which, according to her clients, she would still be able to help make the change of the Slovenian government a reality. The article was published on the 16th of February at four in the morning, so a few hours after the infamous vote of no confidence in the National Assembly failed, and with it, Karl Erjavec and the so-called Constitutional Arch Coalition. At the time, the article could no longer influence the outcome of the vote in the National Assembly; the defeat of Janez Janša’s opponents had already happened at the time of the publication. However, after carefully reading Ms. Bayer’s words, and especially after reading the sequel, written by Hans von der Burchard[1], I got the impression that this is a more extensive, deeper, a more long-term, although not exactly a well-thought-out intervention in Slovene politics. The responses to the article from the mainstream Slovenian media have made me even more sure of it. On the 19th of February, the articles on the first [2] and third [3] page of Ljubljana’s newspaper Delo were devoted to the controversy.

On the one hand, this is a protest against the decision of the RTV Programme Council, which did not want to extend the mandate of the current wasteful Director of RTV. On the other hand, Bayer complains about the government’s demand for transparency in the financing of the Slovenian Press Agency (Slovenska tiskovna agencija – referred to as STA). However, in its essence, this is a rerun of the stampede staged at the end of 2007 – which, at the time, also happened right before Slovenia’s presidency of the EU – against Janša’s government, prepared by employees of all possible media outlets of the so-called left-liberal orientation. They used everything that they could think of in the article just to make sure that the domestic and possibly European public would see that neither the current government nor Slovenia as a country are capable of presiding over the EU. Why? Because of jealousy, since their (left-liberal) politics, which should actually be called the post-communist avant-garde left, were not chosen for the big task. And the ringleader of the stampede is the same as it used to be. Just like in the past, the main target is once again the Prime Minister and the SDS party. Bayer portrays him as a right-wing autocrat who has been dominating Slovenian politics for the past thirty years by intimidating the media. The facts, however, say otherwise. The so-called right-wing pole has only led the government for seven years and the country for zero years since Slovenia gained its independence. Bayer accuses Janša of hatred of the media, but in fact, just the opposite is true: it is the hatred of the left-wing avant-garde and the dominant Slovenian media attached to it against Janša. Bayer either does not understand or refuses to reveal the meaning of the slogan Death to Janšaism, which appears at the forefront of the cultural struggle against the government. She hints that this is a wordplay on a Yugoslav partisan slogan but does not actually state the real meaning. The partisans used the slogan Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People! Bayer is not in the least appalled by the explanation that claims that Janša is a fascist and occupier of the Slovenian nation. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Bayer, who lives in the great America, portrays Janša as the leader of “one of the EU’s smallest countries” and “a big campaign” against the journalists he does not like. The introduction is quite chauvinistic but also untrue, as during the Janša government, not a single journalist was wronged, as reported by the Ministry of Culture [4].

Bayer portrays the situation in Slovenia as dramatic, using labels such as: poisoning, hatred, threatening phone calls, letters and e-mails, pressure, self-censorship, the journalists’ need for police protection; endangered independence (encouraged by Janša), media war, intolerance, lies, insinuations, manipulations, insults, tense and brutal atmosphere; fear, verbal attacks, a situation reminiscent of war; bans on the free (and even expert) appearances in the media, the media on a leash, aggressive government stances… She also devotes a lot of space to the so-called “injustices” that are happening to the Slovenian Press Agency [5] and RTV Slovenia; she listened attentively to the anonymous critics and passionate opponents of the current government, and among those she named are the editor-in-chief of the STA and professor of targeted journalism from the Faculty of Social Sciences. Without citing anything or showing any documents, she refers to international journalistic organisations and analyses that are barely known in Europe (Noah Buyon from the Freedom House and the International Press Institute).

Janez Janša responded to the article with a tweet in which he wrote that the journalist 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. He also added: lying for a living.

But the story does not end there. Bayer was defended by Hans von der Burchard, who came after the Slovenian Prime Minister with the help of the Brussels officials – the chief spokesperson for the European Commission Eric Mamer and Christian Wigand. The interesting thing about these statements is that they both refer to last year’s statements made by the European Commissioner Vera Jourova, who said the following about “last year’s attacks on journalists in Slovenia:”

“Free and independent media are the key to democracies and European values. Their job is to warn us, politicians, about responsible behaviour. The protection of journalists should be a priority for every country. No hatred, no threats, no personal attacks.”

This polite and general quote was followed by a carefully “wrapped” statement from the spokesperson of the European Commission: “Mamer said that President Ursula von der Leyen fully agrees with this answer.” Let’s imagine for a moment that a Slovenian government employee, for example, someone like Uroš Urbanija from the Government Communication Office, made authoritative statements in the name of Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron! The Socialist Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, reacted somewhat less cunningly: he said that the freedom of the media must be respected and that Lili Bayer “deserves our support.” According to Burchard, the spokesman Wigand announced that they would propose specific recommendations regarding the safety of journalists.

However, Burchard also let a little bit of reality slip through the cracks, as he summed up the statement of the head of the parliamentary programme on RTV, Jadranka Rebernik, who said that this is an exaggeration:

“Janša cannot censor anyone and has no real influence on the mainstream media. I think that there is a lot of drama happening in Slovenia right now. RTV is tougher with the current Slovenian government than it was with the former one, even though it should be politically impartial and independent.”

The Ljubljana newspaper Delo also wrote about the matter – very polemically, but perhaps unintentionally, it also shed light on the problem from the other side as well. Correspondent Žerjavič consulted the Dutch MEP – Sophie in’t Veld – who formed her own understanding and opinion of the Slovenian situation, based on the information from the Slovenian journalist Blaž Zgaga, who – as is well-known – has been after Janez Janša for a long time now. Zgaga (and Matej Šurc) collected 571 signatures against the Slovenian presidency of the EU in 2007. Given the well-founded assumption that neither Bayer nor Burchard speak Slovene, it is practically clear that the foreign statements and articles about Slovenia have (for many years now) been written by the Slovenian opposition politicians and their journalistic helpers. In our case, this is the current Slovenian opposition. Which articles get published by foreign media outlets depends entirely on the political affiliation of their sources and on their own knowledge of foreign languages. This is also the reason for a lot of the robustness.

With all this, another question arises. The New York Times reported extensively and at length about the new French legislation, addressing the problem of immigrants and the so-called Islamic leftism. [6] This legislation has been opposed by many social scientists and representatives of the left-wing parties. The Times calls this a cultural struggle. The war surrounding the social sciences is also appearing on the front pages of the French newspapers. The events are linked to mass protests over racism and police violence, conflicting views on feminism and Islamism. President Macron and his ministers say their opponents have “gone wild” (ensauvagement).

However, the chatty officials of the European Commission, the international and non-governmental organisations are, of course, keeping quiet about what is happening in France, as these are not big campaigns in small countries, but – in their eyes – small campaigns in big countries, that need to be respected and which they fear.

As far as Slovenian officials, such as the diplomats and ambassadors in Brussels are concerned, it would be advisable that they defend their country against the Bayer-type slander in a timely and decisive manner. The question also arises, what did the representative of the European Commission in Ljubljana Zoran Stančič do in terms of impartial informing of Brussels?

Dimitrij Rupel

[1] “EU Commission condemns Slovenian PM Janša’s attacks on journalists” –POLITICOEurope, the 18th of February 2021.

[2] Glej Peter Žerjavič, “Bruseljska zaušnica za Janšo”, Delo, the 19th of February 2021.

[3] Peter Žerjavič, “Janez Janša na bruseljskem sramotilnem stebru”, Delo, the 19th of February 2021.

[4] The Ministry of Culture published the following: “POLITICOEurope shows an extreme political bias in its article about the phantom “war on media” in Slovenia. Here are the facts: 1. The Slovenian media are mostly owned by left-wing tycoons.
2. The Government of the Republic of Slovenia awarded 2.6 million euros through a public tender for the media (most of it to the left-wing media) and tens of millions more from the intervention funds for mitigating the consequences of the coronavirus disease.
3. The Prime Minister was critical of the media, which reported in a way that caused people to start underestimating the coronavirus disease, which therefore meant that they did not respect the epidemiological security measures, but he never interfered with the editorial independence of the media.
4. If the journalists are really “afraid” to report on the Hungarian investments in Slovenia, they certainly do not show this, as they often report on this topic (even with deliberate exaggerations and by hiding the fact that all Hungarian privately owned media do not even represent five percent of the entire media landscape).
5. An analysis of media pluralism, prepared by the Faculty of Media, shows that the mainstream media have a strong anti-government, oppositional media stance, where the left-wing views prevail over right-wing ones, which is in direct contrast to the anonymous reports claiming that journalists are forced into self-censorship.
6. RTV Slovenia will not be left without funds. A small share of the mandatory contribution for RTV, which will be transferred to other media, will be replaced by more liberal legislation in the field of advertising. The Government of the Republic of Slovenia has already paid 2.1 million euros in additional funds to RTV in order to mitigate the consequences of the epidemic.”

[5] STA Director Veselinović, who is accusing the government of insufficient budget funding, had a higher salary than the Prime Minister or the President of the Republic. The unusually high salaries of certain civil servants are an increasingly widespread phenomenon in Slovenia.

[6] Norimitsu Onishi, Constant Méhent, “Heating Up Culture Wars, France to Scour Universities for Ideas That ‘Corrupt Society’”, New York Times, the 18th of February 2021.

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