This piece is published in collaboration with Delo as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more

In March 2020, Janez Janša was elected as Slovenian Prime Minister just one day after the country declared the coronavirus epidemic.

Slovenia successfully contained the epidemic at the beginning, but in autumn and winter last year found itself in an extremely difficult situation, with several thousand coronavirus infections per day. And when a culprit for the spread of the infection and low vaccination rates had to be found, the right-wing Prime Minister Janša pointed the finger at the media. Deteriorating healthcare conditions served as another reason for the regime to put pressure on the media. The search for culprits in the media served to divert attention from the government’s wrong decisions, its ineffectiveness in fighting the virus, and questionable business practices by some individuals close to the government while purchasing protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic.

Even before individual media outlets and journalists had been discredited and taken to court, and despite the fragile financial situation in the media landscape, no special support was provided to the media industry to mitigate the consequences of the epidemic. What’s more, a few months after the onset of the epidemic, newspapers, and magazines – seen as a potential spreader of the virus – were not permitted in bars and restaurants, business premises and public institutions, which led media houses to suffer a major business loss.

After less than two years of Janša’s leadership, Slovenia ranked 36th among 180 countries in the Press Freedom Ranking published by Reporters Without Borders, four places lower than before April 2020.

Petra Lesjak Tušek, President of the Slovenian Association of Journalists (DNS), is convinced that Janša took advantage of the epidemic to wage a war against the media. In her opinion, he would have done the same even if there was no epidemic, so the coronavirus was an unexpected opportunity for him. He is now blaming the media and journalists (as well as the political opposition) for Slovenia’s low vaccination rates and for violations of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Analyses or manipulations?

The Government Communication Office (UKOM) supported the Prime Minister’s criticism with a diagram showing the number of minutes the public broadcasting service RTV Slovenia and the most popular commercial television channel POP TV dedicated to the promotion of vaccination and measures aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus as well as the minutes dedicated to anti-vaccination movements. By measuring the airtime the media dedicated to promoting the fight against the virus on the one hand and the airtime dedicated to the opponents of the measures, Ukom sought to methodologically justify the government’s claims that the media was to blame for the deteriorating health situation.

“The UKOM conducts various analyses because we need information on how the public is informed about the Covid-19 situation. It is important [to know] what kind of information about the epidemic and the measures is available to citizens and why irrational responses to vaccination and self-protective measures have occurred,” Uroš Urbanija, Director of the UKOM, explained. But the airtime allocated to vaccine hesitancy and Covid measures also included reporting on anti-vax and anti-government protests. As all Slovenian media almost unanimously supported the fight against coronavirus in their reports, Ukom could only justify its criticism of the media by claiming that airtime dedicated to these protests encouraged non-compliance and opposition to vaccination.

According to Urbanija, protests undermine the basic health recommendations on social distancing. He also added that all reports on the situation in hospitals were evaluated as “positive”, even if they failed to directly encourage viewers to abide by the measures. Urbanija’s response to the allegation that the analysis was an attempt to undermine public trust in both the above-mentioned media outlets was that everyone can interpret the situation as they please, however, mathematical data are clear: “After all, some people don’t believe in the virus. This too is democracy.”

The presentation by UKOM was nothing short of gross manipulation, according to Andraž Zorko, a public opinion analyst and partner in Valicon, a company that has been conducting surveys on public trust in institutions and individual professions for almost a decade.

“The media are a scapegoat for everything that is contrary to the expectations of the ruling party and its president, as this is a standard element of the right-wing populist parties’ and leaders’ rhetoric – they probably have a special manual from abroad. But there is again this great irony. The Prime Minister does not miss an opportunity to blame the media and jeopardise their credibility – accusations of producing fake news are a frequent, and again typical, element of this type of politics, whereas a minute later he will accuse the same media of being responsible for low vaccination rates and disregard of measures. The contradiction could not be more obvious – a medium that is considered untrustworthy cannot be blamed for something that is not within its power, since it is dismissed as not credible. Such complications and collapses into contradictions are quite common for conspiracy theorists,” Zorko comments.

The approach of Janez Janša and his political supporters of systematically discrediting the media is, according to Zorko, a phenomenon born in the second half of the past decade, as the SDS party adopted the model and the rhetoric of right-wing populist parties, which includes systematic insulting of journalists and taking legal actions against them or least threatening to do so.

But such an approach, Zorko believes, only strengthens public trust in the press, bearing in mind that Janša’s party is spurned by an extremely high proportion of voters (more than 50 percent would absolutely never vote for it). Moreover, such rhetoric only thrives in a small circle of the party’s followers. The best proof of the positive role of the media during the epidemic is, according to Zorko, the trust of the general public in the media in general and in journalists, which visibly grew during the first wave, particularly trust in RTV Slovenia which was the most fiercely attacked by the government.

The Hungarian scenario

The former General Director of RTV Slovenia and the current Acting Director of STA Igor Kadunc was critical of the UKOM analysis blaming the media for the unfavourable epidemiological picture.

He pointed out: “It is extremely unusual to hear such criticism from the government, because who else received coverage on RTV Slovenia’s programmes most of the time? It was the representatives of the government.”

In Kadunc’s opinion, since Janša’s first message about the media that was published in May 2020 under the title “The war on the media”, the goal is clear: Janša is fighting the media to keep them under his control.

In his post War on media, published on the official government website, the Slovenian Prime Minister used the metaphor about boiling a frog – if you place a frog in a bowl of tepid water which is brought to a boil slowly, it stays there until the bitter end – to criticise the reporting of the so-called mass media, which in his opinion were mainly leftist, and he called for their balancing. To “balance” the media landscape, his party SDS supported the launching of the television channel Nova24TV which, later on, like certain other web portals and printed media, was also financially supported by the Hungarian capital.

In the post, Janša advised Slovenians: “For a start, it is extremely healthy not to watch, read or listen to those ‘media’ where you know in advance how they are going to distort things. You are only wasting your time with them”. This is his way of preparing for the super-election year 2022, when Slovenia will have parliamentary, presidential and local elections. On the one hand, he strives to develop the broadest possible media base through which he will address his constituents, and on the other, he aims to discredit those media outlets that criticise his leadership.

Given the influence of television on public opinion, it is not surprising that the SDS leadership wants to suffocate the criticism expressed by the biggest commercial television channel POP TV. They could achieve this by removing POP TV from the basic scheme, (meaning that channels are available for free to all households) of state-owned telecommunications company Telekom Slovenia, which has been managed by SDS members since March.

The Hungarian scenario, where the Prime Minister Viktor Orbá​n controls most media outlets in the country, was also mentioned by Igor Kadunc in the context of financing of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA). For almost a year, the latter was not provided financial funds to perform public service, which account for about half of the Agency’s revenues. The government released funds only after Director Bojan Veselinovič had resigned. After warning the public several times that the solution to STA’s situation and compliance with statutory obligations were clearly in conflict with political interests of Janša’s government, Veselinovič had become a thorn in Janša’s flesh.

“This desire [to follow Hungary in ensuring government control of most media outlets] failed to come to fruition, because it received insufficient support. If there was enough support, things would probably be different,” Kadunc commented. As acting head of STA, has been working on a business plan that will be presented, along with a draft agreement for the next year, to the UKOM. The latter was put in charge of concluding an agreement with the STA on behalf of the state. Kadunc does not expect the problems that almost drove the STA to bankruptcy last year – resulting in more than 15 journalists jumping ship – to reoccur.

Besides personal discrediting of journalists, which is most often seen in social networks, especially Twitter; in the media outlets associated with the SDS; and through lawsuits and other manoeuvres, journalists are generally prevented from doing their job professionally. Their requests for access to documents and receiving responses are often completely ignored, despite statutory deadlines. The Prime Minister’s Office seldom responds to the questions asked, and the same applies to ministers.

Vasko Simoniti, Minister of Culture, whose sector also includes the media, has recently spurned journalists from different media outlets when they asked him to comment on the resignation of Igor Samobor, Director of SNG Drama Ljubljana, the central Slovenian national theatre. Upon his resignation, Samobor launched a strong criticism of the cultural minister’s work. While explaining the reasons for rejecting the journalists, the minister criticised the national television for not giving him the same airtime as was given to the director of the theatre.

Despite ignoring journalists’ questions, the UKOM addressed its criticism to RTV Slovenia, particularly regarding television items that, in their opinion, were unbalanced.

Inadequate legislation that allows appropriation

Analyst Andraž Zorko explained that public opinion polls have recorded low trust in the media, according to public opinion polling, has been recorded throughout the past decade – with the all-time low in the first half of 2018. This is down to a wide variety of factors: from growing sensationalism, technological changes, transition to new business and editorial models reliant on generating ‘views’ rather than providing nuanced reporting, leading to for example clickbait headlines. Ownership structures have changed, editors have been replaced and journalists have switched from one media outlet to another.

Media legislation has failed to account for these changes by ignoring the increasingly difficult financial position of the media, the growing concentration of media ownership in Slovenia and the vulnerability of public radio and television to excessive political influence.

The RTV Slovenia Programming Council, which has 29 members and is in charge of appointing and discharging the management as well as drafting annual plans and programme content, and it has 21 programme councillors – all of them politically appointed. Nine of 11 RTV Slovenia’s supervisors are politically appointed as well. In the new term of office, every one of them belong to the coalition and its supporters, despite a law which stipulates the representation of political parties in the National Assembly.

“Depoliticisation will never be feasible in full, but we should prevent such usurpation as we are now witnessing,” Igor Kadunc, the former Director General of RTV Slovenia, said. After his resignation ,his successor Andrej Grah Whatmough was greeted by Janša on Twitter as “the new broom” that will clean the “fallacious reporting” by RTV Slovenia. People holding senior positions were replaced and RTV Slovenia’s staff soon started reporting censorship, while the first interview with the Prime Minister Janša was entrusted to the journalist Jože Možina who is known to be fond of him.

However, regardless of who will be the next leader and what kind of media legislation will be in place, the reputation and trust in the media and journalists can only be restored or consolidated (after at least a decade of low public trust) with professional reporting and presenting of verified facts.

“If people see that social irregularities that have been uncovered by journalists are factual information, this will be proof of credible reporting. This can provide new leverage to rebuild public trust,” Petra Lesjak Tušek, President of the Slovenian Association of Journalists (DNS), commented.

Professional and responsible work is proof that journalists are not promoting hidden agendas, something of which they are often accused. Tjaša Slokar Kos, Editor-in-Chief, Director of News and Sport Department at POP TV, emphasises that the readers’ and viewers’ belief that the media will not withhold information from them is crucial: “We have to struggle with the facts and be very cautious every day not to slip up. I am convinced that most people who work in journalism have good intentions and believe their reporting is fair and true to fact.”

With this goal in mind, the national broadcaster and POP TV, the biggest competitors for viewers’ attention, for the first time in history created a show together at the beginning of November to convince people how important the fight against coronavirus was. They invited different speakers to the studio – only those who enjoy the widest public trust and not even one from the political world. The two media outlets that have been regularly criticised by the powers that be, took action to communicate to the public that it was possible to overcome divisions and to cooperate for the good of all citizens.

A few days after the show which received record-high ratings – on average 54 percent of viewers watched the show every minute – the Minister of the Interior Aleš Hojs said on Twitter: “The fact is that we could have dealt with the epidemic much more easily without the journalistic ‘presstitution’ of POP TV and RTV Slovenia and without the Constitutional Court’s deliberate attempts to overthrow the government.”

Polling analyst Zorko believes that in some ways, Janša’s ‘war on the media’ has actually strengthened public trust in the press, bearing in mind that the ruling party is still spurned by an extremely high proportion of voters (more than 50 percent would absolutely never vote for it) and that the strongest anti-media rhetoric only thrives in a small circle of the party’s followers. The best proof of the positive role of the media during the epidemic is, according to Zorko, the trust of the general public in the media in general and in journalists, which visibly grew during the first wave, particularly trust in RTV Slovenia which was the most fiercely attacked by the government.

But the authority’s modus operandi and attitude towards the media could have long-term repercussions for the Slovenian media industry, regardless of what the next government looks like. The long-standing journalist and editor Tjaša Kos Slokar points to a pattern that has emerged lately. Namely, if someone – following the example of Donald Trump – screams for a very long time that something is fake news, people will stop believing in anything. Even the truth.

This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe in collaboration with leading independent media in the region. Any viewpoints expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent the views of IPI. Read more.