Journalists in Slovenia have been subjected to an unprecedented wave of insults and online smear campaigns for months now, and the COVID-19 outbreak has just opened a new flank.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, on March 13, 2020 a new government was formed by a coalition of parties and led by Prime Minister Janez Janša, leader of the nationalist Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) a close ally of the populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Órban.
In a February 12 statement, the Slovene Association of Journalists (DNS) raised the alarm about the increasing number of online attacks against reporters by Janša supporters and media close to SDS in the weeks before the political parties agreed to the coalition. The attacks ranged from insults and threats of violence on social media to articles on propaganda sites discrediting the work of critical journalists.
“The abusive atmosphere hasn’t improved in the last few weeks although we expected that now when journalists are crucial for informing the public, the attacks would have subsided”, Špela Stare, DNS general secretary, told the International Press Institute (IPI). “Now the virus is the excuse for attacks on journalists. They are sending the message that you shouldn’t be critical, or you shouldn’t ask questions because we are in the middle of the crisis.”
On his own official Twitter account, PM Janez Janša targeted journalists on the Slovenian Public Broadcaster covering the recent salary rise for the government’s top officials and aides.
[Don’t spread lies, @InfoTVSLO we pay you to inform, not to mislead the public during these times. Obviously there are too many of you and you are paid too well. @RTV_Slovenia]
— Janez Janša (@JJansaSDS) March 20, 2020
More recently, on March 15, journalist Blaz Zgaga said in an email to IPI that he was the target of a smear article on a news weekly close to the current government over an information request he filed on the structure of the recently dismantled “Crisis Headquarters of the Republic of Slovenia”, originally established to tackle the coronavirus health crisis. The article implied that Zgaga intended to hamper government efforts to combat the outbreak.
The sharp increase in online abuse towards journalists began in late January 2020 when the former government resigned,triggering a political crisis.
“The harassment on Twitter against journalists has been over the limit, especially in the last month”, Stare said.
Most journalists are afraid to speak up. One prominent Slovenian journalist who spoke to IPI did so on condition of anonymity. “All the journalists who spoke publicly about this are targeted more and more. The discussion is not about the problem, it is about the person [journalist], that is why I want to keep my anonymity”.
The journalist explained how, as a result of the attacks, safety has become a real concern: “I felt physically threatened because these tweets, ultimately, form public opinion and can trigger an unstable person. You don’t know what can happen.”
However, the online abuse doesn’t just hurt journalists personally; it also damages their professional work. “It is dangerous because you cannot do your job properly. You try to, but you are under the pressure of this systematic assassination of your professional persona”, the journalist said.
“This is affecting all of us. You are constantly aware that something bad could happen when you ask a question to senior politicians and that [the question] will be immediately scrutinized two minutes after you’ve asked it. That makes you limit yourself subconsciously, even if you don’t want to”, the journalist concluded.
The Hungarian connection
Some of the online harassment on social media against journalists finds its origin in smear articles published and disseminated by media outlets aligned with SDS, as Špela Stare explained to IPI.
A report by the investigative journalism outlet podcrto.si – which summarised a year-long investigation by several Slovene journalists – has revealed that many of news outlets, in turn, are also financed by Hungarian media closely linked to Viktor Órban’s FIDESZ party, which has progressively dismantled media freedom in Hungary over the past 10 years and is now eyeing changes that would allow journalists and others to be jailed for publishing “false information”.
According to the report, the SDS has been attempting to construct a media system for over 20 years and “in 2015, Janez Janša announced that soon there would be a new media group in Slovenia”, Lenart J. Kučić, author of the report, told IPI.
In the summer of 2015, Nova24TV was launched as a TV station, a radio and a news website. The company was initially founded by 70 stakeholders. including 14 of the 21 SDS members of parliament at the time.
“The initial founders only raised around 100,000 euros. The owners tried to raise more money through an IPO (stock exchange launch). They expected to raise three million euros but only achieved around one million. According to my sources, they greatly underestimated the cost of running a TV station. They needed more money and started looking for new investors abroad,” Kučić explained.
“What we could basically prove through official documents is that in 2016 and 2017 three Hungarian media companies [Ridikül, Modern Media Group and Ripost] invested between two and two-and-a-half million euros in the media network connected to SDS”, Kučić said.
All three are closely linked to FIDESZ. Modern Media Group and Ripost, for instance, now belong to KESMA, a foundation created in 2018 to pool pro-government media outlets in Hungary. The foundation is under effective control of FIDESZ.
IPI will remain vigilant
“IPI is deeply concerned about what appears to be an increasingly toxic environment for journalists in Slovenia”, IPI Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes Oliver Money-Kyrle said. “Given the current health emergency, it is crucial that journalists are able to work without fear to guarantee the free flow of information to the public”.
“IPI calls on the Slovenian government to ensure the safety, both online and offline, of journalists and to safeguard the public’s right to access independent information. IPI will be systematically monitoring attacks on press freedom and any other restrictions to journalists’ work in this exceptional time”, Money-Kyrle added.