The constant, calculated, and systematic attacks on the fourth estate of democracy, media, leave it wobbling and weak. All around the world, there are plenty of examples of authoritarian leaders, such as Lukashenko or Erdogan, seizing control of the media market and making it a pro-government propaganda machine. Even in the past decade, EU members Hungary and Poland became famous as “illiberal democracies” in the public debate due to their manipulative tactics of pushing independent media out of the market. For example, in 2019, the Green party of Germany estimated that 80% of Hungary’s media market is financed by close ties to Fidesz, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s political party. The EU was deeply concerned about this trend, yet did not manage to act accordingly to the severity and urgency of the issue. Consequently, such media-manipulating tactics did not stay within the Hungarian border but spilled over into Slovenia: a country that mostly was deemed as a safe haven for media and freedom of expression. So, what happened?

Populism strikes again

Slovenia is famously known for the 1991 ten-day war against Yugoslavia and has since had a decently successful route in terms of recovering from its past injuries. Compared to other Eastern European countries and their Yugoslavian counterparts, Slovenia transitioned from a state economy to a market one in an easier and more stable fashion after regaining independence in 1991. In fact, this successful transition was illustrated by the fact that Slovenia was the first Yugoslav republic to join the European Union in 2004. To further highlight the sheer amount of success Slovenia had with its transition, let’s break it down in numbers: Slovenia’s GDP per capita rose from less than half of Western Europe to 87% of the EU average in 2009. Despite its deep-rooted potential, however, the country was sent to a deep economic crisis after 2009. Culminating in 2011, alongside the global financial crisis, Slovenia offered cheap credit, which resulted in widespread bankruptcies as money was used for ownership consolidation and not technological upgrades. Fiscal austerity and lack of exports also contributed to this decline. After 2014, the economy started recovering, yet the 2015 EU migrant crisis contributed to the rise of populism and in 2018, the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), a right wing nationalist group, won the majority in the elections of 2018. To make things worse, in January 2020, Prime Minister Marjan Sarec of the party “List of Marjan Sarec” resigned while leading a minority government, which led the famous former Prime Minister Janez Jansa of SDS to take the seat once again. 

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Source: Sophie in ‘t Veld

Jansa has had a long political career marked by various characteristics. He has already been prime minister twice, from 2004-2008 and 2012-2013. The latter term had ended on short notice, as he was sentenced to two years in prison on corruption charges. Just like most right-wing populists, Jansa has a strong anti-immigration agenda and loves to throw out the term “fake news” whenever claims in the media does not match his political views. Sounds similar to a certain individual, right? Funnily enough, Jansa is a huge Trump supporter and a deep believer that the 2020 US elections were stolen, and even tweeted that “It’s pretty clear that American people have elected @realDonaldTrump @Mike_Pence for #4moreyears.” He is an avid Twitter user, gaining the nickname “Marshall Tweeto”, and on the platform he has spent a lot of time focusing on attacking opposing news media outlets. However, this is only a tip of the iceberg of the media attacking strategies that the Slovenian Prime Minister has been using.

The spill over from Hungary

Jansa and Orban became great political partners in 2015, just as the migrant crisis was culminating in Europe. In the same year, SDS alongside Jansa created the media outlet called Nova24TV. The resulting spillover was clear between the years 2016-2018. Hungarian investors, Modern Media Group (MMG), Ridikul Magazin, and Ripost, which later were found out to have relations with Orban’s regime, invested 4.3 million euros into the anti-globalist propaganda outlets. This greatly contributed to the expansion of the SDS propaganda machine and now the party has links to over 20 local online news outlets to spread their agenda even further.

Jansa’s most worrying actions in terms of media came in the period of 2020-2021. Firstly, in February 2021, Jansa suspended funding to the state-funded National News Agency (STA). While the government’s communication office revealed that funding was stopped as the two parties had not signed a contract yet, Blaz Zgaga, an influential Slovenian journalist, noted that this suspension was “the most blatant example of the goals and strategies of [Prime Minister] to get all the media under control.” He further emphasized that it would be a severe blow to Slovenia’s democracy if such a far-reaching agency would come under political influence. Zgaga himself had suffered from political online attacks when he actively voiced criticism towards the government in 2020 in terms of their Covid-19 policy. He noted that he lived in a double lockdown, as a result of both the coronavirus and the death threats he received. For a while, Zgaga would only leave his apartment at night due to the intimidation he felt from the Slovenian ruling government party and its counterparts. Besides, and quite intriguingly, Jansa has found a way to impact privately owned media as well. In 2020, he suspended the sale of newspapers in small shops and kiosks with the declared aim of combatting the coronavirus, which had a direct impact on the revenues of newspaper producing companies. Overall, these political pressures are very similar to the ones seen across the border in Hungary, where “media capture” techniques have been used for a decade, which leaves a worrying note for the future of not only Slovenia but also the EU at large.

What are the future possibilities? 

Fortunately, the EU’s pressures towards Slovenia to restore funding seem to be working for now as the Slovenian government signed the agreement to fund the STA again just last month. However, many questions still exist about the news agency’s independence and future governance. While Jansa failed to completely take over the most important media body in Slovenia, he has significantly weakened them and their freedom. STA issued a press release noting that “a number of excellent staff have left us, the agony has compromised the quality of the agency’s service to the public, halted a number of development projects and, last but not least, has left us psychologically exhausted.”

The EU is not toothless in terms of possibilities when it comes to combating media-related abuses. It has the capacity to monitor the situation closely and report when any breaches of the law are made. When such a breach of law arises, the EU is able to call for infringement procedures, which could put immense pressure on the governments to respond. The most extreme enforcement measure available is the so-called “Rule of law mechanism”, which entails that the access to the EU budget can be suspended until further notice if the government in question does not adhere to EU values. These are possible preventive measures, all of which could halt the process of failing democracies, such as Slovenia and Hungary.

Whilst Freedom House has rated Slovenia as a “free” country and Reporters Without Borders ranked Slovenia’s media freedom 36th out of 180 countries, the country nevertheless attempts to deteriorate the free press to this day. If actions and urgency are not evaluated properly, another illiberal EU democracy could emerge alongside the likes of Poland and Hungary.