Brussels on Thursday (18 February) condemned Slovenia’s prime minister for online personal attacks against journalists reporting on the deterioration of rule of law in his country, which will take on the rotating EU presidency in July.
“We are not accepting the harmful words directed at journalists, and we do condemn them,” commission spokesman Eric Mamer told a media conference a day after tweets made by Prime Minister Janez Janša.
Janša, a right-wing politician (EPP-affiliated) and proud fan of former US president Donald Trump, initially accused a reporter for the news website Politico of bias in a story on his “campaign” against media, including Slovenia’s state news agency, that do not adhere to his government’s messaging.
Janša then issued tweets attacking journalists who defended the Politico story, including a journalist for the New York Times as well as analysts who piped up.
Mamer said the European Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, were very clear: “We condemn any insults or attacks on journalists, we would not dream of doing it here in Brussels, and we certainly do not expect others to indulge in those sorts of practices.”
However, he said the commission could not formally reprimand Janša over “a tweet”.
“We cannot open an infringement procedure based on one personal insult or comment,” he said.
The incident is nonetheless embarrassing for the commission.
Slovenia is to take over the rotating EU presidency for six months from July — giving it the power to set the agenda of the bloc.
Also on Thursday Janša rejected any allegations that his government posed a threat to press freedom, saying in a tweet that it would “gladly welcome… any delegation from any institution that would like to prove that the main media are under government control”.
Earlier he retweeted another post repeating the attacks on Politico’s reporting, calling it a “lie”.
In other posts he appeared to try to cast doubt on the fact that the commission had addressed the controversy directly at all.
The row feeds growing discomfort over the undermining of democratic norms in eastern member states, including Hungary and Poland, where the independence of judges and media are under threat.
The commission has issued “infringement notices” over those breaches, and the European Court of Justice has upheld several complaints. But they have done little to change the political direction of the governments concerned.
Mamer said the commission had other tools at its disposal “to ensure that media freedom is guaranteed everywhere in the EU” including through reports monitoring media conditions and EU funding for journalists.