The new government of Slovenia’s conservative Prime Minister Janez Janša has so far kept the coronavirus under control — but critics fear he will exploit the crisis to bring to heel the media he brands “presstitution”.
Janša, 61, just over a month into office, has a political career stretching back to the 1990s including two previous terms as prime minister.
He has taken to Twitter this time with an abrasive style drawing comparison with US President Donald Trump — not least in how he reacts to media scrutiny.
When the RTVSLO public television station reported on a pay rise for ministers last month, Janša told the broadcaster to “stop spreading lies”.
“We pay you in these times to inform, not to mislead the public,” he blasted, “there are too many of you and you’re too well paid.”
The Journalists’ Association condemned “a threat to all RTVSLO employees that they could lose their jobs… if they do not report in accordance with the government’s interests.”
Delo, one of Slovenia’s highest-circulation newspapers, came in for similar treatment when it criticised Janša’s conduct in a spat with the Slovenian president of UEFA, Aleksander Ceferin.
Janša fired off a tweet accusing Delo of serving “deep-state tycoons”, adding the hashtags “fake news” and “presstitution”.
International organisations such as the OSCE have expressed concern at the attacks on journalists but the government has given critics short shrift.
It insists most mainstream media is part of “the legacy of the totalitarian (communist) past” and that Janša is entitled to “call attention to irregularities and abuses when taxpayers’ money is at stake” at the public broadcaster.
And one commentator in the normally left-leaning Mladina weekly said that while Janša’s style was rude, his detractors were not “neutered in such a way that they stop scrutinising his government”.
Nevertheless, this week saw further cause for alarm when three of four government-appointed representatives on the public broadcaster’s supervisory board were replaced early with candidates seen as aligned to Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS).
“It is a clear message… that people can be replaced prematurely without any explanation,” says Marko Milosavljevic from Ljubljana University, a prominent expert on Slovenia’s media landscape.
Primoz Cirman, founder of the Necenzurirano (Uncensored) investigative news site, believes government is helping create a hostile atmosphere towards journalists.
In February, Necenzurirano revealed that three Hungarian companies linked to the Fidesz party of Prime Minster Viktor Orbán had invested 1.5 million euros (1.6m dollars) in a television station founded by Janša and other SDS members.
Janša has been a prominent Orbán ally and deploys similarly strident anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Cirman told AFP about the backlash to Necenzurirano’s reporting, including from pro-government media: “You find yourself under pressure that is also linked to public threats… a tendency to silence any critical voice.”
Cirman says smear campaigns encouraged — knowingly or not — by the government are “pushing journalists to self-censor”.
‘Friends in the region’
As the fight against coronavirus drags on, some think Janša has spied an opportunity to re-orient Slovenia towards the politics of Orbán.
Elsewhere in the EU, Orbán’s actions have sparked concern for the rule of law, including in the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping that Fidesz and the SDS both belong to.
But Janša has taken Orbán’s side and adopted a markedly Eurosceptic tone.
When EPP President Donald Tusk issued veiled criticism of Hungary’s state of emergency, Janša sarcastically tweeted that Tusk should send ventilators and protective equipment.
In a televised speech this month Janša bemoaned the lack of EU solidarity during the pandemic, saying that “we have to rely most of all on our friends in the region”, taken to mean Hungary and other eastern European states.
Vlado Miheljak from Ljubljana University’s sociology department says Janša may well be aiming to use the crisis to emulate Orbán’s centralisation of power.
But, with SDS attracting under 25% of votes at the last election and dependent on more centrist parties in the coalition, Janša has to bear in mind he doesn’t enjoy Orbán’s levels of public support, says Miheljak.