Government uses the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to curtail civic freedoms
At the end of January 2020, prime minister Marjan Šarec resigned. Following this, on 13th March 2020, a new right-wing coalition government was constituted, with Janez Janša being appointed as the new PM. Janša has been the leader of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) since 1993. He is known for his anti-migration and climate skepticism rhetoric and for being one of the biggest allies of Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. As previously reported on the Monitor, in recent years the SDS party also established a media network with the economic support of entities close to Orban which has been used to target critical journalists and civic actors.
In its first week the government took many decisions regarding COVID-19. For example, while a crisis group was established to deal with the situation, the National institute for Public Health (NIJZ), the most important public health research institution, was left out. Instead, the group was led by a doctor who is an SDS sympathiser. The director of NIJZ was also replaced.
Militarisation of measures
Ever since its establishment, the government has tried to pass many measures which affect basic human rights under the pretence of COVID-19.
The Intervention Measures Act was introduced to provide support measures for different spheres in Slovenia, such as companies, CSOs, the self-employed, employees, etc. However, the law also contained two articles, 103 and 104, intended to broaden police powers and surveillance. Article 103 extends the police’s powers under the pandemic to the extent of Slovenia becoming a ‘police state’. Article 104 made provision for the surveillance of citizens through their mobile phones without a court order.
The Information commissioner, Ombudsman, many CSOs and experts were strongly against this.
The information commissioner stated:
“We understand the necessity of measures in the emerging emergency situation of the epidemic, but at the same time it must not become an excuse for the abolition of the Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia and the fundamental rights it stipulates.”
However, both articles were “watered down” (e.g. police will now not be able to enter an apartment without justified cause). In addition, the Minister of Interior attempted to activate the extraordinary powers of the army through Article 37a of the Defence Act, which is regarded as extremely problematic. However, parliament rejected this possibility.
To sum up, during the reporting period there was an overarching tendency for the government to increase the police’s and military’s power, while watering down the contributions of health, research and expert institutions. Fortunately, opposition parties, civil society and public institutions such as the Information Commissioner and Ombudsman were successful in ensuring that many of the suggested measures were not passed.
State funding for NGOs cut, but some economic relief for CSOs
As reported previously on the Monitor, the SDS has been critical of state funding to NGOs and Prime Minister Janša had previously pledged to cut state support. At the beginning of the pandemic, 15 NGOs were notified by the Government Communication Office that the contracts for public grants for 2020 projects, which had been signed during the previous government's tenure, had been terminated. These projects included dealing with civic education, media literacy, tackling disinformation and raising awareness about the situation of vulnerable groups, including refugees, migrant workers and victims of human-trafficking. According to the government the funding would be redirected to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
In addition, representatives of the sector from the national platform CNVOS were not involved in the first stage of the consultations around the measures to tackle COVID-19. The first Intervention Law to tackle the pandemic was passed by parliament in late March 2020 and did not include support measures for CSOs under economic pressure. On the contrary, after strong advocacy actions, in early April 2020, the so- called “Mega Corona” law was passed. In a welcomed move, the law does not differentiate between legal entities in terms of support to employers, thus NGOs are entitled to the same measures of assistance as all other employers.
Environmental NGOs under threat
In late April 2020, the government included in the Act Amending the Act on Intervention Measures to Contain the COVID-19 Epidemic and Mitigating its Consequences for Citizens and the Economy an article which changes the criteria which allows environmental NGOs to have access to the environmental impact assessments of constructions. The criteria are considered retroactive, meaning that only NGOs which have met them in the previous two years will be able to participate and will be eligible until the end of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the network Justice and Environment, only 16% of the organisations currently able to access this process meet the criteria. The Anti-Coronavirus Law proposed on 20th May 2020 containing provisions to ease the restrictions includes an article extending these criteria until the end of 2021. On 12th May 2020, the government also introduced an amendment to extend these criteria to nature conservation NGOs.
The government argues that there is a need to speed up the country’s economic development, as small environmental organisations were previously slowing down important construction. Smear campaigns and vilification of environmental NGOs doing so have previously been reported by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Several NGOs signed a statement declaring:
“The government has opened the door widely to investors whose construction projects are endangering the environment and nature by amending the anti-COVID law....The government has approached the exclusion of NGOs imaginatively: it did not take away the right to participate in proceedings altogether, but it sets such a high threshold of conditions for participation that almost no organisation will be able to reach them... Over the next two years, all construction projects will be able to be implemented without proper public scrutiny of the legality and environmental suitability of the projects!”
Worrying news from our member organisation PIC in #Slovenia ‼️ In the shadow of the #coronavirus #COVID19, the new Slovenian government is taking rights from environmental and nature conservation NGOs.— Justice&Environment (@JustEnviNet) May 19, 2020
Read more 👉 https://t.co/nT64UT1iAK pic.twitter.com/8NuA6xjf7i
For weeks, thousands of cycling protesters have met in major Slovenian cities every Friday to condemn the government’s use of the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict fundamental freedoms and have called for PM Janša’s resignation. They blew whistles and honked horns throughout the city. These protests were sparked by an investigation by the national TV broadcaster revealing that government officials favoured some companies for the purchase of face masks and ventilators, which cost the country millions of Euros.
Thousands of cyclists take part in anti-govt protest in #Ljubljana #Slovenia pic.twitter.com/8uIWai8Vo7— Ruptly (@Ruptly) May 2, 2020
Freedom of expression has also been under threat during the pandemic. For example, under the pretence of public health safety, the government’s press conferences were closed to the press. Only online streaming was permitted without the possibility of posing direct questions to the government. The Slovenian Journalists’ Association condemned this decision and many CSOs echoed the concern.
“The Slovenian Journalists' Association strongly protests against the announced change in the way of communicating with the media, which does not allow media representatives to be present at government statements to the public. We estimate that, despite the seriousness of the current situation, this is a disproportionate and restrictive measure.”
There were also some spontaneous on-line protests with the hashtags #UPORZOKNA, #VLADOZLOM.
As the public began to react to the attacks on the press, the government took a step back. A compromise was reached on the form of press conferences, together with the Association of Journalists.
In addition, attacks against critical journalists continue to increase. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF):
“The Slovenian government wages hate campaigns against critical journalists, while attempting to tighten the control over public television. Given the threats, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) asks for guarantees of the safety of journalists and of independence of the public broadcaster.”
RSF also reported that on 16th April 2020, the government replaced three members of the public broadcaster RTV Oversight Board although their terms had not yet expired. It furthermore attempted to replace two more members but was stopped by a parliamentary committee, which deemed the move illegal. In addition, the ruling party has also reshuffled the RTV Programme Council, which is responsible for editorial strategy and the selection of the director-general.
“It’s time for Janez Janša to stop behaving like the Trump of Central Europe and start embodying European values, especially as Slovenia prepares to take over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2021. Instead of stoking hatred and trying to control the public media, the government should guarantee journalists’ physical safety and RTV’s independence,”- Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans Desk.
Critical journalists have also been harassed on social media and through SDS Party channels, as documented by RSF.
- Blaž Zgaga, an investigative reporter and RSF’s correspondent in Slovenia, who has investigated alleged corruption cases involving Janša, has been subjected to harassment and death threats on social media and by Demokracija weekly and Nova24 TV – media controlled by the SDS.At the end of March 2020, the Slovenian government dismissed the Council of Europe’s warning about the harassment of Zgaga. The government stated that it “rejects and condemns the case of alleged harassment" of the journalist.
- Der Spiegel reporter Rafael Buschmann, who defended Zgaga, was also targeted by a smear campaign. Nemanja Rujević, a member of the Serbian bureau of Deutsche Welle, was also targeted.
Of course, Mr #antifa boy. As you said. 😀 We know you. https://t.co/URT7Pz2Bod— Janez Janša (@JJansaSDS) April 10, 2020
Far-right PM of #Slovenia #corrupt @JJansaSDS is co-owner with his official name Ivan Janša. Secretary general of new govt @BozoPredalic, to whom I sent #FOIA request, is co-owner too.— Blaž Zgaga (@blaz_zgaga) March 18, 2020
Despite @aleshojs became Minister of Interior on March 13, he is still listed as director. 2/5
In an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Zgaga spoke out about the threats he faces:
“In online attacks, we are called traitors and enemies of the nation. We receive daily threats on social media. A recent one, for example, came from a doctor who said that once I get the virus I will not get treated properly. There have been already three cases when TV crews from the public broadcaster were attacked because of their journalistic work.”
A letter on behalf of seven organisations including RSF and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) was sent to the European Commission’s Vice President, Věra Jourová and EC commissioner Didier Reynders, calling on the European Commission to put pressure on the Slovenian government to protect journalists like Zgaga.
Civic Space Developments