New NGO law welcomed as challenges to civic space remain

Association

On 23rd March 2018, Slovenia's parliament passed the Law on Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) which, according to the Centre for Information Service, Co-operation and Development of NGOs (CNVOS), could greatly benefit the sector. Specifically, the new law:

  • defines the term “NGO”;
  • allows for all types of NGOs to enjoy “public benefit” status;
  • describes the roles and responsibilities of different public actors responsible for providing an enabling environment for NGOs; and
  • proposes a public fund for the development of NGOs by allocating some tax revenue to civil society organisations and activities. The fund will be managed by the Ministry of Public Administration, and each year between four and five million Euro will be distributed.

The law also makes it incumbent on the government to develop strategies for the development of the nongovernmental sector in Slovenia. Currently, freedom of association is ensured by law and the government has made an effort to expand the space for cooperation with civil society, with varying degrees of success and depending on the ministry and the policy area in question. 

For example, NGOs working in the field of international development report a new openness from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create an enabling environment and include NGOs in consultations. On the contrary, however, environmental NGOs still experience resistance to their involvement in decision-making and access to public funds. This reluctance is partly connected with the lower level of importance given by the current government and society at large to environmental issues.

Challenges for environmental and cultural groups

NGOs working on environmental issues in Slovenia have for many years faced complications due to their dependency on public funds and the lack of private funding for their work. Aside from the fact that the dependency on public funds leads to fears that funding could be stopped in cases where there is a clash with the government, this situation also makes these organisations vulnerable to attacks by right-wing parties or smear campaigns on social media, as the CIVICUS Monitor has already reported. Recently, on 17th February the NGO sector came under attack when the leader of the opposition party Janez Janša stated that NGOs are financed from the public budget, European funds and the Soros Foundation, and "they are planning to attack and try to destroy the nation, family, private property and private education".

Meanwhile, NGOs in the field of culture and the arts have recently been affected by an attempt to pass restrictive legislation. In February and March 2018, the ministry of culture tried to pass an amendment to the Law on the Realization of the Public Interest in Culture (ZUJIK) and the National Strategy for Culture 2018-2025, which would have classified professional NGOs as hobby-based organisations and introduced several mechanisms that would financially weaken NGOs. The proposal was made to the legislature in a "quick, non-transparent and undemocratic way". NGOs, unions, and self-employed artists came together to try to stop this proposal. They also received more than 200 letters of support from organisations all over the world.

These measures are being proposed in tandem with budget cuts for the sector. In January 2018, cultural NGOs reported a decrease in the programmes selected for co-financing by the public budget for culture. The decision was perceived as lacking in transparency, as the arguments in support of rejections were vague and the Ministry did not explain how much funds were allocated. NGOs in the field mainly lamented the lack of dialogue with the Ministry. In fact, civil society had provided several recommendations to improve the call and selection of programmes which were not taken into account. Asociacija, a network of associations and freelancers in the field of arts and culture, wrote that: 

"Perhaps the cuts do not appear significant in a holistic perspective, but since they structurally magnify other problematic measures, the failure to develop the non-governmental cultural sector and cultural policy, we can conclude that this is not just the closure of a call for one organization. Instead, this is yet another attack on the entire sector. In four years, we have already put forward several proposals. It is now up to the ministry to explain how the situation will be corrected".

Artist Vinko Möderndorfer said that these measures were part of an attempt to censor critical artists. His remark also addressed the attacks against artists engaging in social criticism, such as Maja Smrekar and Simona Semenič.

Expression

According to the Society of Journalists of Slovenia, media ownership by political parties, high-level public figures, and state-controlled companies is becoming increasingly problematic. While recent years saw some improvements in transparency - with news outlets openly stating their affiliation - there has been a growth in politically-partisan and commercially-influenced newspapers and online news platforms and televisions stations.

In an article exposing the links between Slovene tycoons and media, investigative Journalist Blaž Zgaga wrote that:

"The transition from a former socialist republic to a parliamentary democracy brought some successes and failures where the media ownership structure seems to remain one of the major blunders, as media owners openly or covertly control editorial policies".

These media serve as public relations agencies for financial groups and parties and often discredit or attack critical journalists, a phenomenon that has led to an increase in hate speech and harassment of journalists on social media on an almost daily basis.

One example is the online news channel nova24.si, which is connected to the Slovenian Democratic Party, a right-wing opposition party led by former Prime Minister Janez Jansa. In April 2017, three Hungarian media groups close to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán bought 45 percent of the channel’s shares. Igor Vobič from the Department of Journalism at the Ljubljana Faculty of Social Sciences commented on the situation, stating that:

"The weekly tabloid Škandal24 together with the television Nova24TV with their open party ownership and the unclear composition of the editorial office represent a new stage in the subordination of journalism as an activity of public responsibility, after the fall of political press. In the long run, this new Slovene media normality will lead to the erosion of the credibility of the media and professional journalism, and through the flows of social networks, deepens the confusion in modern communication, which is importantly defined by the permeable dividing line between the truth and the lie". (Translated from Slovenian)

While the TV channel has a limited reach, the online news platform nova24.si is very active and engages in daily, personal attacks against journalists. For example, on 13th March Nova24 published an article about journalist Nina Ambrož who covered the controversy around the Canadian car-painting plant's move to Maribor. Nova24 called the journalist a "concealed lobbyist" and alluded to a close relationship she allegedly has with the Minister of Economic Development and Technology Zdravko Počivalšek. These comments were made in order to discredit her assertions that Maribor’s mayor had put pressure on the local media around the issue of the car-painting plant.

Political interference in the media is also visible at the local level in Slovenia. Online portal ekoper.si is owned by Multimedijski Center Vizija, a company which is fully owned by the Municipality of Koper, a city in the southwest of the country. The platform regularly attacks critical TV journalist Eugenija Carl and the regional newspaper Primorske Novice. On 16th March, the Ljubljana District Court ordered the municipality's mayor to pay 3,500 EUR to Carl after she filed a complaint in December about comments the mayor had made about her physical appearance.

In the northern city of Maribor, TV station RTS now has an online portal rts24.si and a free newspaper RTS24. These platforms are aimed at portraying a positive image of of Maribor's mayor Dr. Andrej Fištravec by attacking media outlets and journalists who are critical of the mayor.