On our watchlist: A rapid decline in civic freedoms as government restricts fundamental rights

On our watchlist: A rapid decline in civic freedoms as government restricts fundamental rights
A placard reading "Enough JJ! We are coming for you" at an anti-government protest (REUTERS/Borut Zivulovic/Gallo Images).


Janša's right-wing government continues its crackdown on media freedom and targeting of CSOs. Those that speak out about violations of freedoms, rights and a lack of social dialogue are targeted in retaliation. The crumbling democracy and current state of civic space in the country sets a dangerous precedent for the European continent, as Slovenia prepares to assume the presidency of the EU in July. Due to the rapid decline in civic space, Slovenia is now on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist.


Slovenian Press Agency: over 160 days without funds

The Slovenian Press Agency (STA) continues to face significant threat from Janša's government, which has blocked funding to the agency for over 160 days. As reported previously on the Monitor, government cut the agency’s fund in November 2020. Media monitoring organisations believe that this is an attempt to exert political and economic pressure on the STA. These funding cuts are coupled with regular public attacks of journalists and STA staff, most recently on 6th May 2021 accusing the STA director, Bojan Veselinovič, of collaborating in the “murder” of a journalist. The allegation refers to the death of Borut Meško, editor-in-chief of the STA in the late 2000s. Prime Minister Janša tweeted: Amazing for EU in the 21st century that a collaborator in the murder of a journalist is still leading the STA and therefore pays €8,500 per month. More than the president of the republic.”Veselinovič announced that he would be taking legal action against the prime minister.

These attacks and threats come despite efforts by CSOs to raise the alarm on the deteriorating situation of media freedom in Slovenia and pressure from EU institutions to restore funding to the public media agency. Petra Lesjak Tušek, president of the Slovenian Association of Journalists, said:

“Despite being starved of resources by the government, the colleagues at the STA remain strongly committed to professional work, even as their position grows more precarious every day. Journalists who have built their credibility with the help of STA content, essential as it is to our work and the public’s right to be informed, retain a strong commitment as well.”
“We will not abandon our commitment to unearthing facts and putting them into context, something that the Government appears not to be willing to stand. We are convinced that critical readers, viewers and listeners also remain committed to the expectation that critical journalists will survive in a democratic country, that media freedom will not be curtailed, and that attacks on journalists will not be acceptable in public discourse.”

In the latest move to control the STA, on 10th June 2021, the government adopted a regulation that prescribes how the STA should perform its public services, defining the scope of public service and its financing. The regulation includes the introduction of an obligatory annual service agreement and tighter financial and accounting controls, including on STA Executive bodies. The new regulation appears to exert greater control over STA under the guise of resolving the funding block. Remarkably, STA has been able to continue its work during the last few months thanks to a crowdsourcing campaign supported by citizens who have mobilised against government measures.

No hesitation to retaliate, Janša continues attacks on Twitter

PM Janša has been quick to retaliate and disregard criticism of his administration’s crackdown on media freedom and freedom of expression, while making stigmatising and misleading comments about the work of civil society and vocal critics. More recently, the Prime Minister attacked the Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe. In one of his latest tweets, he publicly accused and attacked Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, following the publication of a memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Slovenia. In the memo the commissioner states:

“Members of the government must refrain from making stigmatising and misleading comments about the work of civil society, and should publicly condemn such discourse by others”.

In his tweet, Janša directly accused Mijatović of being “part of a #fakenews network”, following suit from the Ministry of Culture who labelled the report as “biased and ill-informed”.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and other press freedom bodies condemned the PMs attack. In a statement it said:

“We consider the tone and manner in which Prime Minister Janša opted to voice his disagreement with Commissioner Mijatović’s memorandum to be wholly inappropriate for a leader of a democratic European state. The irony of these remarks about a report that expresses concern precisely about the behaviour of public figures, including the Prime Minister, on social media, where they undermine journalists’ credibility, accusing them of lying, and using offensive hashtags such as #fakenews,” is palpable.”

Major funding cuts to publications

In a concerning development, on 15th May 2021, the Culture Ministry left several radio stations and national newspapers without funding, after failing to approve them for the annual state financial support scheme. Among those left out are media considered to be critical of the government: the largest dailies in Slovenia, Delo, Dnevnik, Večer; the weekly Mladina and five radio stations that enjoy special status under the law. The daily publications reported that their applications had been rejected due to “biased” media coverage and failure to adequately focus on local issues. The 2,6-million-euro funding is part of an annual open call by the Ministry of Culture, which uses different criteria to assess how much funding media should receive. One of the criteria ranks media outlets on a scale of one to ten for what the Ministry deems politically balanced news coverage. Delo received two points, while Dnevnik received zero. The decision was made by a new five-member commission, of which four members were reported to be linked to the ruling SDS party. Critics believe that this is yet another attempt to drain resources away from mainstream and critical media.

Vocal critic of Janša's government targeted

On 30th November 2020, a vocal critic of Janša's government, musician Zlatan Čordić, was deleted from the register of self-employed cultural workers by the Ministry of Culture. In the notification issued by the Ministry, the singer was accused of devoting too much time to activities that were not related to demonstrating his ability to perform cultural activity. However, in a positive development, upon the singer's legal appeal to the Administrative Court, it was recognised that the removal of his status was completely against the law. During the last year, Čordić has been a visible protester against the government’s measures. In response to the revoking of his legal status, he commented:

"If they want to take away my status because I use my democracy and I want to be an active citizen who does not solve problems at home on the couch, I am proud and tell you that I do not regret my activism in the slightest".

Čordić’s case is not yet over however, as it has been returned to the Ministry of Culture for a revised decision.


Trade union federations walk out of Economic and Social Council

On 13th May 2021, trade union confederations made the decision to leave the Economic and Social Council, which serves as the country’s main industrial relations forum. The unions stated they had left due to the "government's systematic violation of rules on the functioning of the ESS". They are protesting a lack of social dialogue and negotiation on major reforms that negatively impact workers. The unions report that they have been raising issues about the absence of social dialogue and the government’s disparaging attitude toward social dialogue and social partners for over a year now. They also report that the government is failing to consult on the national recovery plans despite the EU’s call to do so.

This ongoing structural disempowerment not only means that the Economic and Social Council loses its fundamental meaning, but also systematically violates the rules relating to the functioning of the body, and the constitutional right to participate in decision making processes as social partners. Provoked into action, the unions joined the 56th weekly Friday protest on 28th May 2021.

Janša overrules procedure to appoint Slovenia’s two European delegator prosecutors

After months of standstill on the selection procedure for Slovenia’s two European delegator prosecutors, Janša moved to reject his country’s selection for the European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO), an organisation designing to uncover and prosecute misuse of EU funds. Without Slovenian representation, it will be hard for the EPPO to carry out investigations and bring charges in the country. In a statement, the Slovenian government insisted that there were legal flaws in the original selection process and therefore instructed the Ministry of Justice to publish a new call for candidates. But legal experts aren’t in agreement, with Slovenia’s own judicial structure being critical of the move, and Justice Minister Lilijana Kozlovič immediately resigning in protest. Critics have argued that this is yet another attack on the rule of law, sparked by Janša’s judgement that the selected candidates were simply not politically compatible. The European Chief Prosecutor, Laura Kövesi, commented that the “lack of sincere cooperation of the Slovenian authorities with the EPPO seriously undermines the trust in the effective functioning of the management and control systems for EU funds in Slovenia”. As the only remaining country yet to nominate, this is a risky move on Janša’s part, as Slovenia takes over the EU Presidency on 1st July 2021.

Calls for respect of independent state bodies

The heads of four independent Slovenian oversight institutions have signed an unprecedented joint statement calling for respect for independent state bodies. The institutions report that they are continually subject to political pressure and attacks and express their “grave concern” about the political pressure on institutions, reflected in “direct and coordinated attacks through the media and social networks”. The statement also warned of the long-term impact on democracy and constitutional rights. It was signed by the leaders of the Information Commissioner’s Office, Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, Court of Audit and Human Rights Ombudsman.

Organisation advocating preservation of racial purity awarded by Ministry of Culture

‘Tradition Against Tyranny’/ ‘Tradicija proti tiraniji’ (in Slovenian), an organisation that associates itself with the identitarian right was recently awarded the status of ‘organisation in the public interest’ by the Ministry of Culture. Whilst there are clear and comprehensive criteria for granting CSOs this status, some CSOs have raised concerns regarding the organisation's links to neo-Nazi groups and support for racial purity theories. The protest movement has also openly condemned the decision to award the organisation. On its website,‘Tradition Against Tyranny’ states: “Our struggle is not only a struggle for our nation, but a struggle to preserve the biological integrity of our race.”The controversial decision by the Ministry of Culture arguably carries both a symbolic and ideological message, when taken in the context of their recent targeting of CSOs.

Peaceful Assembly

Anti-government protests continue

18th June 2021 marked the 61st protest of citizens mobilising against Janša’s right-wing government, rising inequalities and the degradation of democracy. For months, the protests have been subject to police scrutiny, with the use of excessive force on some occasions. The protest on 28th May 2021 was the largest yet, with estimates of up to 40,000 people taking to the streets. The protest brought together trade unions, cultural and environmental organisations, intellectuals and many others, who are joining forces to protest Janša’s government. Despite the peaceful protest, police used intimidation tactics when it came to policing demonstrators, and CSOs reported that student groups were targeted with fines. However, the fines were less than those given in the protest the week before, where police issued around 4,600€ worth of fines after several incidents involving the police dragging people across the floor in attempts to break up the protest. Protesters have become increasingly organised in monitoring incidents of heavy-handed policing, deploying legal observers and media to the protests. There have also been parallel protests in Brussels, with the Slovenian diaspora community organising in front of the EU Commission.

Provisions of COVID-19 regulations on restriction of assembly declared unconstitutional

In June 2021, the Slovenian Constitutional Court declared provisions of the Communicable Diseases Act that restrict movement and assembly unconstitutional. The ruling highlights insufficient safeguards for curbs on fundamental rights such as prohibition of peaceful assembly. This comes as positive news to protestors who face fines, which will now be annulled. However, those who have already paid fines will not receive refunds.