As the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union enters its final days, Ljubljana has come under the spotlight in Brussels — but not in the way it was hoping for.
The European Parliament on Thursday voted a resolution criticising the small Balkan nation for the first time over "the state of EU values".
In the text, MEPs say they are "deeply concerned about the level of public debate, climate of hostility, distrust and deep polarisation in Slovenia, which has eroded trust in public bodies and between them."
It also raises alarm about media freedom in the country and the delayed appointment of delegates to the European Public Prosecutor's Office.
Prime Minister Janez Janša, an ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is a member of the powerful European People's Party conservative group at the European Parliament. EPP lawmakers have either voted against the motion or abstained.
Critics say the right-wing political group is essentially repeating what it once did with Orbán, namely turning a blind eye to the backsliding of the rule of law within its own ranks.
They also draw a parallel between Orbán's attempts to control the media and the attacks on press freedom reported in Slovenia, with Janša infamously calling journalists "presstitutes".
But according to NGO Freedom House, Slovenia still enjoys a high score of 95% in its 2021 Freedom in the World Ranking — compared to a mere 69% for Hungary, the only country in the EU considered as "partly free" rather than "free" by the human rights group.
So how much does the comparison hold and is Ljubljana sliding towards the "illiberal democracy" openly promoted by Orbán?
Here is what lawmakers and experts have told Euronews.
Attacks on media freedom
"We got a new right-wing government in March 2020. And ever since then, we have faced a number of issues regarding basic principles, that includes also rule of law principles," said Marko Milosavljević, a professor of journalism at Ljubljana University.
"Particularly in my field of expertise, we see a strong increase of pressure and problems facing the media — media freedom, freedom of expression, as well as many other civil liberties, harassment of critical journalists, and attempts to discredit — sometimes very vulgarly or hatefully — any criticism," the professor told Euronews.
The EP resolution noted issues with the funding of Slovenian News Agency STA, with "payments still owed" even if funding has been restored.
Milosavljević described "attempts by the government to control the public service broadcaster as it has happened, for example, in Hungary in the past."
"The manager of the television has in effect been changed. In addition to that, the editor in chief of the television Slovenia has stepped down, as well as a couple of other key editors."
"They have all stepped down because the plans of the new management were so drastic and so dangerous for the preservation of the key role of the news programmes within the public broadcaster," Milosavljević said.
Furthermore, the scholar went on, "the government is gaining control over the programming council and supervisory board of the public broadcaster" with the announced appointment of new members who are close to the ruling coalition.
The new management and temporary editors have made editorial interventions deemed "already problematic," the expert said.
Among other examples, "according to media reports, there has been a phone call to the main evening news programme demanding that a certain politician must be included as a guest," said Milosavljević.
"Even though the editors of that TV show didn't plan to include that, they were requested to do so, and the TV show has been prolonged for five minutes. In addition to that, a statement by a critical lawyer has been removed from a TV report and not broadcasted."
Several news shows will be eliminated or transferred to a channel with lower audiences, according to the programme plan by the management, Milosavljević added.
In addition, there were attempts to change mass media laws that would hinder or punish particularly critical media through cherry-picked articles aimed at particular companies, he went on.
On a more positive note, Green MEP Tineke Strik told Euronews that the Slovenian press was "pretty resilient."
"It's not that they are immediately intimidated, but the way that they are attacked from the government side really entails the risk of undermining their authority because they are framed in a certain way as if they are not trustworthy," Strik said.
The lawmaker from the Netherlands was part of a fact-finding mission of MEPs who travelled to Ljubljana to address concerns over the rule of law in the country. The mission angered Janša, who called some of the lawmakers "Soros puppets" in a tweet that was later deleted. The Hungarian philanthropist has become the favourite target of antisemitic conspiracy theories.
"The many lawsuits and attacks may also have a chilling effect on journalism. If you become frightened to express your opinion, to write critical articles because of the fear of lawsuits and financial damages, this is, of course, not healthy in a proper democracy where you need to have checks and balances," Strik told Euronews.
Concerns over judicial independence and civil liberties
Besides press freedom, MEPs have also expressed concerns over the judiciary especially in relation to appointments to the European Public Prosecutor's Office.
"The reluctance of the government to nominate the candidates for the EPPO" was discussed during the MEPs fact-finding mission, Strik said. "When we were there, it was still refused. Afterwards, it was approved finally at the end. But we learnt that there's draft legislation to make sure that this nomination is only temporary," she added.
"This is a violation of the EU law. It should not be temporary because they should be independent. And if you do it temporarily, you create some kind of dependency. And so, therefore, in the resolution, we call upon the government to withdraw that draft legislation and to comply with EU law."
"We also heard that a number of important judgements were not being complied with. So we are also calling upon the government to comply with the judgements because this is very important to the rule of law," the MEP told Euronews.
According to Milosavljević, the government has furthermore used "the excuse of limiting certain liberties and rights because of COVID. But of course, these things have gone very far beyond any reasonable limitations."
"People were prevented, for example, from sitting on the public square in front of the parliament and from reading the national constitution. People were sitting down with a few metres of distance between them, and all they were doing was sitting down and reading excerpts from the Constitution. In spite of that, in spite of not provoking any violence or any other problem in terms of COVID, these people were removed from the square and they received penalties for their gatherings," the scholar told Euronews.
'Issues have been resolved', says EPP lawmaker
While the European Parliament resolution touches upon "all the criticisms that we had", it "is formulated in a very cautious way," Strik noted.
"I think we could have been firmer even but this is actually what we have managed to negotiate with other groups."
"I was very disappointed to see that for political reasons and probably because of pressure from Janša, that EPP decided not to go along with this," the MEP told Euronews.
"We need to have the same standards in all member states and therefore also we wrote it in such a way that we thought: you cannot be against this," Strik said.
But Romana Tomc, an EPP MEP from Slovenia, said in a statement that Janša was unfairly attacked as part of a political manoeuvre.
“From the very beginning, it is clear that this is an attempt by the Slovenian opposition to attack the current centre-right government of Janez Janša," the statement read.
"The resolution has nothing to do with the actual state of the rule of law in Slovenia. The main allegations concerning the non-appointment of delegated prosecutors and the financing of the [Slovenian press agency] STA are irrelevant, as the issues have been resolved," it said.
"On the other hand, the resolution does not mention important facts that would highlight all the shortcomings of the rule of law, draw attention to the inadmissible and unbalanced state of the media, their covert ownership and highlight the systemic corruption that has been happening in Slovenia since its formation," Tomc went on.
"The resolution on Slovenia narrowed down from a brutal attack on the government and harsh accusations that undermined the rule of law, to some general findings, that could be safely attributed to each of the EU governments."
"Therefore, I also condemn this national attempt, which corresponds to the European left-wing politicians in their goal of weakening centre-right governments, from the aspect that it abuses the power of the European Parliament," Tomc's statement concluded.
Milosavljević said the EP resolution is a "small contribution" to the work of Slovenian journalists and human rights defenders to safeguard the rule of law but "I don't believe that it will change anything."
"We have seen a number of statements by European politicians and institutions. And yet these statements have been either attacked by the Slovenian government -- often very ferociously -- or they have been ignored."
"Of course, we need to see what will happen at the elections, which are supposed to be held in April. But as we have seen in Hungary with Viktor Orbàn and in Serbia with Aleksandar Vučić, after years of control or at least after years in power, the critical voices of the media have been almost completely silenced."
Strik was more optimistic about the impact the resolution may have in the future, especially in light of the upcoming election.
"I think it's very important that the resolution has been adopted because it's still a majority of the Parliament that stands behind these recommendations. The country will have elections soon. So whoever will be in power within the coming months, they will have to take into account the recommendations of the Parliament."
Ultimately, some see the recent developments in Slovenia as one more symptom of a new "Iron curtain" in Europe.
A report released last month by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance highlighted "concerning democratic declines" in three European Union members, namely Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.
"We have seen statements from Viktor Orbàn and as well as Janez Janša saying that some of these principles, including the rule of law, are not the principles of the whole Europe, that these are Western European principles, but that in Eastern Europe, we have specific, different principles because of our history or whatever," said Milosavljević.
"I think this is, of course, just an excuse to attempt to establish more autocratic regimes that would not be supervised and would not be limited by powerful institutions such as European Union and European Commission."
Euronews reached out to the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
It said in a written response: "You will surely understand that, as the Presidency of the Council, we do not comment on the work of other institutions. As a result, we are not in a position to provide a commentary regarding the resolution by the European Parliament in question."
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