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A Letter to Lili Bayer: "The orbanisation of the media occurred long ago in Slovenia and it was carried out by the left."

Dear Ms Bayer, as a regular reader of Politico I would like to express some personal thoughts regarding your article Inside Slovenia’s war on the media of 16.2.2021. While I do not agree with some of your conclusions, I appreciate your attempt to portray a more nuanced picture of the media situation in Slovenia than is generally the case. These days most foreign journalists rely on one or two Slovene sources at the most and do not bother adding anything that does not fit with the simplistic narrative "Janša is taking control of the Slovene media".

23.02.2021 06:07
Piše: Andrej Capobianco
Ključne besede:   Politico   Lili Bayer   Janez Janša   Slovenia   Orban   media   pressure   left   right   RTV Slovenia   Pop TV

In none of the countries that I follow is the media so heavily lopsided and unbalanced as in Slovenia: the three newspapers with a national circulation, the main commercial TV company, as well as the public broadcaster all lean heavily to the left.

Let me start by declaring openly my political preferences. I am a staunch supporter of Swedish Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal’s approach: everyone should state upfront their ideological preferences instead of giving the impression that their conclusions are derived from a fully "objective" standpoint. One's view of the world will inevitably shape one's positions, all the more so in an era in which it is so easy to manipulate facts.

 

As a Slovene who grew up in Italy and moved to my country of origin as an adult, I consider myself a liberal of the Emma Bonino and Marco Pannella type: anti-fascist and anti-communist. As such, I do not feel represented by any party in Slovenia. Classical liberalism is unfortunately losing ground everywhere; it is ever more frequently addressed only with the pejorative "neo-liberalism". Liberalism is being crowded out by collectivist ideologies both on the right (nativism and nationalism) and on the left (coercive progressivism).

 

In Slovenia liberalism has been down and out for ages.

 

All this to say that I am neither a voter nor a sympathiser of Prime Minister Janez Janša. Some of his positions and related tweets are indefensible from my point of view (including his support for Trump and friendship with Orban). Having said this, since its independence Slovenia has been struggling with another major problem that is seldom acknowledged outside Slovenia. It is one of the few former communist countries that has never condemned communism as a totalitarian system and in which former bigshots of the Communist party continued to call the shots even after its independence and the fall of communism. This does not mean that the left in Slovenia is "neo-communist" (although a significant part of it is), but that over the years it has built a powerful "network system".

 

 

"The orbanisation of the media occurred long ago in Slovenia and it was carried out by the left."

 

 

After 45 years of communism, in the 30 years following Slovenia’s independence centre-left governments (including heirs of the communist party) have been in power for 75 % of the time. Since 1991, every time a centre-right government has been in power it has been considered an anomaly and labelled by the left and the mainstream media as "undemocratic", "illegitimate" and "fascist". Every time a right-leaning government takes office mass demonstrations are organised with the support of the left, as was the case from day one of the current Janša government, despite the anti-Covid restrictions. In three circumstances, including the current one, the government was led by Janša, however things were no different when Christian-democrat Andrej Bajuk was Prime Minister for a brief stint in 2000.

 

During the course of the years the left has become less "embarrassed" by its totalitarian past (which is in fact being increasingly portrayed as "quasi-democratic"). Today members of the left-leaning opposition proudly flash their "red star" anti-Covid masks in parliament, call themselves "proud heirs of the Yugoslav Communist party" and lay flowers under the statues of former Communist leaders who were responsible for the mass executions of thousands of people at the end of World War II. Criticising communism is nowadays a "no-go" in Slovenia: one is accused, not least by the mainstream media, of fuelling "ideological themes".

 

It is no coincidence that the Slovene left (and the sources for your article, it seems) never fail to point out that "Janez Janša began his career as a young Communist-turned-dissident in the former Yugoslavia, later becoming a right-wing politician". This is what the left hates most about him: he was once "on the other side".

 

Allow me however to focus on the main theme of your article: the media. As a regular viewer and reader of Slovene and Italian media (Rai, La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera) occasional viewer of the BBC (and subscriber to the Economist) and rare viewer of French public TV, I must say that I am regularly shocked by what I see and read in the Slovene media.

 

In none of the countries that I follow is the media so heavily lopsided and unbalanced as in Slovenia: the three newspapers with a national circulation (Delo, Dnevnik and Večer), the main commercial TV company (that airs the channels Pop TV and A Kanal), as well as the public broadcaster (RTV Slovenija) all lean heavily to the left. While for Pop TV and the privately-owned newspapers this may be a legitimate editorial choice, the clear leftist political inclination of the public broadcaster contravenes its statute, according to which it should be politically neutral and unbiased.

 

In am aware that right-wingers all over the world criticise the mainstream media for being "liberal", including the BBC. However, I assure you that RTV Slovenija journalists get away with openly partisan reporting and commentaries that would cause an uproar in countries with a longer democratic tradition. In Italy, for example, meetings of the parliamentary supervisory committee would be convened. In Slovenia the public broadcaster’s impartiality is monitored by an Ombudswoman, who happens to be a RTV Slovenija journalist. Not surprisingly she dismisses all complaints against the broadcaster. A conflict of interest if ever there was one.

 

 

"Yes, Janša’s tweets about journalists are unacceptable and should be condemned, but this does not make the journalists he is attacking an example of the 'free and independent' media."

 

 

This has been the status quo since independence. Every time the right is in power the left "sells" the same story to the outside world: there is allegedly a "climate of fear, among journalists". At the same time the mainstream media (including the public broadcaster) attacks the government on a daily basis, egging on protesters. News anchor-men or anchor-women often do not even bother separating basic facts from personal opinions. Those who criticise the public broadcaster for not respecting its own rules on balanced and impartial reporting are accused of "attacking the free press". In a world in which hardly anyone apart from Slovenes understands Slovene and is in a position to check the facts for themselves, it is relatively easy to get away with this narrative.

 

Foreign journalists who are concerned about media freedom in Slovenia have clearly never followed the public broadcaster’s evening news. Yes, Janša’s tweets about journalists are unacceptable and should be condemned, but this does not make the journalists he is attacking an example of the "free" and "independent" media. Many of them are not; they see themselves as (political) activists and not as impartial moderators. Separating the facts from the comments in the evening news should be standard practice in any public broadcaster. In Slovenia it is not.

 

Stating that RTV Slovenija and Pop TV are "irresponsible virus spreaders" is another one of Janša’s own goals. Yet it is a fact that the national broadcaster and Pop TV openly supported the mass protests against the government even when public gatherings were prohibited during the Covid crisis. Anti-Covid measures adopted by the government were systematically presented as unreasonable, even though they did not differ from those in other EU countries.

 

Contrary to claims in your article, journalists (most prominently those from the public broadcaster) are in fact regularly reporting about Hungarian investments in Slovenia, the role of far-right movements in the country and Janša’s Trump-boosting on Twitter (the national broadcaster shows screenshots of all his most controversial tweets on the evening news). On the other hand, any criticism of the media’s reporting is labelled as "pressure" and "attacks" and "unacceptable". Interestingly, I have not seen any reporting about the far-left in Slovenia in the mainstream media, although it is clearly prominent and aggressive and has recently been involved in violent street protests. Personally, I am just as worried about the far-left as about the far-right.

 

You might think that the public broadcaster is just as critical of the left when the latter is in power. Unfortunately this is not the case: when the left rules the public broadcaster changes its tune; it criticises predominantly the (right-leaning) opposition for "not being constructive".

 

In such a situation it is hardly surprising that every attempt to reform the public broadcaster and national news agency STA is met by cries of foul play. No changes to media laws or funding are ever deemed legitimate if presented by the right. No proposal merits even a discussion, it is rejected a priori and the EU and journalist associations are immediately informed of the "danger" looming to media freedom in Slovenia. Having dominated the media and the Slovene journalist’s association for years, the left has established links to international associations through which it can cry wolf over and over again.

 

Foreign journalists writing about Slovenia usually get their information from the same sources (certainly the same 3-4 academics). As soon as I read the title of your article, I said to myself: "Aha, let’s see in which paragraph Marko Milosavljević’s quote will appear this time around … "

 

Similarly, it is really no surprise that the dozens of journalists (especially senior staff) from the public media you spoke to all share the same view. In fact that should be a red flag for "groupthink". If you were to speak to a dozen journalists in the Hungarian national broadcaster and all of them were to assure you that their reporting is unbiased and Fidesz has no influence on the public broadcaster, you would probably take this as an indication that they are all under Orban’s thumb.

 

Among the dozens of well-known journalists who work for RTV Slovenija there are precisely 3 (three) journalists that most left-leaning Slovenes will immediately flag-up as being "right-leaning". All the others are in their view "impartial" and "unbiased".

 

I am therefore not impressed by "Open letters" of editors who "warn that the country’s free press was in danger". It’s all déjà vu every time the right is in power. Yes, the threats to the media are an issue, however I would be interested in reading an assessment of Slovenia’s media landscape as it is now, hic and nunc, and not the looming "threats" that never seem to materialize.

 

 

 

For your information, I attach a link to a photo taken in May 2016 (when Janša was leader of the opposition) during a meeting of the programme council of RTV Slovenija (Source: Twitter)

 

 

One of the banners held by RTV Slovenija journalists during the meeting attended by senior staff of RTV Slovenija reads "death to Janšism, freedom to the people". The journalists seated in front of the banner are the directors of the TV and radio programmes. While RTV Slovenija subsequently "condemned" the banner, it did not seem to bother anyone whilst the meeting was being held.

 

While this appeared to be an isolated incident at the time (though a disgrace for the national broadcaster), strolling around Ljubljana one gets a clearer picture about who is "whipping up hatred" (as mentioned in your article) today: the streets are full of graffiti with "death to Janšism" or even "death to Janša". Prior to the vote on the fate of Janša’s government held on 16 February 2021, MPs of the centre SMC party and Pensioner’s party (DeSUS) who announced they would side with Janša’s coalition received threatening emails, letters and messages asking them to vote against the government. Posters with their faces and swastikas were exposed in public. In its evening news RTV Slovenija spoke candidly about the evident need to "twist an MPs arm" to get him to vote against Janša, as though this were fair game.

 

 

"The social media in Slovenia, as elsewhere, is full of garbage (threats, offensive language, intolerance, etc.) however the left is no less aggressive than the right."

 

 

Editors of the (few) centre-right media outlets are also subject to intimidation and threats (this is not to say threats are acceptable just because they come from all sides), however foreign journalists hardly ever bother talking to non-leftists interlocutors (also because they tend not to occupy the "institutional" posts that have been monopolised by the left), as this does not fit with the simplistic narrative Janša=Orban=Trump=attack on the "liberal and free media".

 

In fact, during the recent demonstrations it was the rightist (pro-Janša) Nova24TV that was subject of a physical attack. Stating that "Janša’s allies also currently run multiple pro-government news outlets, partially with the help of investors linked to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán" gives the impression that Janša controls a significant share of the media and is trying to silence the remaining courageous journalists that dare speak up against him. The media outlets you mention are indeed pro-Janša mouthpieces but they are few and marginal in a media landscape that is heavily left-leaning.

 

The social media in Slovenia, as elsewhere, is full of garbage (threats, offensive language, intolerance, etc.) however the left is no less aggressive than the right, if anything more so, as it has become so accustomed to ruling that it does not accept the fact that an alternance of parties in power (including centre-right ones!) is the essence of democracy and not its negation.

 

"Few countries in Europe have experienced such a swift downturn in press and media freedom", the president of the Journalists Association is quoted as saying in your article.  Few countries in Europe have such an unbalanced media landscape as Slovenia. The "orbanisation" of the media occurred long ago in Slovenia and it was carried out by the left.

 

Thank you for having taken the time to read this (long) message. I am sure that it will have no impact whatsoever on the narrative that is already written at the EU level and which the Slovene left will no doubt happily fuel prior to and during the Slovenian EU Presidency: Slovenia is ruled by a right-wing autocrat who is threatening the free media. With his statements and tweets Janša will no doubt provide further ammunition to use against him. The public loves a clear division between "goodies" and "baddies", all the more so when it comes to a small country that is hard to understand. In an increasingly polarised and radicalised political landscape nuanced reporting, like liberalism, is on its way out.

 

From your article I got the impression that you sincerely made an effort to find out more about what is going on in Slovenia and that is why I have done my best to provide you with an alternative viewpoint.

 

Kind regards,

 

Andrej Capobianco*

 

* This is the pen name with which I sign op-eds in the media outlet portal+, one of the few that publishes pieces both from left-leaning and right-leaning commentators.

 

 

Views expressed in this article are supported by the Editorial Board of portal+.

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