Reliable and clear information is key for civil society to empower citizens in Slovenia

Published: 1 October 2020

“My dream for Slovenia is that we can all live together in a democracy, accepting differences without hateful polarisation.” —  Brankica Petković, a researcher at the Peace Institute, Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies.

The Peace Institute leads a coalition in Slovenia consisting of the Peace Institute itself, the association of journalists in Slovenia, and the independent investigative online media outlet Pod črto (Bottom Line). With support from Civitates, they defend the watchdog role of both civil society and journalists in Slovenia.

What is the current situation for civil society in Slovenia?

The environment for non-governmental organisations and journalists in Slovenia has become increasingly hostile and restrictive since the new government led by Janez Janša took office in March 2020. We constantly see the lack of understanding of the watchdog role of civil society and journalists across the political spectrum. What is more, there are constant threats to civic actors and critically speaking journalists. There is public unrest in Slovenia with citizens’ protests taking place each Friday since the beginning of April. Recently, the government proposed amendments to media laws that are detrimental for public service media, at the same time millions of euros of public money are to be poured into media outlets controlled by the ruling party. This latest development is very worrying about Slovenian democracy.

What is the media landscape in Slovenia?

There are media organisations and journalists in Slovenia that produce good, professional journalism. However, the ownership structure makes them vulnerable. For example, daily newspapers that traditionally carry out quality journalism and have influential online editions are owned by controversial businessmen with main interests in other businesses and dependent on good relations with the government. A lot of media organisations operate with financial difficulties and can become easy targets for politically controlled take-overs. For the moment, these media organisations continue to do critical journalism, some journalists even recently established new independent media outlets. They are all being targeted by the current government in public statements and social media. Public service broadcaster is still independent but heavily threatened by the ruling party. Some of the measures include huge financial restrictions for public broadcasters proposed by the government in draft media laws. One can only hope that the public broadcaster will manage to resist pressures for a while longer.

What is the coalition doing to counter such developments and improve the situation?

As a partner in our coalition, there is an independent, non-profit investigative media outlet with the task to map media ownership and finances of several media groups. This has provided detailed and documented reports that we are using as a reference point in countering the restrictions to civic actors. These reports are also used in investigations that law enforcement bodies undertake within the state structure.

Besides, the Peace Institute and the Association of Journalists are taking part in parliamentary discussions on the restrictive policy measures, raising critical voices, initiating and participating in public discussions, and raising public awareness towards the implications the proposed media laws could have. We alarmed the international community and submitted our comments to the proposed media regulation to the government with our points about the new media law.  We were also vocal in the media, we supported the protests and joined academic groups in a thematic publication. We organised an online event with a Hungarian media expert to share lessons learned and a series of workshops for NGOs and journalists on how to use legal and communication means to protect their rights. As a follow-up to these actions, we published legal and communications guidelines for NGOs and journalists and we acquired and disseminated legal advice on the right to assembly and protest.

To what extent has Covid-19 influenced the work of civic organisations?

Maybe the best illustration is the case of environmental organisations. Before the outbreak of the pandemic which coincided with the change in government, there were numerous environmental NGOs in Slovenia with the status of acting in the public interest –  a status that allowed them to influence the issuing of environmental permits and construction permits. As a result, they were often pressured by investors and authorities, particularly on the local level, when they would challenge the decisions on environmental matters in court. However, in April 2020, the new right-wing government included in the Covid-19 crisis stimulus package the provisions aimed at deregulation of construction legislation and speeding up of infrastructure investments during the economic recovery. Among the provisions that simplify the procedure for the construction permit, there are stiffer conditions introduced for environmental NGOs that want to participate in the permitting procedures. These new provisions were adopted by the parliament through the emergency procedure, and de facto eliminated the possibility for a vast majority of environmental NGOs to represent public interest effectively. Lately, the Constitutional Court halted the implementation of those provisions based on the legal actions of environmental NGOs. At the same time, an NGO that provides legal counselling to asylum seekers has not been provided with the extension of the contract by the Ministry of Interior and the asylum application procedures were halt during the anti-Covid-19 measures.

What should change for the situation to improve? What gives you hope in this situation?

 We need to mobilise citizens with reliable, clear, and compelling communication, and by connecting various critical, credible, pro-democratic actors in creating alternatives. Empowering civic actors for legal actions is a good way to contribute to change, but also support the independent work of watchdog and law-enforcement state bodies to prosecute misuse of power. The citizens’ protests which have gathered young people, and whistleblowers, and which have received independent reporting and provoked actions by anti-corruption and judiciary bodies give hope.

What is your dream for the future of Slovenia?

 My dream is a country without hateful polarisation. I would like to live in a country where it is not accepted as a “new normal” in public communication that you can dehumanise those with whom you disagree. My dream is Slovenia where humanity and human rights, justice, and equality are the values that rule and that we appreciate each other. It is normal that governments change. However, the basic human and democratic rules should always be followed.  

The Peace Institute – Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies – is a private, independent, non-profit research institution in Slovenia founded in 1991 by individuals who believed in peaceful conflict resolution, equality and respect for human rights standards. The Institute uses scientific research and advocacy activities aimed at creating and preserving open society capable of critical thought and based on the principles of equality, responsibility, solidarity, human rights and the rule of law.