As Slovenia takes over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU, its Prime Minister, Janez Janša, says the protection of Union values, including human rights – and in particular freedom of speech – will be among the Presidency’s top priorities. We're taking this with a large serving of salt, considering his attacks on free speech in Slovenia.
Hard times for free speech
We already pointed at how free speech took a hit in 2020 across the EU, based on data from our report on the state of democracy in the EU released earlier this year. Worrying trends include increasing pressure on and attacks to media and journalists as well as restrictive laws, legal harassment and smear campaigns aimed at preventing rights and democracy groups and activists to have their say.
And the squeeze on free speech over which Prime Minister Janša is presiding are among the most serious and deliberate. As the country report by Liberties’ member in Slovenia shows, Janša’s nationalist, far-right SDS-led government has been upping its attacks against critical journalists, media and citizens’ groups using COVID-19 as a cover, in what is part of a wider pattern of concerted measures to silence opposition and weaken democracy.A rapid deterioration of media freedom is among key concerns: increased government control on the media, threats to independence of the regulatory authority and government pressure on the national press agency through smear campaigns, funding cuts (cancelled after pressure by the European Commission) and changes to the regulatory framework are progressively weakening media independence and pluralism in the country. Continued attacks against independent media and journalists by government representatives and by media close to the government have fuelled online abuse against journalists creating a climate of fear and a toxic media landscape.
Women journalists are commonly attacked with the misogynistic insult “presstitutes”. Journalists have reacted by self-censoring to protect their safety and mental health. Independent outlets are facing SLAPPs – gag lawsuits abusing the law and the courts in order to shut off those who speak up in the public interest. These attacks on media have raised concerns of the European Commission and have been the object of heated debates in the European Parliament, with press freedom groups calling EU institutions to take more serious steps to counter the backsliding.
At the same time, intimidation of critical rights groups and activists by authorities and pro-government media is mounting. This has included attempts to turn public opinion against NGOs by portraying them as taking up public funds that should be going to help citizens, increasing restrictions on participation in decision-making, attempts to cut funding and administrative harassment, while media close to the ruling coalition use virulent smear campaigns to damage NGOs’ reputation. Citizens’ right to protest was also unduly restricted and many protesters tracked down and fined over the past year, even where they were complying with physical distancing rules imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Ready to walk the talk? Our 3 key recommendations for the Slovenian Presidency
If the new Slovenian Presidency of the Council were serious about their commitment to protect free speech in the EU, here's what we'd expect to see from them:
1) Stand up for EU values and stop backing governments that deliberately attack democracy
Systematic attacks on free speech are a weapon in the hands of authoritarian governments to silence dissent and progressively weaken democratic checks and balances to keep their hold on power. This is a clear pattern that we see happening in Hungary and Poland. If it is serious about free speech, the Slovenian Presidency should take a strong stance on the protection of EU values, including by achieving progress within the ongoing Article 7 procedure against Hungary and Poland and by promoting a genuine and transparent peer review among governments on the state of the rule of law in the EU.
2) Lead the way towards a strong EU response to attacks on media actors and rights groups
There is no free speech without media, journalists, activists and rights defenders. Through their work, they uncover wrongdoings and corruption and draw our attention to matters that affect our lives and the society we live in. They enable us to shape well-informed opinions and help us to make our voice heard. To protect free speech, we must protect those that make it live. Harmonised EU rules against SLAPPs and a comprehensive EU media regulation to preserve and foster media freedom and pluralism can be a game changer.
This should be coupled with prompt legal action to enforce EU rules relevant to media against restrictive national laws and practices, as well as a fundamental rights friendly regulation of the digital ecosystem through the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. As the EU prepares to step up its action in this area, the Slovenian Presidency should promote a constructive debate among EU governments to grow support for a strong EU response to attacks media actors and rights groups are facing across the EU.
In particular, the Presidency should work towards a strong recognition by EU governments, for example through dedicated Council Conclusions, of the role of media as key players in a democratic society and make sure governments work towards strengthening the EU toolbox to protect free speech, media freedom and pluralism, in line with the commitments of the EU Democracy Action Plan.
3) Engage with and support rights and democracy groups
In a well-functioning democracy, NGOs, and in particular rights and democracy groups, are there to keep an eye on what policy makers are up to, to help citizens get organised and voice their opinions and concerns through petitions, peaceful protests and by engaging in law and policy making processes. They are an important tool that we can use to exercise free speech. Joining forces with other networks and umbrella organisations at EU level, Liberties works to monitor challenges rights and democracy groups face at national level, to advocate for adequate responses and to build resilience in the sector. The Slovenian Presidency should genuinely engage with rights and democracy groups at EU and national level, and inform EU actions to support them, including in the context of the rule of law review cycle, the implementation of the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values funding programme and the Conference on the Future of Europe.