The Slovenian prime minister knows very well what he’s doing, without any outside advice.

After becoming Slovenia’s prime minister for the third time in March, Janez Jansa has launched “hate campaigns against critical journalists” and “a systemic change in the country’s media landscape” with his “attempt to take the control of the public broadcaster, Radiotelevizija Slovenija” (RTV). And that’s not all that comes up in a recent Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) report. Together with his far-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDP), he has “orchestrated smear campaigns against his enemies.”

Attacks and attempts to control the media are part of a pattern in Slovenia, though milder perhaps compared to some of its neighbors. This is the missing context for RSF’s strong and well-aimed opprobrium for Jansa’s actions. RSF does a disservice to its righteous stand and the general battle for media freedoms by at least partially deflecting culpability for Jansa’s actions to his being “[Donald] Trump’s disciple,” and to his “European mentor,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. 

Such intimation of causality and effect is not only inaccurate but minimizes Jansa’s long-standing illiberal if not outright authoritarian attitudes and actions. It mistakenly suggests that he emulates others and that he and his like-minded counterparts in East, Central, and Southeast Europe would not be true to their autocratic mentalities were it not for the encouragement and validation they receive from other leaders.

Jansa attacked journalists and tried to censor media during his first stint as prime minister in 2004-2008 – when neither Trump nor Orban were in power. And he continued his assaults during his brief second term (2012-2013), by which time he was expert enough to have been both Trump and Orban’s guru.  

Let’s remember, Orban, who came to power in 2010, has gone beyond simply attacking the media. He has actually gotten rid of independent media and directly and indirectly controls the remaining ones (the situation now exacerbated by the pandemic). Trump, as U.S. president since January 2017, functions in a constitutional and historical context much different from Hungary’s and has a vastly dissimilar effect on the U.S. media. This does not lessen the gravity and disgracefulness of his verbal attacks on journalists, demonization of media he doesn’t like, prosecution of some of their sources of classified information, restriction of access to government data, and his recent signing of an arguably unconstitutional executive order aimed at social media companies.

Since Slovenia gained independence in 1990, its track record of press freedom and safety for journalists has hardly been pristine. With and without Jansa as prime minister, there have been attacks on and threats against journalists; censorship; self-censorship; criminal prosecution of journalists; and less-than-independent public media.

As detailed in a Eurozone analysis, already in the 1990s, “the independence of the mass media owners from the state and politics was not ensured,” with the state remaining “a direct or indirect owner or co-owner (an important one) of the mass media,” leading to the conclusion that as long as this persists, the media “will not be truly free, not politically at least.” And a few highlights from the past 20 years:

  • Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Report 2003 concluded that “journalists occasionally experience harassment and physical violence in connection with their work.”  
  • In 2001, Miro Petek, a correspondent for the newspaper Vecer (Evening), was viciously beaten; the alleged assailants were acquitted of all charges in 2005.
  • In 2010 the owner of the Rem Company, who attacked Mirsad Begic, a reporter for the newspaper Delavska enotnost (Worker’s Unity), was not prosecuted, because “the victim sustained only minor injuries.”
  • In 2014, after Jansa’s second term as prime minister, public broadcasting’s transparency and independence were threatened, and owners of commercial media were “setting their own editorial agenda,” resulting in “a more or less subtle censorship, very often ending up in self-censorship” – in the words of Marko Milosavljevic, the head of the journalism department at the University of Ljubljana. And, whereas there were not “so many physical attacks against journalists, other forms of pressure, such as phone calls and emails” were equally effective methods of censorship and self-censorship.  

More recently, in 2018, before Janša’s third term, Freedom House reported that “harassment and threats against journalists increased,” with “multiple reports of threatening mail being sent to journalists, including one item containing a white powdery substance (later found to be nontoxic); and of social media harassment, including death threats.”  

It appears that a good part of Slovenia’s political establishment, along with its ancillaries, does not need guidance or validation from foreign apostles when it comes to attacks on the media and the checks and balances of a democratic society.

Peter Gross, Ph.D., teaches qualitative research methods at the University of Iowa, and is Professor Emeritus in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.