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EU leaders must pay attention to civic freedoms under threat in Slovenia | View

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“Janša is not the voice of the Slovenians.”

This is the message being conveyed by Slovenians during the Friday anti-government protests they have staged weekly since Prime Minister Janez Janša came to power in March 2020 – his third term.

Janša was once hailed as a national hero, having played a major role in leading his country down the path to independence – an independence formally recognized by the European Union 30 years ago on January 15, 1992.

Today, however, many Slovenians say that Janša must go. He and his far-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) have repeatedly attacked the very civic freedoms he once stood for. In June 2021, Slovenia was placed on the CIVICUS Monitor watchlist, which issues alerts on countries where there has been a recent and rapid deterioration in civic liberties.

Lack of culture and environmental projects

The Slovenian government has tried to delegitimize the work of civil society actors publicly vilifying and cut crucial funding resources. In particular, civil society groups working on environmental rights and culture have faced great obstacles.

The most recent attempt to destabilize civil society occurred on December 8, 2021, when the Slovenian parliament passed the state budget for 2022, with projections for 2023 and 2024.

saw major funding cuts to civil society organizations (CSOs) that work on environmental rights and culture. The budget to promote cultural creativity was reduced from €6.4 million to €3.6 million.

No funds were allocated for environmental projects for 2022 or 2023. In addition, the climate fund that environmental CSOs are eligible for has been cut by 70 percent.

This is not the first time that the government has blocked the resources of civil society. In 2020, it undertook a budget rebalancing to deal with COVID-19, which meant budget cuts in the cultural sector while the rest of the areas were not affected.

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A new debureaucratization law submitted to the National Assembly in September 2021, without open and transparent consultation, further threatens the status of cultural CSOs.

The government stated that the purpose of the bill was to “improve the competitive business environment” and “simplify the lives of citizens” by “removing administrative barriers.” But many believe the amendments will lead to an increased level of political interference in CSO decision-making processes around funding.

Twenty NGOs threatened with homelessness

Civil society in Slovenia has also been intimidated by other means. In October 2020, in the midst of the second wave of coronavirus, no fewer than 20 different CSOs operating at one address in Ljubljana, 6 Metelkova Street, received a order of the Ministry of Culture to vacate the building before January 31, 2021.

Metelkova is one of the largest and most successful urban occupations in Europe. It stems from the heritage of the civil society movements that promoted democratization and demilitarization in the 1980s.

CSOs based in the building strongly protested against the Ministry’s decision. They see it as one more attempt to silence the cultural sector. Although they managed to stop the eviction temporarily, a final decision is expected in the coming months. This has been an expensive legal fight for groups already facing resource challenges.

Independent journalism undermined

Media independence in Slovenia also hangs in the balance, as the government uses tactics similar to those adopted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to capture independent media.

Jansa wrote extensively promoting freedom of expression for an independent magazine Youth in the 1980s Today, he is described as the Trump of Europe. He frequently instigates attacks on journalists in person and on social media, calling them “liars” and “prostitutes”.

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There were two main media targets for the government in 2021: the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) and the RTV Slovenija broadcaster. Both are still under attack.

The STA was severely handicapped by the financial crisis after being legally mandated without state funding for more than 300 days. In the end, an agreement was reached between the government and the agency in November 2021, giving the STA a stipend for 2021.

But concerns about the future of the agency (and its editorial independence) remain, and some damage has undoubtedly already been done. Several journalists have resigned and the quality of the STA’s work has been compromised.

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing battle for the independence of RTV Slovenija, which journalists and editors continue to defend.

On August 20, 2021, RTV program director Natalija Gorščak was fired by newly appointed CEO Andrej Grah Whatmough. The move is believed to have come in retaliation for his refusal to support Whatmough’s proposed demands regarding personnel and scheduling changes.

As of October 2021, four editors had resigned in protest over the draft Program Production Plan (PPN) for 2022, which was later approved.

The plan would see news-related talk shows canceled and daily news shows curtailed, with other elements, including election programming, moved to the station’s second channel, which has a much smaller audience. There are concerns that these changes are a ploy to create a pro-government media platform ahead of the April elections.

The EU must pay attention before it is too late

Civil society and grassroots activists in Slovenia have continued to resist this ongoing attack on civic freedoms. Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Ljubljana and other cities, organizing bike rallies as a creative way to comply with coronavirus restrictions.

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The government has responded blaming the protesters for spreading the virus and trying to intimidate them, and the state attorney filed his first lawsuit against the organizers in December 2021.

The participants, however, remain determined. “The protests on Friday will continue at least until the elections and until real democracy is established in Slovenia!” they say. wrote on their Facebook page.

The Slovenian parliamentary elections will be crucial in determining the future of democracy in the country. And civil society is doing everything possible to mobilize.

More than 100 CSOs have endorsed an initiative called Glas ljudstva (Voice of the People), which will undertake joint actions to encourage public participation in electoral debates, monitor the electoral process, inform citizens and mobilize them to vote.

Thirty years after Slovenia’s independence was recognized by the entire European bloc, the message from citizens is clear.

The EU should be paying attention to the decline in civic liberties and growing illiberalism in this country, as it did not act fast enough when Hungary and Poland started down the same path. And fundamental rights must be preserved by taking urgent action, before it is too late.

Aarti Narsee is a feminist, writer and journalist, and civic space researcher for CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that provides near real-time data on the state of civil society in 196 countries, specializing in Europe and Central Asia.

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