Changing the Message

Slovenian journalists attempt to preserve the time-honored seperation between media and government

News | Colin Leigh Peters | October 2008

All politicians seeking office campaign on the need for change, but one change that wasn’t on anyone’s list in the run up to Slovenia’s recent general election was a switch in media policy.

Many feel it should have been.

The last year has been a tumultuous one for the Slovenian media, with accusations rife that the government has consistently breached the time-honored line separating the media from political power, in an effort to exert invisible influence. Indeed, many feel this problem has existed ever since Slovenian independence in 1991. Journalists are frustrated, and some are seeking guidelines to ensure that the media is free to operate professionally and ethically. The question is: Will the election’s surprise victors, the Social Democrats, be willing to make the changes deemed necessary?

Shortly after the 2004 general elections in Slovenia, when power last changed hands, concerns were raised over the use of government pressure on the independent media. Allegations were made that the administration’s exploitation of its business ties was behind a sequence of hirings-and-firings in the editorial rooms of some of the nation’s biggest dailies.  Journalists complained that so many articles had been censored for their critical slant that they had had to set up a "bunker" to hold them all. Other media described sudden cuts in advertising from state-owned companies as an attempt to squeeze them out of business.

These concerns culminated in a "Petition against Censorship and Political Pressures on Journalists in Slovenia," signed by over 570 Slovenian media professionals and calling for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the claims. In October 2007, the petition was delivered to the speaker of the Slovenian National Assembly and sent to the governments of all 27 EU member states.

The timing of the petition – only weeks prior to Slovenia’s first turn at the rotating presidency of the European Council – drew angry reactions from the governing SDS party, who dismissed it as an attempt by partisan journalists to embarrass the government on the international stage. The tone was set: Criticism was cast as conspiratorial and anti-Slovenian, with some SDS supporters becoming so inflamed that they attempted to bring criminal charges against the petitioners for degrading the nation.

The attitude of the Slovenian government became clear again in the closing stages of the campaign, after the Finnish public broadcaster, YLE, aired a documentary in early September exposing corruption in arms deals between the Finnish defence contractor "Patria" and Slovenian officials, also claiming that Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, received kickbacks from the deals. Jansa vehemently denied the allegations, and pointed to ties between the Finnish journalist, Magnus Berglund, and some of the journalists involved in the petition.

"These accusations were fed to Berglund by Slovenians," Jansa insisted.

In the aftermath of the broadcast, the Slovenian Foreign Ministry even took the unusual step of sending two diplomatic communiqués to the Finnish government, the first describing the reporting as "intolerable" and an "intervention in the Slovenian political campaign," and demanding clarification. The Finnish Foreign Minister, Alexander Stubbs, responded by stating that Finland’s media was "independent of political influence."

Whether or not the "Patria Affair" had an affect on the outcome of the elections is open to question; the timing of the Slovenia broadcast of the Finnish documentary seemed to coincide with a dip in the polls for the SDS’s performance; but it was most likely only one factor among several. The SDS lost to the Social Democrats on Sept. 21 by only one seat.

So now that power has shifted, will the new government be prepared to make the changes many journalists feel are needed to create an independent media in Slovenia? Or will the Slovenian media see a similar turnover in staff to that seen after 2004?

"If the tide turns in the opposite direction, that would be the worst thing that could happen," says Blaz Zgaga, a former journalist at Slovenian daily Vecer and one of the initiators of the original petition.

"Changes are needed, but it is a question of how they are made. They need to be made through dialogue – it would be wrong [for the government] to replace personnel with their own people and follow the same path as before. The consensual way is what we hope for. This depends now on the coalition."

Zgaga has co-sponsored a set of guidelines from independent media experts – sent to all nine political parties on Jun. 23 – which, he describes as a "call to dialogue," offering an "assessment and recommendations to fix the problems."

"So far we have received no response from any of the political parties," says Zgaga. However, although he remains hopeful that this will come eventually, Zgaga is concerned that the call to the table might be ignored – and that history might repeat itself under a different banner. This in itself is an indication of the desire in the Slovenian journalistic community to ensure that the government is kept at arm’s length from the media, whatever government that may be.

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