STA, 10 March 2021 - Addressing the EU Parliament plenary on Wednesday, EU Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova pointed to continuous attempts to undermine the sustainable funding and the independence of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA). She also noted that frequent verbal attacks against journalists in the country were cause for concern.
She listed these issues as "examples of worrying trends" that took place in recent months.
"The Commission has been in contact with the national authorities and continues to monitor the situation. And let me assure you that the Commission does not hesitate to act when there are issues of the compliance of national laws or decisions with EU rules," she told the session dedicated to a debate on media freedom in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.
Jourova noted that media were not merely an economic sector, but "an important pillar of democracy and the rule of law", highlighting the role media freedom and pluralism played in upholding democracy.
She said that both concepts were also included in the Commission's annual rule of law report.
The report analysed the situation in all EU countries, including Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, she said, adding that problems and concerns were made very clear. The next report is expected in July.
"Each rule of law report is preceded by fact-finding visits in all EU countries, discussions with national authorities and a wide range of stakeholders," said Jourova in what might be a reference to Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša's invitation to the Commission to appoint a fact-finding mission to visit Slovenia to see the relevant situation for itself.
She also said that supporting the work of media was more important than ever given Covid-19 and an economic crisis in the sector "that started well before the pandemic", noting that there should be no political pressure on media at all regardless of the situation.
"Strong leaders are those that gain respect through their actions, that accept diversity of opinions and that allow citizens to be duly informed, not those that try to silence critical voices. In democracy, independent media should do their work and ask questions without fear or favour. Our job, as politicians, is to answer with facts, not with attacks."
Jourova also mentioned two initiatives by the Commission that will be unveiled this year: a recommendation to EU member states to improve the safety of journalists and an initiative on tackling abusive litigation. She said that "very often threats and groundless lawsuits are used to silence free media".
She acknowledged that the Commission's competences regarding media were limited though, urging efforts to determine how to "widen and strengthen the toolbox that the Commission has, from financial support, to regulation and enforcement actions".
"We will play our role. But governments also need to fulfil their obligations to ensure that media freedom is safeguarded and to enable a healthy environment for media pluralism," she said.
Several MEPs of S&D, Renew and the Greens voiced concern today over the situation of Slovenian media, particularly the STA, warning about the danger of the EU's inaction.
MEPs of the centre-right EPP did not mention Slovenia in their addresses for the most part, however Slovenian MEPs of this political group Romana Tomc (EPP/SDS) and Franc Bogovič (EPP/SLS) rejected allegations about the Slovenian government exerting pressure on Slovenian media.
Tomc reiterated Janša's invitation addressed to the Commission, highlighting that the Slovenian opposition was using today's discussion to undermine the government yet again. According to her, the government does not restrict anyone and is not abolishing the STA.
Bogovič described today's discussion as "a successful export of political bickering of Slovenian socialists and liberals into the European Parliament" that is misleading and harmful to Slovenia ahead of its EU Council presidency.
He said that media ownership issues in Slovenia were indeed real and related to the country's past, however most of the Slovenian media owners were part of the "leftist agenda".
On the other hand, Tanja Fajon (S&D/SD) listed the financial draining of the STA, attempts to put pressure on STA director Bojan Veselinovič and the case of Janša calling two critical journalists washed-up prostitutes as reasons for concern, adding that press freedom and democracy were at risk.
Irena Joveva (Renew/LMŠ) said that Slovenia was not Hungary or Poland, but was heading in that direction, noting that the EU could not afford another member in the illiberal club.
She was primarily critical of Janša and what she sees as his attempts to subjugate public media, most notably the STA, as well as the head-in-the-sand policy of his partners. Joveva told Jourova that words alone were not enough.
Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld (Renew/D66), head of the European Parliament's Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group, which held a discussion on the situation of Slovenian media last Friday, said that verbal attacks on journalists were not harmless and could even lead to murder, as seen "in Malta and Slovakia where the murders were preceded by endless verbal attacks by political leaders".
"I'm very worried to see now that in the Slovenian government they are taking on the same habits of attacking journalists and that not only has a chilling effect on the freedom of media and freedom of expression but it actually gives people almost literally a licence to kill, it adds to a climate of hatred."
She expressed hope that the Commission will make sure that such practices do not run off track as they have in Hungary and Poland, "where we can say that the media are no longer free and therefore they [the countries] are no longer complete democracies".
Wrapping up the debate, Jourova said that the EU should step up its efforts and be very vigilant across the bloc when it comes to a potential turn-off of democratic safeguards, including media freedom and an independent justice system.
Due to quite visible alarming trends, this marks the first time "the Commission is devoting so much effort and energy to the media sector". Jourova is considering new stepped-up measures and tools to protect media freedom.