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Wielding Twitter, Slovenia’s Prime Minister Takes Aim at the Media

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LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — In Moscow for a conference, the Slovenian magazine editor followed a path well-trodden by foreign visitors. At a flea market piled with kitsch memorabilia, he had his picture taken wearing a Soviet military hat decorated with a red star.

Eight years later, that picture has become a weapon — part of a conspiracy theory pushed by Slovenia’s right-wing government, which vilifies critics in the media as traitorous leftists intent on dragging the country back to communist dictatorship.

The “Trumpian-style tactics,” as six European press freedom groups recently described them, of Slovenia’s prime minister, Janez Jansa, would not normally arouse much concern beyond the borders of a small Balkan nation with a population of just two million.

But they are now under intense scrutiny by those looking for signs of what to expect when Mr. Jansa’s country takes over the European Union’s rotating presidency next month.

The presidency involves mostly dry bureaucratic business, but it sets the agenda of a bloc with nearly 450 million people. Mr. Jansa’s views are closely aligned with proudly illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland, which also stand accused of undermining critical media and promoting wild conspiracy theories.

With Slovenia holding the reins in Brussels through December, efforts to get leaders like Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary to respect media freedom and other principles on which the union was founded could falter further.

Grega Repovz, the Slovenian editor photographed in the Soviet hat, said he and many colleagues had been smeared by Mr. Jansa and his lieutenants “so many times that we don’t really care and try to laugh.”

But he was taken aback recently when he saw his Moscow tourist photograph featured during a European Parliament debate on the state of press freedom in Slovenia.

Mr. Jansa appeared by video link from Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, and used the photograph as a screen backdrop, along with pictures of other journalists in red T-shirts and holding red flags.

“How can I explain to someone sitting in Brussels that I am not a crazy communist?” asked Mr. Repovz, the chief editor of Mladina, a magazine that was instrumental in undermining Communist rule in Yugoslavia, of which Slovenia was then a part, in the 1980s.

“I don’t know how you fight lies like this,” he said.

How to respond to Mr. Jansa has become a headache for others, too.

When the Council of Europe released a report complaining about the “toxic and hostile environment” for Slovenian journalists and a “striking deterioration in media freedom,” Mr. Jansa denounced its author, Europe’s human rights commissioner, as “part of #fakenews network. Well paid by our money.”

An early adopter of Twitter — Mr. Jansa started using it as a political cudgel years before Donald J. Trump did — the prime minister is known to his critics as “Marshal Twito,” a reference to Marshal Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s longtime dictator.

With Mr. Trump now banned from Twitter, Mr. Jansa has taken his place, albeit with far fewer followers, in setting the benchmark for intemperate social media messaging by a national leader.

Mr. Jansa’s government has since suspended funding for the agency, the country’s principal provider of local and national news, forcing it to rely on crowdfunding to keep going.

There has been bad blood for years between the news agency’s director, Bojan Veselinovic, and Mr. Jansa, who has denounced him as a “political tool of the far left.”

“What the STA is going through and the government’s attitude to it are unprecedented,” Mr. Veselinovic said. The government, he added, wants to turn the news agency into a “bullhorn for the prime minister.”

Also cut off this year from modest government funds have been Mladina, the magazine edited by Mr. Repovz and where Mr. Jansa worked as a commentator in the 1980s, and Radio Student, an iconic fixture of the alternative media scene since the 1960s.

A conservative Catholic radio station and a bombastic, barely watched far-right television station run by Mr. Jansa’s allies did receive funds.

Ursula Menih Dokl, the director general of the culture ministry’s Media Directorate, denied using funding to squeeze critical outlets, but said the media had long been skewed in favor of the left. Many left-leaning outlets, she added, still get government money.

“With small steps like this we will lay the foundation for a more plural media landscape,” she said of the ministry’s funding decisions.

A ministry-commissioned study by Media Faculty, a journalism school in Ljubljana, found no evidence that critical media had been muzzled, concluding that most outlets “treat the government markedly less favorably than they do the opposition.”

Vid Bester, the editor of Radio Student’s cultural programming, conceded that “we are quite left-wing” but said the station had long enriched Slovenia.

“If they really want to promote pluralism in the media space, there is no better place to do this than Radio Student,” he said. “Instead, they went for this brutal hatchet job.”

Mr. Jansa, an enthusiastic member of the Yugoslav communist party in his youth, has made no secret of his distaste for critical media.

In an essay he wrote and posted on the government’s website in November, he proclaimed that a “war against the media” would “be more than welcome.”

Mr. Jansa and his supporters insist that complaints about threats to media freedom have been ginned up by humorless leftist political enemies.

“He is a passionate person who says things on Twitter,” said Mitja Irsic, a culture ministry official. “But there is a difference between saying something stupid on the internet and executing it in real life.”

Marko Milosavljevic, professor of journalism at Ljubljana University and an outspoken critic of Mr. Jansa, said threats to the media go far beyond Twitter insults.

“They don’t see the media as a watchdog, only as a Chihuahua that gets thrown little bones and runs around with them,” he said.

Particularly worrying, he added, are signs that Slovenia’s most popular television channel, Pop TV, has been pressured to curb critical coverage of the government since its Czech owner, Petr Kellner, met with Mr. Jansa in Ljubljana in December.

Mr. Kellner died three months later in a helicopter crash in Alaska, but his Czech company has since ordered news program editors to send translations of their bulletins to Prague each day so that management can watch out for anything that might upset Mr. Jansa.

The prime minister added his own note of menace in May with a tweet that featured a short video of a fearsome black panther and a message to Pop TV that “I am across the corner.”

Bernard Nezmah, a sociology professor and a Jansa-supporting columnist for Mladina, acknowledged that the prime minister had tried to intimidate critical media voices, but added that “his intimidation does not work. None of the media that gets attacked by Jansa has changed its attitude.”

He noted that the country’s three main daily newspapers and its two most watched television stations, Pop TV and a public broadcaster, still regularly criticize the authorities.

Media watchdogs, however, believe there is cause for alarm, especially with Slovenia about to take over the EU presidency.

The International Press Institute, Reporters Without Borders and other media freedom organizations sent a letter to the head of the European Union’s executive arm in March, warning that Mr. Jansa could “use the pulpit” of the European presidency “to attack journalists” at home and across the bloc.

This, they said, “is deeply troubling and could have a normalizing effect on this kind of behavior in the future.”



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