The intimidation of Slovenia’s chief auditor began shortly after his institution began to look into public purchases of protective equipment during the pandemic.
“There was a sudden change,” Tomaz Vesel, auditor general, told the Financial Times. “Attacks on the court [of auditors], and very personal attacks on me started. . . with the clear aim of relativizing the possible discoveries.
Vesel’s audit identified irregularities in supply, but also acknowledged the frantic race to buy masks and gowns in the early days of the crisis. Yet even then the smear campaign continued – with successes in the pro-government media and a volley of tweets of Prime Minister Janez Jansa questioning the integrity of Vesel.
After the report was released, police began investigating the audit office, Vesel said. “It was the first time – I’ve never been faced with this in my entire career, and neither has the institution. I hope there is something substantial behind it. Otherwise, it is a form of political pressure.
Vesel’s treatment is indicative of growing concerns over Slovenia’s democratic standards and the rule of law as the country prepares to assume the rotating EU presidency in July.
Jansa is well known for his aggressive interventions on Twitter. But critics fear his government is also trying to roll back democratic checks and balances, as in neighboring Hungary.
“You can really feel the culture of not accepting the checks and balances in our society,” Vesel said. “The Constitutional Court, the Ombudsman and the Court of Auditors are like an immune system. If you attack your own immune system, several diseases are on the horizon.
Jansa and his ally, Home Secretary Ales Hojs, have criticized recent court verdicts, including a Constitutional Court ruling, which ruled that the pandemic restrictions imposed by the government unduly undermined individual freedoms.
“In democracies there should be narrow limits of acceptable criticism of judges, but in Slovenia our government does not respect any of those limits,” said Rok Ceferin, a court judge. “We are discredited, humiliated and insulted every time we make a decision hated by the government, by the Prime Minister and, in some cases, by his close associates. “
Jansa’s political career mirrors that of his close ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Both were anti-Communist liberals who turned into die-hard right-wing Eurosceptics.
Jansa was a communist youth leader before becoming a political dissident in the late 1980s when Yugoslavia, of which Slovenia was a part, began to collapse. He wrote articles for Mladina, a youth publication he now publicly insults, and was arrested in 1988 for an article he co-wrote that authorities said betrayed military secrets.
His arrest sparked mass protests that many attribute to the accelerating pace of democratic reforms in Slovenia.
But in 2013, during a second term as prime minister, he was found guilty of accepting bribes as part of an arms purchase deal. The constitutional court overturned the verdict in 2015. But Jansa has long criticized the media for pushing him to resign.
After returning to power for a third term in March last year, when a left-wing coalition collapsed, he said that “war on the media would be more than welcome in Slovenia ”.
“An atmosphere of intolerance and hatred is created by a small circle of editors, having both family and capital ties to the pillars of the Deep State,” he wrote in an essay.
He has made a sport by publicly attacking the media and journalists on Twitter, which has earned him the nickname “Marshall Tweeto”.
While much of the pressure comes from social media, in what Vesel describes as a “well-designed and well-produced campaign” with an “attack pattern”, some Slovenes fear significant damage could be done.
In March, the Slovenian Association of Prosecutors complained at the Council of Europe, the watchdog for democracy in the region, about what he called “a lot of unacceptable pressure” on the judiciary. He noted public criticism of Jansa and her allies and the blocking of several key judicial appointments.
He also stressed that the government has delayed the appointment of two delegates from Slovenia to the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, set up to examine the embezzlement of European funds. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office is supposed to open on June 1, but will have to do without the Slovenian prosecutors.
The association said it was because the candidates had “fallen out of favor with the SDS. [the Slovenian Democratic party] and its president Janez Jansa ”.
The government did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
The Prime Minister also led a campaign against the Slovenian State News Agency (STA). It started shortly after a meeting in October 2020 between Jansa and Orban, said Petra Lesjak Tusek, president of the Slovenian Journalists Association. The government complained, she said, that an agency report on the meeting was too short. Shortly after, he cut off public funding.
“The agency is on the verge of insolvency,” said editor-in-chief Barbara Strukelj.
Jansa accused the STA, the national broadcaster RTV and the largest private television station POP and other media of spreading “lies”. The government has proposed an overhaul of media legislation which “has the common objective of punishing the media,” said Marko Milosavljevic, professor of journalism at the University of Ljubljana.
He said Jansa was following Orban’s playbook by shutting down critical media voices and ensuring allies took control of other outlets.
The Slovenian government follows all “Hungary’s strategies, all their censorship and control schemes over the public media,” he added.
Jansa rebuffed claims that his government is pressuring the media.
In March, he clashed with Sophie in t’Veld, MEP, during a videoconference hearing on democratic standards. When she refused to allow him to play a video claiming journalists are biased, Jansa accused her of censorship – and unplugged the call.