By: Álvaro Peñas
Across Europe, especially where left-wing governments are in power, freedom of speech is being eroded and dissenters, those who do not accept “modern” values, are increasingly persecuted. What is the situation with freedom of speech in Slovenia?
Very bad at the moment. The new Prime Minister, Robert Golob, who portrays himself as a liberal abroad, had already announced before the elections that after his victory he would take on two openly conservative media outlets in particular: the Nova24TV television channel and the Demokracija magazine. This is now coming true, because we who work for these two media outlets are constantly under attack. It is no longer that they want to silence dissenters, they want to physically erase them from the Slovenian media space. The new government is implementing the leftist maxim: more censorship means more freedom. Unfortunately, people believe this. Well, not everyone. Last Saturday we held a big rally in support of Nova24TV and Demokracija magazine. Around 4,000 people turned up and donated money. I gave a speech in which I stressed that we must not be silent, but that we must speak out boldly and clearly.
It is silence that the left-wing villains are counting on. All of this has cost me my health, but I am not sorry that I chose to fight for freedom of speech. That is also why today I am being tried and convicted in the courts, prosecuted by the prosecutors, questioned by the police, slandered in the media.
You were recently convicted at first instance for publishing a satirical piece by Alexander Škorc when you were editor of Demokracija magazine.
It’s true. I was sentenced to six months in prison and two years’ probation for allegedly defaming migrants, and the author to five months in prison and two years’ probation. It is a paradox of sorts that I received a higher sentence than the author. This shows that the aim of this trial is to destroy Democracy magazine.
What did the article say that deserved a trial and conviction?
The article was satire and was therefore published in the satire section, and that was also clearly marked. Moreover, the article was the fifth part of a satire, but the court only considered the fifth part and did not read the satire as a whole. The long-time author, Škorc, used very strong and sensationalist words, saying that God would create a virus that would take care of illegal migrants and remove the weeds. The author also warned that God will also deal with all the bad people on Earth, so that in the end only a few hundred million will be left. In short, it was a rather science-fictional text which our readers, as the research has shown, did not take seriously and perceived as satire. The judge, in announcing his verdict, said that it did not matter whether it was satire or not. In his view, the article insulted the dignity of (illegal) migrants. Which is crazy. The practice of the courts so far has been to acquit on such charges, but apparently I was the scapegoat so that the left-wing government will now be able to boast to Brussels that Slovenia has also convicted a ‘racist’.
In your closing speech, which we also published, you mentioned that the satire was about the government’s inaction. Who is the article attacking – the government or the migrants?
Both. First, illegal migrants who violate the territorial sovereignty of the Slovenian state and have more rights than Slovenians when they arrive, and then the government for not doing enough to stop illegal border crossings. The author of the satire believes that if the migrants cannot be stopped, or the government cannot stop them, God will, and in the end God will deal with all the bad people. In fact, it is comical that an atheist court believes that God can do this.
The prosecution has presented witnesses who do not like the article; so can opinions be judged because we disagree with them?
In Slovenia, the left-wing elite, which controls more than 80% of the media, is convinced that left-wing opinion is the only opinion that counts. Any deviation from their opinion is labelled xenophobia, racism, fascism, Nazism, homophobia and I don’t know what other phobia. This is also how the witnesses acted.
Doesn’t this all seem like an Orwellian process?
I could not agree more. This is an Orwellian process. But Orwell could not in his worst nightmares have imagined what is happening now. My opinion is that we in Slovenia must have the courage to resist this. The large turnout at the rally in support of Nova24TV and the magazine Demokracija also shows that ordinary, common-sense people are slowly waking up. Maybe it took such Orwellian processes to wake us up. We need to have the courage to say what we think, to speak our minds. There have always been people in history who have persecuted dissenters and wanted to silence them, but there have also been people in history who have stood up against that and defended freedom of speech. We now have a historic duty to resist this (not only in Slovenia, but also elsewhere in Europe). I say this: far back in history, Slovenian ancestors were tempering and forging the best steel in the then Roman Empire. And if need be, and if necessary, we will again be tempering and forging the best steel.
Surprisingly, the media were not interested in the trial. Why do you think there was such a lack of interest?
They didn’t care, even though they raised a hell of a lot of dust when the satire was published. But there was no one from the left-wing media at any of the hearings. That just means that they have done their political and ideological work. At the time the satire was published, a centre-right government was in power. And since the largest right-wing party in Slovenia (SDS, led by Janez Janša) is the co-owner of Demokracija magazine (Demokracija magazine was founded more than 20 years ago with the aim of balancing the media space), the satire (can you imagine, satire!) was used to attack the conservatives. This is the way it is: the left-wing media are servants of the deep state, where we recognise Milan Kučan as the leader, the last president of the Communist Party, which until independence persecuted ideological and political opponents with the help of the secret police (Udba). And now he is the one talking about democracy and freedom. Disgusting, really.
You are the President of the Association of Journalists – have you received support from other Slovenian journalists’ associations?
I’d rather not comment on that, it’s not worth it. But I will say this. At the height of the drive against me, I was left almost alone. I had the support of the editorial board and a small circle of people who turned out to be true friends at the time. Others have shown their true colours, but above all their lack of understanding of what freedom of speech is – that the essence of freedom of speech is also the expression of opinions that are upsetting, shocking and offensive, and above all the expression of opinions with which you disagree. The majority, unfortunately including on the right, has shown itself to be functionally illiterate on this issue. This is certainly the result of decades of living under a totalitarian regime and education system. There was one upright man who publicly supported me and Demokracija magazine, even though he knew that the media might throw dung at him. That was the Minister of Development, Zvone Černač, and I am still grateful to him for his words of support. May God give him good health and courage. Anyway, I wrote several comments at the time. In one of them I clearly pointed the finger at the Slovenian Pontius Pilates. I wrote that today we are being persecuted for strong and shocking words in satire, but that tomorrow they will be persecuted for much milder words. And that is exactly what is happening today.
Is this verdict the beginning of the end of press freedom in Slovenia?
Yes, that seems to be the case. In the summer, Boris Tomasič of Nova24TV was also slammed for his words. That is also why the support meeting that was mentioned earlier was organised. But on the other hand, I am optimistic. The right is winning across Europe, which means hope for freedom of speech and freedom in general. We just have to not give in and give up. I am not sure that our generation will enjoy the fruits of this struggle. As things stand now, the struggle not only for freedom of speech, but also for personal and economic freedom, may be a long one. But at least we will be proud of the fact that we have not willingly submitted and started to live in their imaginary world, in their parallel world that they are drawing for us. What we are doing today, who are fighting for freedom of speech, we are doing first and foremost for future generations. And when we retreat into the shelter of time, we can be proud that we have won freedom of expression for our children and grandchildren.
Jože Biščak is ex-editor-in-chief of the conservative-oriented magazine Demokracija and president of the Slovenian Association of Patriotic Journalists