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New in Europe – a PM as dissident

Dr Bernard Nežmah

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New in Europe – PM as online dissident

by Bernard Nežmah, columnist and former editor of Mladina

Ljubljana, April 29, 2021

Janez was once my star columnist at Mladina, then in its most playful phase. He had been jailed by the Communists. I too had a run-in with the law – see below. But Janez’s 1988 conviction was serious stuff. Investigators found a copy of a military order in his desk-drawer.

That was not in itself a crime, but the regime used it as a pretext to close the magazine, which was considered the opposition’s weekly and Janša as a party critic who was running for the presidency of the Youth Organisation, something unthinkable for the establishment.

The military court – in the absence of public and civil lawyers – convicted two editors, Janša and an army officer for the attempt to publish the state secret. The event triggered mass protests which turned into the Slovenian political spring.

The conviction was overturned a few years later, by which time Janez Janša was minister of defence in post-Communist, independent, Slovenia. He is now, at 62, prime minister for the third time.

Is it ominous to have a journalist as a prime minister? He did OK before. But the track-record of journalist leaders – Churchill, Mussolini, Boris Johnson – is uneven. On a personal level, neither his political party nor Janša himself has the media dominance and endorsement which many imagine. This is not Hungary.

Instead Janša is routinely denounced by almost all Slovene media as a bossy autocrat spreading fear among the 2,079,165 Slovenes. His reputation, however false, is rapidly becoming international. At home, for a year now, protests outside the Slovene parliament have become a familiar sight, routinely, and positively, reported by the major media.

One day, at a larger-then-usual anti-government demonstration, a man was filmed on state TV shouting: “Janša must be killed”. He was not arrested or even prosecuted. On social media, someone else wrote that Janša’s police minister should be “killed like a dog”. The prosecutor’s office dismissed the case. It was judged unlikely to frighten the minister.

Slovenia’s is a unique form of terror. But whose? PM Janša is regularly said to be attacking the media and individual journalists. But his own channel of communication is mainly (like Russian journalists’) confined to the ether, and he hits back only over Twitter with acerbic remarks.

This lonely, enforced electronic captivity can sometimes drive him to go too far. During his years in opposition, state television reported bizarre claims that his SDS party was recruiting a private army. (Still a member of the centrist EPP Group in Brussels, the SDS is now written off as “formerly the Social Democratic Party, now a right-wing party”)

The private army turned out to be a phantom, and Janša tweeted a stinging fake advertisement using the names of two well-known women journalists from state TV who were supposedly prostituting themselves for 30€ to 35€ a time. The media unanimously condemned him, and the two women sued for defamation. A few years later, in a TV interview, Janša conceded the tweet had perhaps been inappropriate.

As a Twitterer of Trump-like stamina he has inevitably been mocked as “Marshal Tvito”, and his Trump-like tweeting has inevitably led him down some political culs-de-sac. The stupidest one congratulated The Donald’s Republican party while the votes were still being counted. Even his political allies are publicly urging him to take the tweet down, at least for a few weeks.

So why is the premier not behaving like a head of state, and more like a cyber-dissident? There are three major political newspapers in the country (Delo, Dnevnik, Večer) and two television stations (private Pop TV and state RTV Slovenia). The first four have for years pursued a solidly anti- Janša line, whether or not he is in power.

In a large extent so has the national broadcaster RTV but from time to time it approves of his policies, or reports them factually. And he gets some sympathy from Nova 24 TV, its relatively popular web portal, and from the weekly Demokracija, all related to his SDS-party. But as a propaganda machine they don’t add up to much of an army.

Mostly, they preach to the converted. Has their status at least improved with the arrival of another Janša government? When NOVA 24 was filming an anti-government demonstration recently, a well-known artist simply confiscated the camera and demanded the cameraman stop filming and delete the footage.

Only when the police intervened did he get his camera back. The main news in the mainstream media did not present the incident as an attack on journalists.

Despite our small size, Slovenia’s media reflect a yawning political schism becoming common in Europe. It manifests itself here in the usual partisan reportage, pro or contra, with the dominant media overwhelmingly anti-Janshist, or at least anti-Janša .

He is then, a head of state in the position of a dissident. Since he has almost zero influence on mainstream daily media, he bypasses them and polemicises via Twitter. Such regular “intimidations” are about as frightening as paper darts. But for now it is pretty well all he has. If it won’t convince Slovenia, how is he, with his shaky coalition government, to impress the giants of the European media? We’ll soon find out, but it is not looking good.

At least his tweets have becoming reassuringly dull. “The consequences of the epidemic can be significantly mitigated by our own efforts,” he wrote the other day, “and with the support of EU funds”, That’s more like the accepted European way.

  • In February 1995, Dr Nežmah’s Mladina column insulted the mayor of Ljubljana, former foreign minister Dimitri Rupel. A member of the once-dominant Liberal-Democratic party, Rupel sued and won. Nežmah was put on parole for a year. This was overturned in 1997 by the Supreme Court allowing journalists to be critical (even nasty about) politicians’ actions
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