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The new face of censorship

Self-censorship creeps up on and moves into the spines of journalists who work for free expression. When the threat is indirect – Slovenia’s journalists and writers can be published without risking their lives – serious restraints become harder to handle. In her article publisher Tanja Tuma describes how censorship in Slovenia, a seemingly modern and democratic country, can subtly, in the shadow of the pandemic, revive.

Credits Text: Tanja Tuma Illustration: Eric Drooker Poem by Boris A. Novak Translation of poem: Boris A. Novak July 28 2020

On friday for the fourteenth week in the row thousands of Slovenians go out on the streets to protest against the right-wing government’s challenges to civil liberties and freedom of speech. Limited by the government under the pretext of fighting the pandemic. They ride bicycles or walk in proscribed distance. Boris A. Novak, professor of literature and one of our most famous poets, former president of Slovenian PEN and international PEN Vice-president, has written the poem Freedom is a verb that has become an unofficial motto of the protests:

FREEDOM IS A VERB

from and for Monika van Paemel

Freedom is not a frozen memory of the monument
Freedom is not a slogan of the political establishment

Freedom is not a mode of payment in the legal code
Freedom is not an empty meaning of the noun in the wordage

Of the Cambridge Dictionary of the English Language
Freedom is the loudest whisper, a wing, a windy message

Freedom is not a bunker, a shit made of armoured concrete
Freedom is not a flight, an illusion of the retreat

Freedom is neither an order nor a forbidden border
Freedom is less and more than laws of the lockdown

Freedom is nothing and freedom is a crown

Freedom is laughing and staring and daring
And changing now and here and everywhere

Freedom is a breath and the air
Stronger than destruction and despair

Freedom is not gold, cannot be bought or sold
Freedom is not guaranteed by its guardian, by the statehood
Freedom is much more expensive, freedom is attitude

Freedom is an unknown road, here, at our threshold
Freedom is a voice, deadly fragile and superb

Freedom is a verb, freedom is a verb

____________________

In democracies of the European Union, the European convention on human rights and local constitutions are guardians to the freedom of speech. A journalist, a writer or an artist cannot be prosecuted for expressing his or her opinion. He or she must not die like Socrates by drinking a poisonous beverage of hemlock for his criticism.

Still, is poison always a liquid or a gas? Could words be a kind of poison, too?

Unlike Mexico, Turkey, and other life threatening countries for journalists in the world, Slovenia is a peaceful EU country. Our constitution enables freedom of speech along with other liberties of a modern western society. However, the fact that we don’t have laws to imply censorship does not mean we don’t experience it, only its face has changed with modern times.

A short trip into the history of the censorship on our soil presented the exhibition of the National and University Library in Slovenia. Entitled STOP, CENSORSHIP! (Autumn 2019). It showed various forms of censorship from the Austrian Empire until 1848, in the period of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy until the end of the WWI, and in the roughly seven decades of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and later the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under the Communist regime. Among some incredible facts, including the awareness of the Communist regime to collect and preserve the works of Slovenian dissidents opposing the regime, it illuminated the vastly spread self-censorship of journalists and writers in the former Yugoslavia. Slovenian writer and PEN member Igor Torkar (1913-2004) wrote: “The worst of all censors is the author himself. Self-censorship crawls into writer’s mind subconsciously when the ruling regime succeeds to create a kind of universal fear among the citizens. This fear has since the dawn of time been the glue of all autocratic regimes, preventing their collapse. The fear, which generates fear, so that you always fear something. Such fear creates apathy. The apathy pushes a writer into intellectual and spiritual immigration. A spiritual immigrant cannot be a good writer.”

The fear and the self-censorship have not gone away after Slovenia won its independence and established a democratic society in 1991. Grounds for self-censorship are various, as it inhabits different spheres of publicist activities including social media that store all our likes, shares and commentaries from here to eternity. As writers rarely hide under phantoms and trolls (reserved for the cowards hiding their identity on-line), we put our opinions and hearts on the plate. Therefore, not only I, but every one of us thinks twice before he shares a post criticizing the government or members of business and cultural elite. What good will it come of it? Only damage.

Some of us feel we must, so we do it anyway.

In many countries, not only in Slovenia, the economic aspect of free lancers is an important reason for self-censorship. If I report on this businessman, politician, VIP, I will face troubles with my editor. There will be no more jobs for me. No new reports. How will I make ends meet? In Slovenia, the reporting on Panama Papers was closed almost as soon as it opened, as though there would be no corrupt Slovenians with fat bank accounts in the offshore countries. Was it the impulse to survive? Torkar, a Nazi camp survivor, convicted and jailed by the Communists for foreign espionage during the Dachau Trials, understood very well the vicious impact of fear.

In the wake of self-censorship and economic censorship, Slovenia and many European countries face probably the most dangerous form of censorship – the hate speech. It involves on-line harassment and smear campaigns that many times incite physical violence. The cry of the German right party Alternative für Deutschland Lügenpresse, Lügenpresse! echoes from Slovenian right-wing media, aiming at journalists and writers, who choose to question government measures. It’s been there before, in the virtual air like smelly black smoke from burning tyres. Yet, after the recent change of the Slovenian government, which positions itself centre right, the attacks happen directly from the government’s Twitter account or the Twitter accounts of the leading politicians against individuals and against the media that are not tuned in with their policies. Now, the major target is the National Television of Slovenia (RTV Slovenija), whose journalists risk their health to report objectively on the latest developments in the country. The latest post on the official Prime Minister’s site is entitled War with the Media, explaining at length Mr. Janez Janša’s point of view on the Slovenian media landscape and the public slowly accepting the spread of “media lies” as though one would be slowly cooking the frog.

Everything published in the media certainly isn’t always the truth, however, claiming that Slovenian media are more or less leftist propaganda is heavily absurd. Sadly, the attacks on the media were one of the first moves of the new government.

On Friday, March 13, the Crisis Headquarters against Covid-19 of the Slovenian Government re-twitted the following message: "Wanted 4 patients who escaped from the madhouse and are contaminated by virus covid-marx/lenin". It named four prominent Slovenian intellectuals as those patients: Slavoj Žižek, a famous philosopher, Darko Štrajn, a professor of philosophy and pedagogics, Blaž Zgaga, an investigative journalist, and Boris A. Novak, a poet and professor of literature, Slovenian vice-president of PEN International, who won this honorary title during the 1990s Balkan wars, risking his life to help writers from Sarajevo. Slovene PEN issued a public statement rejecting the abuse of power against intellectuals and challenging the legal institutions to sanction the attack. Allegedly, journalist Blaž Zgaga was also receiving death threats. As a result, Zgaga and PEN members found ourselves the targets of the smear campaign propelled by the media close to the political party leading the government coalition. Various international journalist associations under the wing of the Reporters without Borders tried to protect Blaž Zgaga, which only fueled the debate lower and lower, into the gutter. When Deutsche Welle nominated Zgaga for the Freedom of Speech Award, an outcry of the right wing Slovenian public found the epilogue in the strange correspondence between Mrs. Romana Tomc, member of the European Parliament (EPP) and the management of the German broadcaster. Mrs. Tomc asked the DW for the explanation who and why nominated the Slovenian journalist Zgaga for the honour. It goes without saying that the jury of the DW needn’t justify its decision to anybody. (5)

The work of Slovenian journalists has been difficult since the declaration of the Covid-19 epidemic on March 12, ending May 15. Still, many limitations persist. During epidemic, the journalists had to send their questions to the government PR office in advance. The answers depend on the focus of the government speakers. The journalists can only follow the press statements on-line, so they cannot ask questions during the conference, one of the major tools of journalism for getting information. In her address, Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Mrs. Dunja Mijatović pointed out: “There is no doubt that governments are facing unprecedented challenges during this pandemic. This cannot however be an excuse to clamp down on the press and thus restrict people’s access to information. Journalists and media actors carry out indispensable work that serves the public good. Their work must be protected, not undermined.” She named the case of Slovenia. Her statement challenged a shameful response by the Slovenian government, claiming that thirty years after independence and several right, left, and centre governments, our public media are communist and corrupt, working for the dark forces of the deep state. One would LOL, however, it is not at all funny, all this venom coming from the top.

Speaking of the top. Slovenia was shocked by the recent judgement of the Supreme Court in the lawsuit between Mr. Janez Janša, the Prime Minister, and the Slovenian public radio and television station RTVSLO journalist, Mrs. Mojca Šetinc Pašek. In a Tweet in 2016, he called her and her colleague Evgenija Carl “prostitutes of a public house”, evidently the national TV. On two legal instances, Mrs. Šetinc Pašek won the lawsuit, however, in May 2020, the Supreme Court judgement finalized the insult as part of the political dialogue, i.e. as both parties are public persons, the politician and the journalist. Slovenian journalists speak of the negative consequences this judgement will have on the media landscape and the freedom of speech, notably the self-censorship.

In the first days of July, two government announcements have shaken the Slovenian media landscape. First, the acquisition of the Planet TV (founded and run by the state-owned Slovenian telephone company Telekom Slovenija, producing huge financial losses) by the Hungarian TV2 Channel owned by the oligarch József Vide from the business network of the governing party Fidesz. The Slovenian government approval of the deal required by the law is still pending, yet they will embrace it. The newly acquired Planet TV should merge with Nova24 TV, a Slovenian television close to the leading SDS party and owned by Hungarian businessmen close to the president Orbán. Nova24 TV has a long history of smear campaigns against migrants, intellectuals, and cultural workers in Slovenia. The new Hungarian owned merged broadcasting company would be able to compete with the national public RTV Slovenija for government funds and advertising pie of the companies controlled by the state. This leads us to the second news. The Ministry of Culture announced that they are planning to submit a new media law to the parliament, which would chip off a big chunk from the national television and radio license money and redistribute it among other commercial televisions to enhance the pluralization. This would cause a fatal blow to the financial sustainability of the national public radio and television RTV Slovenija. In other words, with a little help from Hungarian friends and the radio and TV license paid by the Slovenian people, the leading political party would gain a major platform to promote its policy and gain the next regular elections in 2022. The new media law is being written far from the public eye, in secrecy, the public debate limited to four instead of minimum 30 days, which raises suspicions and distrust. Will Slovenia become Orbán’s media colony? Will Slovenians be paying the radio and TV license for spreading hatred among us?

During the public protests against government measures and corruption, which recently take place every Friday afternoon in big Slovenian cities (several thousand citizens peacefully bike or walk through the cities wearing facial masks to avoid spreading the virus), the messages on the boards (and on social media) are disrespectful, aggressive, and poisonous aimed at the politicians, public servants and personalities. It is our constitutional right to protest, however, we should all be concerned with the level of animosities and radical polarization of the society expressed by the wording on the right and on the left wing of the political landscape.

Hate speech is a form of violence.

Unfortunately, it is the Slovenian paradigm. It does not only come forward in the commentaries of the trolls, but in the body of the articles written by journalists, writers, and columnists. It is used deliberately to silence the critical opinions and stifle the public debate. Words like horde, parasite, idiot, dung, shit, dick are found in the body of the articles written by opinion makers with PhD titles, important jobs, and rankings. The targets of these smear campaigns are journalists, writers, intellectuals, immigrants, Chinese people, but also institutions like WHO. Threatening military vocabulary underlines the blasphemies, so the citizens feel as though any minute, somebody would bring us in front of a firing squad. The message is evident: Citizens, journalists, writers, don’t think, write or publicly criticize undemocratic measures and phenomena in our society! Or, we will throw obscenities and lies at you until you shut up for good.

In democracies, self-censorship, economic censorship, and hate speech violence for censorship purposes are tearing apart the fragile membrane of our civilisation.

Hate speech is the most dangerous form of censorship. It creates an atmosphere of fear in which everything is possible. It is the end of dialogue and the eclipse of democracy.

Living with it means sitting on a powder keg with a lighted match in our hand, waiting for the first shot.
Then we will all long for peace like these days, we all long for health.
Not only in Slovenia, everywhere in the world.

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