In-depth | discrimination

Is hate speech in Slovenia now mainstream?

Online abuse and ethnically tinged slurs flow from the top down.

By - 03.06.2020

“You call yourself an avant-garde, an untouchable divine, you live off the blisters of the people and ignore the facts. Any doubt in your goddessness is already an attack. In the former Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) had such status. Yugoslavia is gone, comrade. And it won’t be back again. At least not in Slovenia!” 

This is the tweet the current Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša recently wrote on his official account, sending a message to a popular Slovenian TV presenter, well-known journalist and editor at the public broadcaster RTV, Jelena Aščić. 

Janez Janša’s Twitter account often sends messages to people he does not agree with like journalist Jelena Aščić. Photo: Katja Lihtenvalner.

Since Janša formed a new government in March, his comments on his social media networks, and those by his party — the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) — have made many feel uncomfortable. His Twitter posts — a favorite tool for Janša — are full of hateful online campaigns, while new enemies are found almost weekly. 

His tweets and attitude are also serving as an inspiration for others who express similar ideas, often directing anger and frustration toward people whose origin is from one of the countries in the region. 

“Hate speech has become radical in our country,” says Boris Vezjak, a media analyst and professor at the University of Maribor. “New targets are found daily — from the LGBT+ community, Croats, people from the Balkans, people from the Yugoslav republics, refugees, ‘radical leftists’ and ‘left fascists.’”

But, journalists like Aščić have gotten used to the insults, intimidation and hate-fueled comments from Janša over the past decade. During this period he has been the most powerful political figure in the country. 

Corruption allegations and protests

Janez Janša is a politician whose name is well known all over the region. His political career began in Yugoslavia with the Communist Youth. Soon, he joined other young people and became well known for his criticism directed toward the JNA. Back in the ’80s, he was also recognized as a peace activist and author whose work was published by Mladina magazine, one of the most important media outlets in Slovenia. 

Janez Janša has been in politics almost his entire life, since the ’80s in Yugoslavia, until today. His career, however, has been full of controversies. Photo: Government of Slovenia official site.

At the end of the ’80s, Janša was arrested with three other journalists from Mladina and tried at the military court in Ljubljana for — as was explained to the public — exposing military secrets. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, an act that triggered mass protests all over Slovenia, with support from other Yugoslav republics. 

After prison, Janša was involved in forming the first opposition political party in Slovenia. After the first democratic elections in 1990, he was named the Minister of Defense, and a year later he took a leading role during the so-called 10-Day War that led to independence from Yugoslavia. 

From the very start, Janša's career was followed by scandals, and some of his career he spent in prison.

In May 1993, he was elected president of the newly formed SDS, and remains in that position.   

“Janša has been leading the SDS for 27 years. How can this be democratic?” Ivo Hvalica, once a prominent member of the SDS, wondered

From the very start, his career has been followed by scandals, and some of his career has been spent in prison. He has been accused and convicted of corruption, including in the famous 2008 Patria case, in which he was found guilty of accepting an offer of a bribe when negotiating a major arms deal.

Yet, he has never given up on his political career and he has led the government two times previously, from 2004 to 2008, and from 2012 to 2013. He got a new chance to lead in March this year when his party formed a majority coalition. 

Today, he is considered one of the main allies of Hungrian prime minister Victor Orban and their Polish colleague Mareusz Morawicki. All three are well known for their radical anti-migrant policies.

Just two months after taking office, Janša’s government found itself caught up in a corruption scandal over the purchase of face masks and ventilators to combat COVID-19. 

At the end of April, Ivan Gale, deputy head of the Commodities Reserve Agency, spoke openly on public broadcaster RTV Slovenija about certain providers being favored over others by Zdravko Počivalsek, minister of economic development and technology and Matej Tonin, minister of defense.

After the revelation Gale was granted police protection, as there was suspicion that his life could be in danger after being exposed on public television.

Gale was joined in raising concerns over the PPE procurement process by medical specialist Rihard Knafelj, who among others revealed the Commission of Medical Experts had assessed 90 offers for ventilators and the one offered by the supplier chosen, Geneplanet, had been assessed as “the least appropriate” of the 13 that were deemed acceptable for COVID-19 patients. 

The thin-skinned Janša was very annoyed by allegations of corruption and the protests that followed. In one of his tweets he called the protesters “caviar socialists.”

Knafelj received a death threat after he backed Gale’s story. 

Others who have been involved in revealing allegations of wrongdoing have also been publicly criticized by SDS politicians and media that are close to the party. 

At the same time, much of the public has shown support for the whistleblower Gale and the public broadcaster RTV Slovenija that revealed the government’s alleged wrongdoing. For the past six weeks, a regular Friday cycling protest has been held, initially against corruption, but it has now expanded to include calls for the protection of the environment and against attacks on the media.

The allegations of corruption and the protests that followed have however riled Janša, who tweeted that the protesters are “caviar socialists.”

But this is nothing new. 

Followers of Janša’s Twitter feed can regularly find posts that indicate anger, revenge and hate, usually directed toward those who are critical of him. 

While he doesn’t spare male journalists, calling them liars, Janša often focuses on women critical toward his work, especially those who are powerful and well known in society. In his attempts to discredit them, he has support from his closest allies, including some public figures, faithful politicians, and sometimes the media. 

But, this time he has already polarized the Slovenian public to such an extent that his coalition partners are beginning to show the first signs of discomfort.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) has also rung the alarm bell at the rhetoric used by the Slovene PM and called on the EU to step in.

It is worrying to see the rhetoric of a Trump or an Orban now infecting Slovenia,” EFJ’s general secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez said in May. “We call on the European Union to sanction this incitement of hatred against journalists.”

Mysterious supporter 

It is not the first time Janša has used this approach to deal with critical media and people who he does not consider his friends. Among those to previously clash with Janša is the Mayor of Ljubljana Zoran Jankovič, who beat Janša, the SDS candidate, in 2011.

Back then, a xenophobic text appeared on the official SDS website, titled: “Jankovič won by using artificially created fear and Slovenian generosity with [his] citizenship.” The article suggested that the Serbian born Jankovič only won the elections because the Balkan diaspora had been mobilized to vote for him.

“Opankarski žurnalizem” (Slipper journalism) is how Janša and his followers call the media who oppose them, including the famed Mladina magazine. Photo: Katja Lihtenvalner.

“There was a mass turnout of voters and new citizens, with foreign accents,” the text says. “They came to the polls in groups of 10 or more. They wear tracksuits and have voting numbers written on their hands. Outside of the Ljubljana polling station there were small groups of people constantly making phone calls, many of whom were speaking Serbian.” 

The name written under the text was Tomaž Majer, but local journalists had never heard of him, and attempts by local media to find him were unsuccessful. It’s in this context that many have speculated that the real author of the text could have been Janša himself. In protest, a gathering was organized in the center of Ljubljana, with many of those attending dressed in tracksuits.

“The term trenirkarji [tracksuit-wearers] is an insult in Slovenia used against people from the Yugoslav successor states; a means of exclusion and humiliation,” explains Simona Zavratnik, sociologist and lecturer at the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Social Sciences. “In Slovenia, such terms are mainly associated with a specific political party, more precisely, with the SDS and its politicians.”

But, for the SDS and its leader, this was just the beginning of a campaign of insults and slurs directed toward people who once lived in Yugoslavia. 

‘Slipper journalism’ 

A few years later in 2014, Janša hit again. 

This time, journalist Gordana Stojiljković, whose surname indicates she could be from other parts of the region, came under fire after reporting on some of the practices and maneuvers that Janša was using in the courtroom. 

“When Janša acts as a plaintiff, he diligently comes to court, even when the proceedings are canceled,” Stojiljković wrote at the time. “When he is the one who should have sat in the dock, he does not appear.”

Rather than focusing on any specific alleged inaccuracy in her reporting, Janša described her reporting as “slipper journalism (opankarski žurnalizem), which was widely interpreted as a slur relating to her ethnic origin.

Opankarski is a pejorative term here, which indisputably indicates a hostile xenophobic element,” explains Vezjak, adding that it targets those who come from other parts of what was once Yugoslavia as it refers to the traditional, peasant slippers or shoes worn throughout the Balkans; the term is used to imply people are primitive or underdeveloped.  

Six years later, terms like “slipper-wearers” are still used on social media to insult people from other post-Yugoslav states, especially when referring to influential women, who are politicians, academics and journalists. 

At the same time, the term “slipper journalism” is used on social media to mock journalists or media organizations.

“It is a psychology of hatred that has become part of a self-evident and carefully nurtured psychopolitics with the aim of transferring the ‘opankar’ discourse to the people as part of a self-evident political terminology,” Vezjak says. 

“Some users on social media would analyse my DNA, my ethnic background and even my facial profile to determine my non-Slovenian roots."

Helena Milinković, journalist.

Given his high profile in Slovenia, Janša’s often hate-filled rhetoric over the past decade has been replicated and emulated.  

One of those who has been on the receiving end has been Helena Milinković, a journalist from the public broadcaster RTV Slovenija. Milinković says that despite the fact that she was born and raised in Slovenia, her family’s origin, that is visible in her surname, is what makes her a target. Throughout her career she says she has been called an “unassimilated Balkan migrant, disloyal to Slovenia and Slovenes.”

“Some users on social media would analyze my DNA, my ethnic background and even my facial profile to determine my non-Slovenian roots,” she says, admitting that this kind of discourse terrifies her. 

Milinković says that SDS members and their sympathizers are often behind these comments, adding that they do not attempt to hide their identity or sympathy with the party or its leader on Twitter. 

Journalist Helena Milinković says she has been targeted by Janša’s followers, who call her “mujahed woman.” Photo: Katja Lihtenvalner.

In 2018, a media outlet closely linked to SDS went even further and published an article about Milinković. In a print, longer version, they refer to her as “mujahed woman” (mudžahedinka) and describe her work as “politically motivated activism.” 

“The discourse is usually the same — insults of ‘parasites,’ ‘communists,’ ‘Marxists,’ ‘idlers on public wages,’” she says. “Personal slander and even threats including rape and violence, are not uncommon.”

Aščić, Stojiljković and Milinković are not the only ones who have been regularly abused by SDS-based supporters and followers because of their profession or their Balkan roots. Among the regular targets of SDS-affiliated media is prominent writer, translator, editor and professor Svetlana Slapšak.

Slapšak has been an open critic of Janša and his party for years. She regularly publishes her columns in the popular Saturday edition of the Slovenian daily Večer and does not spare the SDS and its leadership. Consequently, she has often been called an “opankarka” and been harassed.

Slapšak is one of the significant examples where the fuel of hate transfers from the comfort of home couches and keyboards into the real world: The windows in her Ljubljana flat have been smashed, she has received letters with an unidentified white powder inside and has also received vulgar written threats.

Slovenia’s Social Democrat member of the European Parliament, Tanja Fajon, has also been targeted on social media. She was called a “Kosovarian” on Twitter by fellow users of the platform for her support for Kosovo’s visa liberalization. 

In the meantime, Janša who often incites hate speech five years ago, accepted an honorary doctorate from  Universum College in Prishtina for “his endeavors and support for democratization processes and human rights in the region.” 

At the same time, Fajon keeps receiving other insulting and sexist comments because of her support for Kosovar Albanians. 

Sociologist Zavratnik believes that the SDS party leader spreads hostility toward minorities with recognizable and populist language, that is particularly hostile to ethnic minorities or women journalists. 

Insults toward European Parliament member Tanja Fajon who supported Kosovo independence is a daily occurrence in Slovenia. Photo: Katja Lihtenvalner.

Janša has previously found himself in the courtroom because of his insults on Twitter, but judges have often decided in his favor. 

When he was in opposition, in 2016, he accused two female journalists from RTV Slovenija of being “washed-up prostitutes.” 

One of them, Mojca Setinc Pasek, sued Janša for defamation and was initially awarded 6,000 euros in damages. But at the beginning of May, the mainly male judges of the Supreme Court overturned the decision. 

“An average follower of Janša’s Twitter profile could understand the tweet referred to Setinc Pasek’s work for the public broadcaster RTV Slovenija rather than her private life,” the Supreme Court suggested. 

They ordered Setinc Pasek to compensate Janša for the costs of the litigation within 15 days.

Setinc Pasek described the decision as “outright scandalous,” adding that it meant that Janša — as the leader of the largest parliamentary party and the most powerful person in the country — could insult any journalist or editor who publishes something he disagrees with. 

“The courts should protect journalists from the intimidating effect that such statements have on journalists,” the Association of Journalists said when they condemned the decision.  

So far, solidarity has come from different social, environmental and political groups.

Meanwhile, media analyst Vezjak says that hate speech in Slovenia is rarely prosecuted through criminal convictions. “The number of convictions is negligible, and prosecutors often do not see any basis for prosecuting in the existing Article of the Criminal Code,” he says.

On 11th of May, he announced “a war with the media” using the official government website as his personal blog. 

Coalition partners distanced themselves from the text and expressed their support for the “professionalism and independence of the media.”

Milinković says that the abuse journalists receive is not usually personal, but stems from an eagerness to “kill the messenger.” “The important thing at this time is support and solidarity with all those who are attacked because of their work and ideas,” she says.

So far, solidarity has come from different social, environmental and political groups. 

On May 14th, the Department of Journalism within the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Social Sciences expressed their concern at “the various forms of subordination of journalism and the humiliation of journalists that have become a part of life since the new government took over.”

But Vezjak warns that since “trenirkarji” and “opankarji” entered the local online hate speech vocabulary, Slovenia has become a champion of insults and slander.

“In Europe, you will find it difficult to find a country that produces so much hate speech with such intensity as Slovenia,” he says.K

Feature image: Gašper Andrinek.