THE POLITICAL ROLE OF THE SLOVENIAN MEDIA
At the end of the 1990s I was a state official who under the – let’s call it expert supervision – of officials from Germany and Brussels had to coordinate the drawn-out process of eliminating the Public Media Act with which the socialist union of working people under the patronage of the communist party in Slovenia had for decades maintained this one-sided media coverage that the revolution had created. I felt as if I was in a minefield. Political mines that I encountered at every step were deployed by Slovenian politicians to prevent or at least thwart this legislative process. My brains were being washed from the northwest by the competent EU directorate which demanded harmonisation with European media regulations, while the Slovenian political centre of power lambasted my ministry on a daily basis via the media, saying that it is trying to introduce legislative nonsense into the Slovenian legal order. The same politicians that had signed the treaty of accession which contained the necessary assumption that for full membership of the Union the legal order would be harmonised were investing great efforts through the domestic political institutions to make sure that in the field of media everything remained the way it was and the new Public Media Act would remain as it was but with a European exterior. These calculations, which were performed for the Slovenian government mainly by the former (formal and informal) leadership of RTV SLO and underlined with the orchestrated opinions of institutions of so-called civil society which were then still monopolistic associations of journalists and syndicates, and also with the international assistance of so-called experts from the ranks of the socialist international, of course did not work out on a formal-legal level; the new media legislation at last came to light after several years and three changes of party at the head of the competent ministry. Of course, due especially to the political pressure exerted by the party of social democrats, it was distorted and un-European in all those parts in which Slovenia was to retain its political autonomy. Above all, the above mentioned political ‘spirits’ almost completely prevented its implementation.
We therefore received the new law, even if it was distorted. Just before the final discussion I was confined to my office where I was not allowed to do anything and my colleagues were forbidden from communicating with me so that in the final phase of the process our so-called political experts were free to put back into the new law as many articles as possible of the old Yugoslav law and after it was passed the media acted as though nothing had happened. This is the state of affairs to this day. Slovenian daily newspapers and the main radio and television programs are still in the service of an invisible organisation into which the above mentioned political institutions, the socialist union of working people and the communist party have mutated. It is true that we cannot see it, but we can certainly feel it: the chorus composed of editors and journalists dedicates its one-sided hymns to it in such harmony that it is almost comparable with a choir singing Gregorian chants.
What is even more difficult to understand, namely the need for two-sidedness, degenerated out of the outstanding ideas that the late minister for culture Rudi Sheligo and I nurtured. For when he sat in the minister’s chair for a few months, I could pull from the drawer my proposal (that was removed by the previous authorities) for the establishment of a media fund with which independent experts were to promote plurality in the media world. In other words: the state would use budget funds to create space for plurality in the main media, i.e. it would close at least part of this space to one-sidedness. Of course, in the last reading of this proposed law the Social Democrats again erased this article and in the next mandate the Slovenian Democrats brought the changed article back: the media fund was transformed into the so-called fund for media plurality which was supposed to promote two-sidedness. With its help the principle of (more) objective reporting in the main media was to be replaced with the principle of balancing out the media in such a way that the main one-sided media would be joined by opposing media that would create a different one-sidedness. As the rule of the Slovenian Democrats was short we now have a media landscape of unbalanced two-sidedness in which we have not even partly replaced political propaganda with informative content but have instead almost doubled the amount of political propaganda.
II. The origin of the politically unequivocal functioning of the central Slovenian media which is why even nowadays it is possible to speak of their non-plurality.
The Faculty of Social Sciences, which has been educating most journalists for many decades now (as well as a notable number of politicians), has built into its foundations a program for forming so-called ‘workers who will be useful for society’, who should know how to think in the spirit of socialism, something that was provided for already by the generation of Stane Dolanc. On the one hand they are inculcated with a sense of the importance of their role in society’s development while on the other hand being clearly aware of the limitations placed on their intellect by the fixed media programs. They can only operate within these frameworks that are politically irreproachable because they stem from a tradition that was formed in the time of socio-political control over the information domain. By means of an employment policy that is still overseen by the old guard, this control is admittedly no longer exerted formally or institutionally, but through an internal self-monitoring of groups of journalists which are the contemporary informal remainders of the former journalistic communist party cells. Young journalists have the possibility of making a career for themselves by passing through their selection processes that are based mainly on traditional rules which demand complete adjustment to the program and appropriate self-censure that conforms to the time and political circumstances. More points are gained by actively participating in political propaganda media campaigns. Adjustment to and making a career in such programmed media collectives implies that personal opinion cannot be voiced, especially when it differs from socially acceptable program guidelines. This poses no problem for most journalists as they are well and suitably prepared for precisely the kind of work that is demanded of them in the social reality. Even if they find it hard to reconcile this subordination to higher goals with their personality, the feeling they have been imparted of their importance for society gives them sufficient self-confidence to be able to write about the content determined by the editors and to easily relinquish their own integrity and replace it with the consciousness of the ideologically incontestable integrity of society in whose interest the programs of their employers are supposed to be working. And who are these employers?
In the period in which companies were privatised, the main daily newspapers that were of public (i.e. political) significance were privatised in such a way that they came into the right hands, i.e. the hands of owners who enjoyed the trust of the dominant political powers. The latter helped them gain ownership by conforming privatisation legislation to perfectly suit them. The administration, already tried and tested in the former system, allowed individual transfers of ownership with appropriate acts and there was also the help of the bank system which at the time of privatisation was still in the hands of the old political forces. The opposition at the time was overly preoccupied with itself to be able to play a more important role in these processes and besides it was not even yet aware that for a democratic state the media (at least in peacetime) are more important than the army and the police; more than the privatisation of state-owned property it was preoccupied with the denationalisation of property during and after World War Two and other topics. Although the right wing – regardless of its professional and institutional under-development compared with the supremely qualified state administration and old political structures that were thoroughly tried and tested in the previous state – intended to play an important role in all areas of politics, the main media, including the central press agency, got away from them and firmly anchored themselves on the left side of the political arena also as regards ownership. And although in the short rule of Demos the right-wing gained at least some influence in terms of appointing staff and leadership of the national radio and television, the remaining staff and with it the program orientation of the whole institution at all levels remains almost the same as it was in the previous system. At this same moment in history, it became clear that the right wing wanted to have in its hands, for the purpose of its ideology and its political needs, at least one printed daily newspaper as a kind of consolation prize for all the other lost dailies that remained in the hands of the heirs or successors of the previous regime. It founded such a daily with this aim in mind but after a short period of time it succumbed to the greater power and also disloyal competition of the established newspaper publishers and especially their monopoly in the field of distribution. It was also hampered by internal problems with staff and the agenda. For these and other reasons that are not so important and especially due to the weakness of financial support, this daily soon went bankrupt leaving the right wing empty handed as regards the main media.
Even nowadays there is a distinct imbalance in the media landscape that goes in favour of the political appetites of the left wing parties which are not prepared to relinquish their dominance in the media although this would be very necessary for the furthering of democracy. On the contrary: the dominant political forces are only increasing the existing imbalance and thereby weakening the strength of the opposition to such an extent that it could be said that we are very far from the minimal standards of a democratic society. Especially in the wake of the last elections when they used their great media apparatus for the political trial of the leader of the opposition, using all manner of dishonest methods, not legal principles or civilised standards, the Slovenian media landscape is showing a very poor face when it comes to political balance and objective journalism.
III. How politics is realising its interests through the working of the media; which conditions must be fulfilled for them to succeed in this, and some current examples of media-political projects.
The political effect on the functioning of the media is not something that is self-evident. Firstly, the media are supposed to inform people about current events independently of political influence, secondly they are supposed to oversee what the government is doing and thirdly it is by this means that they can play an important role in forming public opinion. Lastly they are supposed to be the means by which one or other political interest is realised. These basic activities are of course constantly supported by entertaining supplements that are intended to additionally motivate people to buy or follow media editions and content. Sometimes they are also joined by cultural, educational and other assisting content that is supposed to make a particular media more interesting; in the background of all media activities there is usually the political and/or market interest of the publisher or the media financer. This is why there is constant political and/or market propaganda in the background of their content, as more or less evident basic although unwritten components of the program scheme that have an important influence on the media’s activities. If I neglect the market propaganda for a while and address above all the political propaganda I can find that it has a strong influence on the formation of news about current events, it frames (puts limits on) the supervisory function of the media over the acts of government and obscures an overview of the media procedures for forming public opinion which obviously all serves the realisation of certain political interests. As a result of this, it is the latter which most often proves to be the fundamental characteristic of media activity. The constitutional principle which in Slovenia we still call the freedom of the press although the printed media have long ceased to be the most important, together with the constitutional right to free expression of speech, are in this way subordinated to the disfigured media reality.
In an undemocratic society, which Slovenian society more or less is, the media are a tool in the hands of political forces. With the help of this tool, one or other political side can shape a virtually public image and at the same time of course (co)create a public image of its political opponents. The methods it uses to do this are professional and constantly tried and tested in practice. This means, for example, that with a well-chosen selection and frequency of published current information including that which deals with the working of the government, it can create in its auditorium public opinion that is favourably inclined to any political project, or it can inspire in people great anger over any political factor. The conditions that ensure the success of any such media manoeuvre are as follows: authors must either lack any principles and/or be extremely pragmatic, content can even be unverified, sometimes even fictitious, the public must be gullible and sufficiently ignorant of general social rules, the publisher must have at his disposal sufficient financial means necessary for the implementation of the projects and for his own profit. (The latter condition is admittedly typical of a market-oriented society while in a politically difficult environment so-called basic social means can suffice combined with the political obedience of the publisher, the editorships and of course the journalists. What is more: in an environment in which the journalists are carefully and deliberately trained staff in the service of society, no particular additional means are even necessary because their successful functioning already stems from an imparted outlook. If I presume that Slovenia is in an on-going transitional phase, passing from the previous system to a new one, the most useful methods for implementing such a project are combined methods for motivating those involved.)
The first project I will use as an example of such activity is media support for the so-called Slovenian uprisings which took place as an auxiliary activity to aid the political toppling of the last government of the Slovenian Democrats. So much media attention was focused on these uprisings that the initially small groups of political activists actually turned into mass demonstrations with a significant number of people who follow the central media participating. With the help of some specialist and political institutions (institutes, state commissions, "independent" regulators, legal persons from civil society etc.) – this brought about the fall of the government and at the same time slogans aimed against politics in general put a good portion of the electorate off from any future active participation in political matters. A significant number of these disillusioned media followers did not attend the following elections, only a small number of them casting their vote in favour of a radical socialist party of young people which accompanied by intensive media support reflects the direct power of the people in the uprising and even by definition has little in common with contemporary European parliamentary democracy.
On the other hand, at this very time, the main media are paying no attention whatsoever to the gatherings of political activists of the so-called civil society who are demonstrating every day in relatively large numbers in front of the courthouse in Ljubljana to demand the release from prison of the leader of the political opposition and the urgent reform of the Slovenian judicial system. This is of course an example of a complete media blackout which can be carried out in Slovenia simply by keeping the main media quiet.
May I mention another example from our most recent history: recently, in the time of the recent parliamentary elections, the main Slovenian media brought about the victory of certain new faces that nobody had ever seen. Old faces and politics in general had already previously been almost completely discredited by the media and the uprising so it was easy for the media to create a cult of personality for a person who was well known but had never been a politician, lauded his human super-qualities and predicted his victory with all their might. As a similar media manoeuvre had already been implemented a number of times in the past, the new faces of course won in the elections. They will only begin to reveal themselves after the elections when the new government is assembled and we will probably discover that most of the faces of the new executive power are not even new.
Both examples described above are short-term political/media campaigns that are meant to achieve short-term goals with long-term political consequences. That is why it is necessary to look at some examples of more long-lasting campaigns that aim to achieve more long-term goals. The title of this project could be – media lynching.
III. Who had to/should be lynched by the media in recent times, how can this be done and what consequences can this bring about for the state.
In recent years in Slovenia we have witnessed five high profile media lynching projects aimed at politicians. These projects are on the one hand quite different from each other while on the other hand sharing a number of common denominators. For an overview of the differences between them and the things they have in common I think it is best to briefly describe each case separately.
1.) The first case is the media lynching of the blonde-haired politician and economist who was a registered farmer as well as being president of a small satellite party of the political left-wing consisting especially of former visible members of the socialist youth union – Gregor Golobich. His favourite political role was placing the right people in important, extremely well-paid positions in state companies and banks and it was his great pleasure to have an influence on propulsive economic sectors especially in the field of telecommunications. He was particularly skilful in politically influencing the editor’s policies of the main media and he managed to do all this while being minister for higher education where he did his utmost to prevent the creation of new, especially private and regional universities and to retain the influence of the state on the central – which we could call state – university. Golobich expressed his exaggerated political demands with such self-confidence that the final limit which is determined by the informal political leadership of the state was soon surpassed. He resisted this leadership valiantly with constant threats to demolish the coalition which had in the meantime lost almost all public support through its ineptness and in the end his party commit political hara-kiri and left the coalition, thereby bringing about preliminary elections. However, it was already prior to this that the above leadership turned its back on him and the main media rushed on him as one with the excuse that he had lied to the public regarding his assets. The journalists were unanimous in demanding his political lynching and demanded it so loudly that neither he nor his satellite party ever made it over the parliamentary threshold again.
2.) The second case is that of the media lynching of the minister of the interior and president of the Liberal Democrats, Katarina Kresal. Despite regularly attending partisan celebrations, it was her lifestyle that first incurred the wrath of certain important persons from the previous regime who still influence Slovenian politics from behind the scenes. Then she upset the men in power from behind the scenes of her own party for failing to fulfil the promise that she would rescue the party from high indebtedness. Meanwhile the opposition was most annoyed by her wasting of state budget money in her friend’s property deals. The media did a good job of publicising the first and last of these three stories while more or less ignoring the disputes within the party as it would not have sufficed to bring about a media lynching. Besides, politics initially wanted to use the media solely to discipline her and not lynch her. But fate, as we could call it, intervened: rumours grew louder that she was involved in the sexual torturing of animals, more precisely dogs, which took place in the garage of a private clinic where practically all of Slovenia’s most powerful individuals received treatment. The public began to wonder ever more loudly what other morally depraved activities are performed at the clinic and who else is involved in them. Then the media stepped in and rapidly deflected the public’s attention onto the young lady’s other faults, especially the one the opposition was reproaching her for. This time they attacked with all guns blazing and demanded her political lynching at full voice. The media pogrom aimed against the young lady gradually reached such a climax that she preferred to step down from her office as minister and leave politics altogether while the clinic works on in peace.
3.) The third case is admittedly not a media lynching in the true sense of the word as it is still hanging in the air but as it is being announced for a number of years now, it is worth mentioning. It is the case of the media campaign aimed against the former CEO of Mercator, the mayor of Ljubljana and president of the “positive” party, which is leaving government in this very time, Zoran Jankovich. The campaign against him grew out of the homage he was paid following his great election victory that was aided by the media with the help of the cream of young and old combatants for a better socialist past, and before he was entrusted with the mandate to assemble a new government of the old regime. His career in state politics approached its end when, despite enjoying the support of the parliamentary majority he did not succeed in assembling a government, thereby making a fool of himself and his famous supporters who had virtually come to the city hall begging him to save the country from the merciless right-wing opposition. The disgrace was so great that terrible stories began appearing in the media about his corruptness, about fraud, debt evasion and so on. Certain independent, parastatal institutions and even the tax office were called upon to help the media editors. The public was regularly provided with media coverage of the police actions at his home and there was talk of the initiation of criminal proceedings against him. The judges were already sharpening their trusty pens and every media that cared for its reputation wrote, filmed, published and discussed all of this. As I have said, the project of this particular media lynching is not over yet because the mayor withdrew from the battle for political power which for now suffices for the media rulers as hardly any item of news about him has been published for some time now.
4.) The fourth case is the media and political lynching of the mayor of Maribor, respected member of the opposition People’s Party and member of the National Council, Franc Kangler. The mayor suddenly found himself caught up in a whole series of criminal proceedings that were sprung upon him by political opponents, especially mayoral pretenders in Slovenia’s second-largest city. As it was already clear at the beginning of these proceedings that it would be difficult to prove his guilt, violent demonstrations were organised in Maribor at the very time that the city held the status of European Capital of Culture. The media excused these demonstrations as being a form of art and an avant-garde message to Europe that a postmodern-democratic rebirth was happening in the city. The demonstrators burned fires on the central square and threw granite setts at the City Hall, shouted primitive slogans, hung puppets of the mayor’s entire team from the bridge over the Drava and called on the homes of city councillors in hostile-looking groups to tell them that they should immediately relinquish their positions as that is what the will of the people demands. The main media provided live coverage throughout and praised this artistic-political project while at the same time constantly bringing up new and ever worse accusations against the mayor. The events had already turned into a veritable media spectacle when Kangler was illegally relinquished of his membership of the National Council by fellow councillors and he stepped down as mayor of his own accord under increased pressure from the rioters, media and judiciary. Only after he was locked up in jail did the heated nation breathe a sigh of relief, thrilled at this unique lynching. When several days ago he was acquitted of all charges at a supreme court level, the verdict annulled and he was released from jail, only a few brief news items reported this.
5.) And the last case is the political and media lynching of the leader of the opposition, several times minister for defence, former Slovenian Prime Minister who even presided the European Union for a set period, and current president of the Slovenian Democratic Party, Janez Jansha. Jansha is the outright winner when it comes to the number of articles and programs aimed against him, and also in terms of the number of quasi-political, administrative and penal procedures in which he has found himself face to face with the repressive judicial apparatus. He is probably also the record-holder when it comes to the number of anonymous death threats he has received and there is certainly no-one in Slovenia who has had more (extremely negative) psychoanalyses published of his human character. At the so-called all-Slovenian uprisings in Ljubljana he was the main target of enraged outbursts by the crowd and its agitators, and already before then the centrally run syndicates called for strikes against him. He has been insulted and smeared by paid and amateur commentators on internet forums ... Intensive media campaigns against him were even organised on an international level, a particularly prominent example being the engagement of the Finnish radio and television in the Patria weapons affair which the planners of the media lynching skilfully heightened at well-planned intervals in the run-up to each election. Jansha was portrayed as an extremely mercenary, fraudulent, violent, thieving and deceitful person who is responsible and guilty for all that is wrong with the Slovenian state and even for violence in his own family. This creation of virtual truths or lies by the media was so persistent and regular that in the end every citizen who does not think with their own head (and they are in the majority) believed them. And so it was to the great satisfaction of this majority that Jansha was finally convicted and arrested after two decades of constantly being smeared by the media. The only problem encountered throughout by those carrying out the lynching of Jansha and which they could not solve was that about a third of Slovenia’s citizens do think with their own head. That is why the media lynch turned out to be successful in the short-term as Jansha was jailed, the number of opposition MPs in parliament was considerably reduced and the perpetrators of the lynching were able to ensure a constitutional majority for themselves and their allies. However, the long-term story is not yet finished because his supporters are drawing new energy from this very lynching for quite a number of urgent changes in the state; these include firstly the political lustration of old political forces which will most probably stem from the almost unavoidable reform of the Slovenian judicial system.
I will first try and find the common denominators of the media lynches described above:
a) in all the cases the media carried out and continue to carry out the will of certain political forces to remove a certain individual from a certain spectrum of political life;
b) these forces are the same in all the cases described above; this is obvious not just from the recognisable modus operandi but above all from the identical consequences; the latter clearly reveal the main motivation of these political forces which is to avoid losing any political advantage due to a certain individual, or to lose as little as possible. All the cases reflect the desire to preserve an unchanged (and uneven) balance of power between the left and right political wings which in Slovenia is distinctly in the left wing’s favour, and the desire to retain the leading position of its so-called avant-garde political leadership which has persisted behind the scenes of Slovenian politics from the time of the former regime; the lynching projects are so well coordinated that this can only be possible with the help of an informal organisational infrastructure that is synchronised in its execution and ideology, and whose functioning was well-oiled in the previous regime. It can only be commanded and used by one political force – the one that commanded it in the past, either on its own or through its trusty successors;
c) in all the above cases, content chosen for the media lynching is connected with real events taken from a broader context and blown out of proportion by means of a constant, gradually increased repetition of the same affirmations with minimal variations so that they are primarily aimed at the sub-conscious perception of the public;
d) after each successfully executed media lynching, its main perpetrators received some form of reward.
Equally important but in some way even more significant are the differences between the approaches of the main actors to an individual lynching:
a) before the beginning of the public lynching in the first three cases where we are dealing with problematic individuals from the political left wing, the media do everything they can to justify the controversial actions of the potential victim and give it a second chance while deflecting the attention of the public elsewhere; this gives the potential victim the opportunity to make amends; only then, if it continues to oppose the leading political will, or if this is demanded by unforeseen circumstances, do the media begin to gradually turn against it;
b) in the first three cases where we are dealing with the already triggered elimination of individuals from the front rows of their own political option, the approach is softer and the victim of the lynching retains as much personal dignity as possible to carry on living life in peace in some other sphere of life; the individual’s personal liberty is not encroached upon and if possible they are not derided and are allowed to step down honourably;
c) in the first three cases the main source of power avoids any extreme accompanying measures, it engages as few institutions as possible to implement political repression against an individual and those that are engaged must use the softest available measures and intensify them only under attentive political supervision;
d) after the procedure is finished, the victim of the media lynching usually receives adequate compensation for the damage suffered, either by being offered a suitable position in the political background or something else; often the person can continue to play an active role in politics – just not in the front rows;
e) in the latter two cases where the victim comes from the political opposition, the media of course know no mercy; the support the media enjoy from public organisations is also so much stronger and much more ruthless; the accompanying events which provide a basis for the media reality show are organised in the most radical forms; the victim can be publically disgraced and all manner of lies can be published about them. After the lynching has been completed, the victim can be arrested and imprisoned and this is reported as a glorious victory of good over evil. Any doubts, especially those that are voiced publically, are immediately proved to be wrong or are scorned or simply quietened.
The phenomenon of lynching in the Slovenian media is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the high level of organisation of the media’s political activity and this only confirms the finding that in this field Slovenia is still far from being a democratic state. Despite the valid terms of the constitution and the modern legislation that conforms to the European legal order, in practice, something completely different is being enacted, something that is typical of the past totalitarian system which is supposed to have ended formally but in practice continues its unobstructed course. We are dealing with the contemptible manipulation of the people by political forces that never stepped down from power.
Meanwhile, Europe looks on in silence; evidently we will have to solve this problem by ourselves.
Translated from Slovenian by Marko Petrovich