Residents of different countries in Central Europe experience less and less freedom. The policy of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seems to be being followed, in Poland and also in Slovenia. Journalists, lawyers and even judges don‘t feel safe there anymore. Any protection of the European Union is hardly felt. Europe correspondent Saskia Dekkers has traveled to various countries in Central Europe in recent weeks and has been frightened by fear and intimidation. Below her story:
Fear sometimes slowly creeps in. We just finished after a rough morning filming. A young, courageous advocate allows us to look into her daily world of unavoidable litigation in Slovenia. She skypies, sometimes leafing through the bulging red files that lie next to her.
Her first client is Primo Cirman, a 41-year-old man with a beard. Once he was named journalist of the year, but now we see thick bags under his eyes, and that’s not because of the bad Skype connection. “Not a day goes by that I do not think about this,” he sighs bitterly. Cirman‘s got 13 lawsuits on his pants, he’s been sued by a friend of the Prime Minister‘s.
Just like two other colleagues. They conducted a thorough investigation into the foreign financing of the government party, and they knew that: the journalists collective are now hanging over 39 lawsuits. Legal stalking, they call it in Slovenia, or “litigation someone broken.” The investigative journalist looks despondent through the skype screen. “They want to drain us, professionally, financially and emotionally.”
Of course, during our reports for Nieuwsuur we met frightened people in Europe before. Rightly or not. But this year we see a pattern traveling through Central Europe. Polish lawyers are intimidated and arrested. Judges have been blackened by slander campaigns in which the Ministry of Justice has played a role. In Hungary, critical citizens are lifted from their beds at six o’clock in the morning. Journalists are threatened in Slovenia.
Fear is there, suddenly. With judges, lawyers and academics, journalists and ordinary citizens. They thought they were one of the brave people, and suddenly they discover that fear is slowly taking possession of them. They fear for their work, their reputation, their family. The hip journalist who helps us translate asks if I don‘t want to mention his name in the Newsur-report. “You know why,” he says. In his eyes, I read shame. But I understand, it’s easy for us to be brave.
The Slovenian lawyer recognizes it. “You only need a few lawsuits to silence people. Especially during this covid crisis, people are afraid of their jobs. They think twice before they speak out when they know that a colleague has been charged for giving his opinion.”
Rule of Law abort
Poland, Hungary and Slovenia are young democracies. For decades, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were suffering from communist domination, intimidation and fear. For Poland and Hungary there was also the occupation by Russian troops.
When the countries threw away the communist yoke, it was thought that it would replace freedom, freedom of justice, journalism and expression. And so has happened in many Central European Member States. But over the past five years, the rule of law has been slowly breaking down in some countries. And fear is lurking, especially in this time of crisis.
59-year-old Hungarian agricultural engineer János Csóka-Szucs calls in a closed Facebook group for a small protest against the emptying of hospital beds. Weeks later, ten armed police officers enter his house and have to take him to the station.
Yet János and five women from his protest group Nieuwsuur dare to speak. They‘re showing me evidence of trolls putting their names through the mud. It’s like they‘re hookers working with the enemy. A young blonde woman cries, she lost her job, she has sleepless nights. They’re tears of powerlessness.
In Slovenia, journalist Blaz Zgaga is threatened after asking critical questions about how to tackle the coronacrisis. The government-minded media get him through the mud every day, and he gets anonymous death threats. Zgaga vibrates when he recalls it: “Sometimes it was a sound fragment: ‘click-clack’ a weapon that was loaded. And lyrics like, “Remember this face in this picture? If you meet him, smash him.”
He is followed on the street and a safety expert friend confirms his suspicion: his home has also been searched. The harassment is taking such serious forms that, at the insistence of foreign media, the European Commissioner for Transparency and Values calls the Slovenian Government.Then the articles and threats stop overnight. Zgaga tells about the relief that it gives.
Legally, there is even more going on in Slovenia. Professor of Political Science Rudi Rizman has been sued by the Prime Minister‘s party. In a television show, he expressed his concern about the Slovenian media. “I called it worrying that direct and indirect injections of money from the Orbán regime make our country dependent on a foreign power.” Now he’s on trial next year.
Our reports do not go unnoticed. In the Hungarian government newspaper Magyar Nemzet, Nieuwsuur is blackened in several articles. We were supposed to have ties to an organization of philanthropist George Soros. Magyar Nemzet claims that one of our reports is ignorant and biased. We would have interviewed a “fraudulent Athina Németh‘, a woman we’ve never met.
We‘ll send the paper all the evidence of our investigation and ask for rectification. We’re still waiting for an answer. That‘s how we become the target of a propaganda machine. But we can still do our job undisturbed.
It’s just before midnight when the name of Slovenian journalist Zgaga lights up again on my phone. We recorded his interview that afternoon. He obviously sounds upset. Zgaga asks if I take a look at Twitter. And then I see it, a just opened account with zero followers and zero messages. Except for one, just posted: “Blaz Zgaga will die!!!!”
Intimidation and fear seem to be haunting us. “But,” says Zgaga bravely, “I will not let myself be destroyed.”