Slovenian journalist Blaž Zgaga told CPJ he has faced harassment from the government over his COVID-19 reporting. (Tomislav Čuveljak)
Slovenian journalist Blaž Zgaga told CPJ he has faced harassment from the government over his COVID-19 reporting. (Tomislav Čuveljak)

Slovenian journalist Blaž Zgaga on facing off against a government fighting COVID-19 coverage

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Blaž Zgaga is a freelance Slovenian investigative journalist and a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who covers national security and defense. In his reporting, he has uncovered corruption and written about arms trafficking in the region.

Slovenia elected a right-wing government on March 13, and Zgaga told CPJ that officials in the new government have targeted him and other journalists over their criticism of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Organization has confirmed 977 cases of COVID-19 in Slovenia as of April 5.

CPJ spoke to Zgaga in a phone interview on March 31. His responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How has the pandemic affected your reporting?

As my usual beat is national security reporting, and the coronavirus outbreak also has this aspect, I started to investigate and scrutinize the new government’s response to the crisis, especially the fact that they immediately set up a new “Crisis HQ,” which—as I suspected—was not in line with the existing laws in the country.

I filed a freedom of information request about the legality of this institution and published the document on my Twitter account [on March 14]. Since the following day, I have been the target of a smear campaign.

The HQ’s Twitter account retweeted and then deleted an anonymous tweet in which I am listed as someone who tested positive with the virus and escaped from quarantine. [Slovenia has since dismantled the Crisis HQ, according to news reports.]

Pro-government media outlets regularly attack and smear me and journalists who scrutinize the government’s response to the crisis, and label journalists as members of the “deep state” who try to hamper the government’s efforts to curb the outbreak.

What are the biggest challenges of doing your job in this environment?

The biggest challenge comes from this toxic atmosphere which the government has created towards critical journalism. The prime minister regularly lashes out against news outlets, including the public broadcaster, accusing them of spreading lies and fake news.

Photos of journalists critical to the government are regularly published in pro-government media. They frame us as “terrorists” and “revolutionaries,” which triggers online attacks from the public, mostly supporters of ruling parties, against us.

In online attacks, we are called traitors and enemies of the nation. We receive daily threats on social media. A recent one, for example, came from a doctor who said that once I get the virus, I will not get treated properly. There have been already three cases when TV crews from the public broadcaster were attacked because of their journalistic work.

What are you doing to keep yourself safe?

As social distancing is in place here, with restrictions on going out, I work from home and go out only for shopping and short walks. But even for the short walks, I am afraid for my own safety. I might be targeted, as my photo appears regularly in online media, sometimes even on the front page.

In such a volatile situation, when people get really emotional and when the politicians target critical journalists like me, I can be any time attacked by [government] supporters.

So, for my physical safety, I am locked in my apartment, and I try to be extra vigilant and careful about suspicious people or cars going around my neighborhood. I also do not know how much I can trust the police, as the new government replaced the police Director General immediately [after taking power].

What about the safety of your sources?

With these restrictions, it is impossible to go out to interview sources, so I must be extra careful with my digital safety. I only use encrypted communication both in writing and in phone calls. I only communicate with people I personally know, and introduced extra measures which I would not like to talk about for reasons of security.

In Slovenia, like in many countries now, the government is discussing measures to track citizens’ mobile phones to combat the crisis. It will be a new challenge for journalists and for source protection, as well. The Slovenian Information Commissioner publicly warned that new law, proposed by ruling party, could change Slovenia into a “police state.”

How would you rate the openness and access to information from the authorities in your country?

I think it is extremely dangerous in times like these—when we should help each other and unite our community, when critical journalism would be an important tool to combat the crisis by highlighting the problems, checking facts, sorting out misinformation, and helping officials make better decisions—that the government treats journalists not as allies but rather as enemies.

The whole discussion around the crisis has become emotional, polarized, and extremely toxic. Such pressures will also lead to self-censorship in media outlets, which will also not help combating the crisis.

CPJ emailed the Slovenian government’s communication office for comment about claims made in this interview but did not receive any reply.