On the evening of Sunday, March 15, Blaz Zgaga was at home watching television when he received a Twitter notification.
- Governments in Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Kosovo have passed strict emergency measures
- One scholar said while emergency measures were justified at the moment, the pandemic will end at some point
- A Slovenian journalist said the Government was using the crisis to dismiss human rights and the constitution
He opened his phone to check it and felt his blood run cold.
Slovenia’s new COVID-19 authority had just republished a message which named him and three others, suggesting they were on the run: “Psychiatrists are looking for four patients who escaped quarantine.”
“I was shocked,” he told the ABC. “And I was scared.”
The account which republished the message is called @KrizniStabRS, and was set up by the Krizni stab Republike Slovenije, or the Crisis Headquarters of the Republic of Slovenia.
The new top body had been established less than 48 hours earlier to take command of the instruments of state and to coordinate Slovenia’s response to the pandemic.
Earlier that day, with the death toll mounting in western Europe and 219 local infections, the social media account urged Slovenians to heed its official advice.
“This is where you will be able to get all the key information about the action #Slovenia [is taking] to curb the epidemic,” the account tweeted at 2:15pm.
Five hours later, it republished the defamatory tweet, which, if read quickly, suggested Zgaga and three others — world-famous philosopher Slavoj Zizek, poet and essayist Boris A Novak and prominent anthropologist, Darko Strajn — were wanted by authorities.
The tweet went on to say that the four “have the covid-marks/lenin (sic) virus”, a giveaway this was not a public emergency bulletin, but mere online abuse.
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The Government deleted its message after an outcry on social media, but by then the damage had been done. There were further attacks on the four the following day in the government-aligned press, and a rash of online deaths threats to Zgaga.
One such missive stated the award-winning investigative reporter “must literally be shot!”.
“It’s really not a nice situation,” Zgaga said.
“The Government is abusing its position to smear me.”
He believes the message was prompted by his lodgement, on the Friday, of a Freedom of Information request seeking details about this mysterious new body, the so-called Crisis Headquarters.
As far as he could see, Slovenian law made no provision for such an instrument. And the manner in which it was established rang alarm bells.
The Krizni stab was unveiled on the night of Friday, March 13 after a bizarre and unprecedented parliamentary session in which Janez Jansa seized power.
Mr Jansa’s background is extraordinary. A former defence minister, he was exposed as a key member of a covert gun-running scheme supplying Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina with weapons during the 1990s war.
Mr Jansa was dismissed from cabinet in 1994, accused of overseeing a special forces unit which carried out a brutal assault on an informer assisting police with an investigation into corrupt arms deals.
In 2013, three months into his second term as prime minister, the Ljubljana Lower District Court found he had solicited bribes worth 2 million euros ($3.64 million) from the Finnish defence firm Patria, and handed him a two-year prison sentence.
In both cases, Zgaga, who has written about national security in the Balkans for decades, had been responsible for exposing Mr Jansa’s double-dealing.
“I’m just trying to do my job,” he told the ABC.
“But I believe, yes, he doesn’t have quite a positive attitude towards me.”
Defence and police heads sacked
But it was more than just Mr Jansa’s past which concerned Zgaga on the night of March 13.
It was not just that the new Prime Minister sidestepped the existing provisions for a state emergency and had no legal power to create the Krizni stab. It was also the decisions the controversial new body immediately took.
Within hours, Mr Jansa’s Crisis Headquarters dismissed the heads of the defence force, the military intelligence agency and the national police.
His new police director-general was a mid-ranking officer who had previously been ensnared in a scandal involving misuse of government funding.
And the man he appointed to run military intelligence was directly involved in the 1994 assault which led to Mr Jansa’s dismissal from office.
The Crisis Headquarters also specifically excluded the head of civilian intelligence from a new national security committee, prompting his resignation.
And the government representative on the board of the National Institute of Public Health, previously a leading figure in infectious disease research, was swiftly replaced by a parliamentary advisor working for the ruling party.
On March 24, the Crisis Headquarters was disbanded, but its decisions still stand.
Zgaga said the new Slovenian administration was using the coronavirus emergency as a means by which to entrench its power.
“I believe it is a systematic campaign to threaten any critical voices, to make them silent, so as to stifle journalists, any critical intellectuals, and citizens,” Zgaga said.
Hungary hands more power to Orban
Slovenia is not the only Central European state whose democratic institutions have undergone drastic surgery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Hungary, which has been steadily transformed into what its Prime Minister Viktor Orban has proudly declared an “illiberal state”, the Government has swept away checks on its power.
While the Hungarian constitution provides, like Slovenia, for special measures during a declared state of emergency, Mr Orban has instead introduced new legislation which confers upon his administration the ability to rule by fiat.
The legislation creates two new crimes. Breaching quarantine is now punishable by up to eight years in prison. And a three-year term awaits those who transgress a new sedition-like restriction on public speech.
Section 10 of the new law creates an offence to “claim or spread a falsehood or claim or spread a distorted truth in relation to the emergency in a way that is suitable for alarming or agitating a large group of people”.
A state-run media outlet has already called for the new statute to be deployed against Opposition MPs who have criticised Budapest’s lack of preparedness for the COVID-19 outbreak.
Dalibor Rohac, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told the ABC that Hungary’s move was egregiously out of step with measures being put in place by its neighbours, and constituted “a step without precedent in recent European history”.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this really might be the end of parliamentary democracy in Hungary,” he said.
Most concerning was the removal of any parliamentary oversight of the Government’s emergency powers and the fact the new powers have no sunset clause.
“This legislation in Hungary is an open-ended mandate for the Government to rule by decree, until the Government decides that the crisis is over,” Mr Rohac said.
A disturbing trend across Europe
In Poland, Bulgaria and Kosovo, the public health crisis has also been exploited as a political opportunity.
In Warsaw, the ruling Law and Justice Party is planning to press ahead with a presidential election in early May.
While President Andrzej Duda holds court on television, thanks to Poland’s pliant state broadcaster, the Opposition is banned on health grounds from holding rallies.
In Bulgaria, the Parliament granted new powers to the Government to use mobile phone data to track the populace — ostensibly to police the quarantine of those infected or exposed to COVID-19.
It has also set up checkpoints around Roma communities — an ethnic minority often pilloried in Bulgarian society.
Last Wednesday, Kosovo’s Government collapsed and its prime minister was deposed after President Hashim Thaci, a former militiaman once accused of war crimes, attempted to shift all executive power to an emergency security council which he heads.
“Yes, we are living through an emergency, and I think that justifies a whole range of extraordinary measures,” Mr Rohac said.
“But at some point, the pandemic will end.”
“The fact is that after 1989, you had 100 million people in Central and Eastern Europe being liberated and given the opportunity to live in a democracy and free society, and to see these countries going back to various forms of authoritarianism is not just disturbing but I think it’s ultimately destabilising.”
As for Zgaga’s FOI application, he no longer expects a (formal) response; the new Government has also suspended all administrative deadlines until the end of the crisis.
“I fear this has been too good an opportunity for the Government to dismiss, to limit human rights and laws, and the constitution, all for political interests,” he said.
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