By Peter Tase
On September 13, 2022, Peter Truden published an article about the court sentencing of Former Demokracija magazine editor Jože Biščak and of external collaborator Aleksander Škorc who were convicted for satirical writing! This rare inquisitory procedure took place in a EU member state, the Republic of Slovenia. It is apparent that violation of freedom of expression, infringement of impartial investigative journalism have become the two main pillars in the government of Slovenia, and Courts system, while seriously attempting to impose a censorship that even North Korea’s regime would envy.
The following is a report published in Demokracija Magazine, Slovenia, addressing these important matters pertaining to freedom of expression and affecting the professional work of journalists. The following article is re-published with permission from Demokracija Magazine Editorial team.
“The hearing in the Škorc commentary (gloss) case concluded at the Ljubljana District Court (Slovenia). The former editor-in-chief of Demokracija Jože Biščak and the former external collaborator of Demokracija, Aleksander Škorc, were sentenced to suspended sentences at first instance for satirical writing. The ruling is not yet final, as an appeal has been announced.
Aleksandar Škorc’s December 2020 entry entitled Surpluses 5 was a gloss, a stinging and satirical note about how if the government can’t deal with illegal migration, God will. God will not stop at illegal migrants, but will deal with all the bad people on Earth, regardless of race. Judge Primož Štancar found this to be an affront to human dignity. In his opinion, it did not matter whether it was written in a satirical manner or not; a criminal offence had been committed under Article 297 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Slovenia.
Aleksander Škorc was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment suspended for a probationary period of two years, while Jože Biščak was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment suspended for a probationary period of two years. The fact that the former editor-in-chief Biščak received a higher sentence than the author of the gloss suggests that the trial itself was politically and ideologically motivated because of the satirical note. The main targets of the pogrom were the Demokracija magazine and the SDS party (co-owner of the magazine), which have a clear rejection of illegal migration, Jože Biščak wrote on Twitter.
Here is the closing address by Jože Biščak:
»Dear Mr. Judge, Prosecution, my lawyer Mr. Cerjak, Mr. Škorc.
In mid-December 2020, at the height of the media pogrom against Demokracija magazine, Mr Škorc and me, I wrote a commentary. ‘Grateful to God for what happened’ was the title. I wrote that I was grateful to God that I had seen and experienced what I would never have believed possible. Then came the denunciations. Then the police knocked on my front door. Then came the indictment. Then came the trial, which ends today.
I would like to express my astonishment at two things. The first is that it has really come to this. I honestly thought that the prosecution would not prosecute us. But I have already experienced such a minor pogrom before. Mr Branimir Štrukelj sued me civilly because I wrote in a comment that I would spray the trade unionists with bug spray. Of course, that was a metaphor, it was not meant in any way that I would take a really huge can of spray and go after Mr Štrukelj. Mr Škorc also played with words, which is a necessity for the column he was writing for (but not the rule, of course). And it was clear even then that it was a gloss, and it was clearly labelled as such. But it remained as it started. As I recall, Škorč’s writing was first published on the social network Twitter. And if I remember correctly, it was posted by one of the employees of RTV Slovenia. Certain parts were underlined in red, and this post then spread with lightning speed. Of course, nobody wrote in which section of the magazine it was published. This reminded me of a case in the US, when a website reported that CNN presenters use a washing machine drum instead of a teleprompter. What followed was comical. A number of fact-checking websites have labelled the information as false. Even Facebook has come forward and threatened to block the website. They later apologised, saying that they should have known that the information was published by the satirical website BabylonBee. In my case, what happened was this: before I could explain that it was a gloss, that it was the fifth part of a whole, the campaign was allready so big that it could no longer be stopped. It was a pogrom straight out of Saul Alinsky’s textbook.
The second thing that strikes me is the attitude of the media to the matter. Given how much has been written about it, it is extremely strange that nobody is interested in the trial. There was not a single media outlet at any of the hearings, and they had so much to say at the time, they were literally going live. I have no other explanation than that Demokracija magazine was a tool of political struggle against the centre-right option that was then leading the government. Especially since the SDS is a co-owner of the media. And this has been repeated over and over again. And the prosecution’s proposed witnesses who have filed charges have also, to my knowledge, either been actively involved in the anti-government protests or have publicly supported the protests. One of them was not present at the trial because we agreed that it was not necessary to hear all of them. I am talking about the Mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Janković, who once sued the satirist-cartoonist Miki Muster.
I really did not think that in an independent Slovenia, which is, at least on a declaratory level, a free and democratic country that recognises fundamental human rights and freedoms, among which freedom of speech is of the utmost importance, I would experience that the authorities or the state would persecute people for their written opinions and views, especially if they are glosses, a sometimes amusing, sometimes cynical and critical of what is happening in society journalistic genre, which has a special form and a special way of expression. Not only that. The incriminated gloss by Mr Škorc was published on the pages of the magazine that are dedicated to such columns and was clearly marked as a gloss. This is how our readers recognise it, this is how they are used to reading it, and this is confirmed by the results of a satisfaction survey among the readers of Demokracija.
Briefly about Škorč’s gloss. If you read Surpluses, you will see that it addresses current open questions. And the gloss is a response to the then government’s inaction on illegal migration: if the government can’t sort it out, it will be God who will deal with all the bad people. And Mr Škorc has written this in his characteristic language and style. Our regular readers know him as such, unlike the prosecution witnesses, none of whom are regular readers. I can well believe that some people may have been disturbed by the text, may have found it unpalatable, but people think differently, we have different opinions and points of view, we perceive different things differently. And that is good for society. Imagine a society where all people think and perceive the same thing. What would you call such a society or country? I would not want to live in such a society, I would be really afraid of this kind of uniformity. The fact that Škorč’s gloss shocked, upset, perhaps even offended someone is at the very heart of the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. Constitutional lawyer Dr Teršek, for example, often writes about this on IUS INFO. »Not because such expression is good, but because at the heart of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression is precisely this kind of expression – offensive, disturbing and shocking,« says Dr Teršek. That’s the point. And today, someone is being prosecuted just because someone thought something might be so-called hate speech.
Briefly about the witnesses who were heard. Mrs. or Miss Prošek, who claimed that this was not a gloss, but at the same time was unable to define the journalistic genre, and who said that she did not take Demokracija seriously because it was not a serious medium for her, because it was a party paper, felt threatened by the phrase “God’s punishment”, although she said only a few seconds later that she was not frightened by this phrase. Mr Matjaž Šiška felt insulted, but at the same time he labelled all those who believe in the Last Judgement as extremists. For these two witnesses, there is a very high probability that they would never have noticed the text if they had not written about it on social media. It is clear that they are not regular readers, in fact not readers of Demokracija at all, because they are not familiar with the structure or the columns of the magazine. Their testimony showed only that they were offended and horrified.
Dr Vezjak was a bit more articulate, but he too only knows Demokracija from the web, and I cannot agree with him that Škorc’s text is not a gloss. His reasoning was evident when he reproached Demokracija for publishing the book The Posthumous Report of Dr Tom Sunić and for hosting him at a discussion evening that day. According to Vezjak, he is an extremist. And at the end, Dr Vezjak added that this was apparently also the profile of Demokracija’s readers. Would he just ban and persecute all Demokracija readers, or what?
Dr. Tom Sunić is a former diplomat, academic, lecturer at renowned universities around the world, and his family was convicted under Article 133 in the former country. Vezjak’s main problem is that he is a representative of the New Right and a fierce opponent of migration. Is this an illegitimate opinion? Is the fact that Democracija hosted Sunić proof that Democracy is stirring up racial hatred? Is it more likely – because we represent a conservative (right-wing) worldview on Democracija – that Democracija is automatically guilty?
At every moment in history, there have been positions that have been deemed dangerous for society. And this is apparently also the current opinion of the prosecution regarding Mr Škorc’s gloss. But at every moment in history there have been people, especially in academia and the media, who have stood up and defended their positions. Whatever the conflicts and sympathies, freedom of speech has always been the impetus that has driven us forward, taking us as humanity as far as we have ever gone in knowledge. Unfortunately, I find that I and Škorc have fallen victim to a new concept, that threatens not only the human being and freedom of speech, but also freedom in general. Dear Prosecution, I note that you are prepared to go to great lengths to meet the demands of those who want to destroy it.
I am worried about something else, namely that something sinister is already being prepared in Brussels and that all Member States will have to accept it, to implement it in their criminal codes. Two years ago, ECRI (the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance) published several reports, including one for Slovenia. And Democracija was mentioned there, too, by the way. The report was one-sided because it referred only to Slovenian organisations and associations with an opposing worldview, such as the magazine Demokracija. But, well, that was not at all disturbing. You know what they also wrote? They scolded Slovenia’s Article 297 of the Penal Code, saying that it does not allow for enough convictions. The report also regretted that Slovenia had abandoned Article 133 of the Criminal Code of the SFRY after independence, as that formulation of the ‘verbal offence’ would have made it easier to prosecute hate speech. My colleague Vasle and I responded to the letter at the time and asked them if they knew what they had written.
As time went on, the European Commission, under the leadership of President Ursula von der Leyen, began preparations for the adoption of an expanded list of ‘EU crimes’ or “crimes against the EU” at the beginning of December last year. Although the list is still being drawn up and is not definitive, it is already clear that so-called ‘hate speech’, which will include opposition to migration, as touched on in Škorč’s gloss, will be defined as a ‘particularly serious offence’ undermining EU values. Thank God that the adoption process is not so simple and that it will ultimately be decided by the Council of the EU, where full unanimity of the governments of the Member States will be required. But the very intention is scary, since it is proposed to adopt a piece of criminal legislation that would be binding on the Member States. Already today, in Germany, critics of migration are being raided by special police units, and in the Netherlands, critics are being dealt with by counter-terrorism agencies. Can you imagine, anti-terrorism? Already in the case of the Škorc’s gloss, the police (on whose instructions, I don’t know) in February last year simultaneously knocked on the doors of my home, Mr Škorc’s home and the home of my deputy at the time, Metod Berlec, as if we were the main drug dealers. Coincidence? I find it hard to believe. What are the odds that all three suspects would have been at home that afternoon? This was organized intimidation.
I have more comments to make about the prosecution, but I would like to say one thing in conclusion. As I was the director of Nova Obzorja at the time, there was a request from the police about the number of subscribers, about the number of copies sold. I provided them with this information, but clearly marked it as a business secret. The prosecution ignored this and made it public in the indictment. Let the prosecution be more careful in future with such matters, when a private company designates something as a trade secret. I do not know what damage has been done.
Finally, let me say it again. I do not feel guilty, and I would publish this gloss again. «