The basic question I posed in 2018 was very simple. Nova24TV, a Slovenian online platform and TV outlet, was showing an ad for a national telecom company and I wanted to know why.
We are not talking about just any online and TV outlet. This particular media operation was connected with the leading Slovenian right wing party. In recent years, Nova24TV has published a stream of fake news, copied from various fake-news websites around the world. And they have invented their own tall stories about refugees, their political opposition, the global climate crisis and anybody who opposes them.
Nova24TV also promotes transnational alt-right personalities, spreads far-right conspiracy theories (e.g. great-replacement theory, false claims about the philanthropist George Soros and others) and offers a media platform for the Generation Identity movement.
After the national telco bosses refused to publicly answer my question, telling me that they do not judge the media content their advertisements appear alongside, I decided to organize a national movement. This included an appeal to the head of government, a petition to the national parliament, and a campaign to raise awareness about the funding of propaganda via advertising contracts.
More recently I have also expanded my focus of research, concentrating on several ministries which funnel public money via state advertising contracts to this propaganda outlet with ties to the Orbán regime. In recent years several independent reports have documented the ways the Slovenian rightist political party SDS has been selling shares of its propaganda outlets to people connected with the Orbán regime. Furthermore, the outlet in question offers a steady stream of interviews with well-known personalities from the global pool of the alt-right movement, in addition to party-political propaganda and misinformation about current events, both local and global.
It was, as they say, an open secret. Public companies and private ones seemed to be buying political influence by advertising on a propaganda outlet with little to no regard for the commercial aspect of the deal. Reports on the viewership and online audience showed a media outlet with negligible audience. Yet companies such as the national telecom provider, the post office, the biggest local insurance company and the biggest local retailer apparently saw an interest in buying up advertising space during Nova24TV’s TV shows or on their online platform.
Things got even more interesting when the ministry of defence started to advertise on Nova24TV. We petitioned the government via Freedom of Information Act requests to release the documents that show the commercial reasoning for buying up advertising space on a hate propaganda outlet. We aimed to trace the decision-making process that led to that decision. It did not go as expected.
Propaganda outlets such as News24TV normalise the alt-right movement and promote their ideas.
The first response from the ministry was that the documents detailing the spending of public money to pay for advertisements are trade secrets. After a complaint to the local data-protection agency, that issue was resolved and we received the documents. They detail the ways in which public funds are being funnelled into right-wing media outlets connected with the right-wing parties SDS and NSi. The official records show huge discrepancies in ad-buy reporting, indicating very strongly that the ministry decided to fund party-related propaganda outlets first, and only then made the advertising agency organise the ad-buy to cover for that decision. This makes for interesting reading. For example, the number of TV ads reported is practically impossible, unless the TV station were to cancel every other piece of content in that time.
The political response
Since September 2018 we have tried to get decision-makers to address the issue of public funding of propaganda and hate speech via advertising contracts. The prime minister at the time, Marjan Šarec, gave a public statement in November 2018, carefully addressing the issue and calling for a “rethink of state-owned companies’ advertising campaigns”. This caused an uproar on the right of local politics, with claims that the prime minister was attempting to censor right-wing media outlets.
Slovenian Sovereign Holding, which represents the state’s interests in managing companies where the state is the majority owner, issued a statement back in 2018 indicating a rethink and reform of the rules of advertising for state-owned companies, so as to make the rules clearer. Nothing happened.
At one point the topic reached the local mass-media outlets. But after stonewalling by state-owned companies, the government and Slovenian Sovereign Holding, interest in the matter soon flagged.
A curious thing happened when we petitioned the parliament to address the issue for the first time. The text of the petition, along with all of my personal data required by the petition system, was published on Nova24TV. Nobody offered an explanation, although it is worth noting that the parliamentary commission for the petitions was chaired by a member of the same rightist party that holds the reins of the Nova24TV.
The public response
A rift quickly appeared among the general public as well. Some applauded our investigations and were shocked at the non-responses, while others made verbal attacks on me, my employers and my family.
Nova24TV published several articles about me, which were filled with lies and misinformation. Members of the right-wing political party SDS questioned my public standing in Parliament, and I received death threats via e-mail, phone and social media. People followed me in supermarkets and then tweeted threats at me, saying that they know where I live and shop.
I had no legal recourse against these insults and false claims: local lawyers who specialize in slander explained to me that since the allegations are tied to my work, they are “fair game” and cannot be prosecuted under Slovenia’s libel laws. The police explained to me that threats are not explicit enough to warrant an investigation, and that since they are posted by anonymous accounts, they are very hard to trace anyway.
A blueprint for disaster
The cases of propaganda-funding with public money include several ministries and state-owned companies. Based on our findings I can conclude that the blueprint for propaganda-funding in Slovenia includes misdirection of public funds via advertising by state-owned companies, and even advertising by the state itself.
This affair seems to be simultaneously recognized and ignored by such institutions as the parliamentary opposition, supervisory bodies such as the Court of Audit, as well as by the anti-corruption agency and other regulatory bodies. Even the simplest attempts to obtain an official answer relating to the selection of media outlets that receive public money via advertising contracts, with the backing of marketing metrics, are met with blocking tactics. This takes the form of opaque document trails, and public attacks on anyone who dares to question the relationships involved. The attacks come from both party representatives and anonymous sources.
The silence of independent bodies is deafening. Even when an individual takes the time and effort to dig deeply into an issue, painstakingly following a financial trail in an attempt to decipher the ways public money is funding hate-speech propaganda, nobody will respond to that individual’s discoveries by starting a more formal investigation into the matter.
We are not talking here about the promotion of “normal” political ideas. Propaganda outlets such as News24TV also normalise the alt-right movement and promote their ideas. They serve as an attack platform for a political party, and offer a unique way of channelling public money into private pockets via advertising contracts.
I have already mentioned the verbal attacks against myself, my family and friends, my NGO Državljan D (“Citizen D”), and my business partners. There is also an organized campaign underway to target journalists and editors that dare feature me in their news reports. This in turn is having a chilling effect, preventing the matter from being reported by other media outlets.
Alt-right rhetoric – such as conspiracy theories about refugees, Soros, the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic – are not only pervading the public discourse in Slovenia, they are entering the political decision-making processes.
The code of silence, maintained by all the parties involved in the public funding of party propaganda and hate speech, both deepens the problem and normalises the behaviour.
The systemic nature of this problem – public funds finding their way into party propaganda outlets via advertising contracts – requires a systemic solution that involves many independent actors. Furthermore, the complex nature of the solution partly explains why propaganda flourishes: stakeholders (political parties, journalists and the general public) do not wish to confront the main actors and are turning a blind eye to the whole thing.
One reason for the general silence could be that companies with a state-held majority stake are the biggest national advertisers, and editors fear that investigating those companies might result in the cancellation of advertising contracts as a form of punishment. A second reason might be the fact that obtaining documents from the ministries is an arduous process, which stops journalists reporting on this topic in real time. Citizen D started requesting documents in relation to the Ministry of Defense campaign in September 2018, and to this day we still do not know the whole story. Finally, there is a general lack of understanding regarding the business side of digital marketing, one which prevents journalists and the general public from recognizing problematic issues as they arise.
Ignorance, paired with a vicious response whenever somebody dares to start asking questions, along with the absence of public funds available for the cause (we have funded our research ourselves) – all these factors will ensure continuation of the status quo in which party propaganda can prosper and permeate through public discourse, dragging it down into the murky swamp of far-right hate.
In collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation – Paris