More than 65 European and international NGO networks – including FOCUS/Friends of the Earth Slovenia – have written to the Slovenian Prime Minister Dr. Miro Cerar, expressing concern about the ongoing pressure on civil society and organisations in Slovenia that act in the public interest in the field of environmental protection.
According to the letter, the Slovenian Government, has tried to discredit civil society organisations while they were exercising their legitimate right to take part in legal procedures to mitigate the impact of a potentially destructive car-painting plant in the North-East of the country.
Signatories urge the Slovenian Government to follow the legal order of Slovenia and the constitutional right of citizens to a healthy environment. In addition, it calls on the government to ensure that any future processes for projects should be participatory, transparent and ensures a high quality of life and preservation of the environment.
Dr. Tomislav Tkalec from FOCUS/Friends of the Earth Slovenia said "As environmental NGOs in Slovenia which act on behalf of public in environmental protection, we felt obligated to expose possible environmental threats and non-transparent process in the case of Magna Steyr's proposed factory near Maribor. However, we were discredited and assaulted in the media, as well as through direct actions.
The pressure, discreditation and verbal assaults on the NGOs came from representatives of the government, local authorities, media and citizens. We have received angry e-mails, letters, calls, and attacks on social media. Some organisations received threats – one even had to ask for police protection."
According to FOCUS/Friends of the Earth Slovenia, the Slovenian government has been drifting towards anti-environmental populism for a while. The government – and the Minister of Economy in particular – have identified environmental legislation and its implementation as an undue obstacle to the economic development in the country. Several months ago he mentioned that those concerned with environment protection are "ecoterrorists" - in an interview with Delo, the country's biggest-selling newspaper.
After environmental NGOs protested, the ministry issued a statement that the ministers' words should not be taken literally. Instead, the statement suggested that his reference to "ecoterrorists" wasn't to refer to NGOs, but towards the implementation of environmental laws. Which is no better – by this logic, employees of state environmental institutions would be the so-called "ecoterrorists".
This discourse switched from the verbal to the practical level a few months ago, when the government bypassed the normal environmental impact assessment process to push through the planning process for a factory.
A new car-painting plant, backed by the Canada-based company Magna International had been proposed on an area of prime agricultural land, near the city of Maribor. Aside from the direct impacts on the land, the massive increase in road transport would do little to help Maribor's existing air pollution problems.
A number of environmental NGOs including FOCUS/Friends of the Earth Slovenia were given permission to join the process of granting environmental consent for the project. However, the government made it clear that environmental NGOs should not "block or unduly prolong the process", threatening that the investor would be forced to look over the border to a reserve location in Hungary.
The government-led campaign to discredit NGOs began in earnest when a number of issues began to crop up in the environmental report – around land use and air pollution – which needed to be addressed according to the normal legal procedure. This led to an orchestrated campaign against environmental NGOs.
In addition to direct messages from senior officials, key media began to report on the case with an unprecedentedly biased and anti-NGO angle. The NGOs also received anonymous letters and e-mails, and attacks on social media.
The defamation campaign culminated in a protest in front of FOCUS/Friends of the Earth Slovenia's office in Ljubljana by a group of people from the region blaming NGOs for blocking the investment. At the same time, FOCUS has also received support and thank you e-mails from people in the region for their work on the issue.
While FOCUS and other NGOs continue to be subjected to a smear campaign, they have been able to improve some negative features of the investment. The investor has agreed to mitigate additional air pollution by reducing the number of lorries that will travel daily from the plant to Austria and building an industrial railroad track and to place as much as possible of its transport on the railway instead of trucks – a solution previously deemed totally impossible by the Minister of Economy.