KRANJ, Slovenia — EU leaders spent Wednesday urging aspiring members to accelerate democratic reforms — before fielding uncomfortable questions about eroding press freedoms within their own ranks. 

The European heads had gathered in Slovenia for a summit on the Western Balkans, a territory comprising six nations seeking one day to join the EU. But it was the host country that ended up under the spotlight for its own alleged failures to uphold the EU’s democratic principles. 

Standing beside Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel were challenged about the fate of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), which staffers say is on the verge of financial collapse because the country’s government has refused to provide legally mandated state funding. 

Several local journalists appeared at the summit’s closing news conference wearing t-shirts displaying a message of solidarity with the STA. One confronted the three leaders.

“One of the important conditions for the enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans is respect for the rule of law,” Slovenian public television reporter Helena Milinkovič told them. “What kind of message does the European Union send to the Western Balkans now?”

For Janša, a right-wing populist whose government currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, the question spoke to his increasingly contentious relationship with the press. The Slovenian leader has been accused of whipping up hatred against Slovenia’s public media staff and once referred to the STA as a “national disgrace.”

For the EU leaders, the question underscored their own struggle to protect journalists and media pluralism within some of their own countries.

In the end, the situation created an odd split screen. On one side, Janša defended his government’s handling of the STA. On the other, von der Leyen criticized it. Both spoke as if the other leader wasn’t standing just feet away.

“These are internal games played against the government,” Janša insisted from his podium.

“We have repeatedly expressed our serious concerns as regards to the lack of this financing of the Slovenian Press Agency,” von der Leyen said from hers. The funding, she stressed, “is important for its independence.”

The standoff has left Slovenian journalists frustrated. The STA has not received its funds for 279 days. The agency’s director resigned last week. 

“The country that is presiding the Council of the European Union is basically not abiding to the rule of law principle,” said Mihael Šuštaršič, a journalist at the STA. 

“Where is the high moral ground from the European Union to ask from the candidate states to implement high principles on rule of law, democracy, press freedom?” he said. “Where is the high moral ground if the presiding state is doing what it’s doing with one of its public media?”

The Slovenian government has long maintained that the issues surrounding the STA are unrelated to press freedom.

Asked about the accusations that the continued lack of STA funding is politically motivated, the director of the government’s communications office, Uroš Urbanija, said in an email that the agency “operates independently” and “did not conclude a contract with the Government Communication Office for this year.” 

“The issue of the Slovenian Press Agency is not about its editorial policy,” he added. 

The European Commission, however, has opted to defend the STA — at least rhetorically.  

Last month, European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová sent a letter to Slovenian Culture Minister Vasko Simoniti outlining the Berlaymont’s concerns. 

“We understand that, under Slovenian national law, it is the duty of the Slovenian government to ensure the independence and the appropriate funding for the public service provided by STA and that this has been recently confirmed by the Slovenian Supreme Court,” Jourová wrote in the letter, seen by POLITICO. 

The missive implored the Slovenian government to grant the STA its funding. 

“It is therefore important that Member States refrain from any attempts to put direct or indirect pressure on media, including by withholding the necessary financing,” Jourová wrote. “In this context, we urge you to find a swift solution to fund STA in a way that would fully preserve its independence.”

The letter is part of a broader effort at the European Commission to protect journalists within the EU. 

In September, the Commission unveiled non-binding media safety recommendations for all EU countries. Von der Leyen has also vowed to put forward a new proposal, dubbed the Media Freedom Act, with the goal of better safeguarding media independence within the bloc.