Attacks on Balkan Media Unchecked, HRW Says

Journalists across the Western Balkans face a hostile environment that impedes their ability to report in a critical fashion, Human Rights Watch said.

by Sinisa Jakov Marusic, BIRN, Skopje

Western Balkan governments and the European Union have over the past year failed to take action to address the issues hindering media freedom in the region, the NGO Human Rights Watch, HRW, said in the 2016 update of its media freedom report.

It added that new, troubling cases of threats and attacks on journalists had meanwhile emerged – but also remained unpunished.

“At a time when it has never been more important, independent journalism is up against the wall in the Western Balkans,” Lydia Gall, Western Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.

“That won’t change unless the EU makes absolutely clear to Western Balkan governments that their European aspirations depend on a thriving and free media,” she added, speaking specifically about Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia.

In one case the NGO mentioned, in October, the editor of Gazeta Express in Kosovo received death threats via social media following the broadcast of his documentary on war crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.

HRW points out that while the European Commission and the Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, have expressed concern about media freedom in the region, they have spoken only in general terms, without detailed recommendations on how to address the lack of effective investigations by individual governments into attacks on journalists.

Human Rights Watch said that only the European Parliament had offered more specific recommendations on the matter.

There is little evidence of political will from governments to improve the climate for media freedom, the NGO added.

It noted that some journalists face prosecution on dubious criminal charges while governments routinely grant and withhold advertising revenues as a tool to depress critical reporting and curb media independence.

“The list of pressures and violations on independent media in the Western Balkans makes for an unhappy catalogue,” Gall said.

“Without a thriving independent media, it’s hard to see the countries in the Western Balkans region meeting the aspirations of their people or their European ambitions.”

In its overview, Human Rights Watch noted the key findings in each of the Western Balkan countries.

It noted that in Bosnia and Herzegovina between January and September 2016, the national journalists’ association had registered 40 cases of assaults on media freedom and expression, including five physical attacks, two death threats, six cases of pressure, three cases of defamation and three verbal threats.

In one example, in April, Dragan Mektic, the Security Minister, threatened the editor-in-chief of the SRNA news agency, Milica Dzepina, over the telephone and via text messages, on one occasion reportedly saying: “When we come to power, you will vanish from the face of the earth.”

The threats followed SRNA’s publication of an article questioning details of Mektic’s official biography, Human Rights Watch said.

In Kosovo, HRW added, the national association of journalists had registered 14 cases of violence and threats in 2015, and an another eight cases in the first half of 2016.

The report noted that on August 22, a hand grenade exploded in the courtyard of the public broadcaster, Radio Television of Kosovo, RTK, albeit causing no casualties.

On August 28, an explosive device was thrown into the backyard of Mentor Shala, RTK’s general director, again with no casualties.

In Macedonia, the journalists association, ZNM, said the government had not identified suspects in any of the 30 attacks the association registered in the past four years.

At the same time, over this period, the ZNM said, the government had arrested several journalists, often in questionable circumstances.

These developments come in the context of a political crisis in Macedonia that revolves around mass wiretapping allegations that broke in 2015, which apparently included at least 100 journalists being put under illegal surveillance.

Concerning Montenegro, Human Rights Watch quoted a November 2016 report by Human Rights Action, a non-governmental group, which counted 25 threats and attacks against journalists since August 2015. Of these, 15 were physical attacks on journalists and their property, and two were threats.

The remaining eight were cases of interference with the media during the anti-government demonstrations in October 2015, including arbitrary arrests of journalists and seizure of equipment. All but three cases remained unsolved.

In Serbia, the Independent Journalists’ Association, NUNS, registered 57 incidents against journalists in 2015, and 33 in the first seven months of 2016. That included 16 physical assaults, 41 verbal threats, 28 incidents involving pressure, and five attacks on property.

HRW said that Serbian government officials and pro-government media repeatedly launched smear campaigns against independent and critical media outlets.

“In November 2015, the pro-government tabloid ‘Informer’ revived accusations that the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, the Center for Investigative Journalism, CINS, and the Network for Investigating Crime and Corruption, KRIK, and had all taken foreign money ‘to bring down our government,’” Human Rights Watch recalled.

“In another smear campaign, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic criticized the independent online news site BIRN. Pro-government media outlets TV Pink and Informer accused BIRN of being an enemy of the state and a foreign mercenary. The accusations were apparently in response to BIRN’s critical reporting of abuse of power and alleged government corruption”.

Meanwhile, HRW noted that the work of a Serbian commission established to investigate the murders of three prominent journalists – Slavko Curuvija in 1999, Dada Vujasinovic in 1994, and Milan Pantic in 2001 – had made little progress.

The article was originally published by Balkan Insight. It is republished here with permission. 

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* - References to Kosovo are without prejudice to positions on status. They are in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/99 and the opinion by the International Court of Justice on the Kosovo declaration of independence.