IREX Media Sustainability Index 2016: Little Change in the Western Balkans

IREX MSI 2016

The results for Europe and Eurasia of the newly released IREX 2016 Media Sustainability Index (MSI) show that taken as a whole, the region improved in overall score during 2015 only by 0.01, from 1.85 to 1.86. Five of the 21 countries increased their overall score by more than 0.10, while three decreased by more than 0.10.

According to the IREX MSI categorization, media systems with a score 0-1 are unsustainable, anti-free press; score 1-2 categorizes a media system as unsustainable mixed system; countries with media systems near sustainability have a score of 2–3; while sustainable media systems score 3–4.

By “sustainability” IREX refers to the ability media to play its vital role as the “fourth estate.” How sustainable is a media sector in providing the public with useful, timely, and objective information? How well does it serve as a facilitator of public discussion? To measure this, the MSI assesses five “objectives” that shape a media system: freedom of speech, professional journalism, plurality of news, business management, and supporting institutions.

The MSI, now in its 15th year, is one of the world’s most in-depth recurring studies of media health in the world. IREX developed the MSI to provide an international development approach to measuring media sector performance. Looking beyond issues of free speech, the MSI aims to understand the degree to which news and information from both traditional and non-traditional sources serve its audience reliably.

The Europe and Eurasia MSI covers the following countries: Albania |  Armenia | Azerbaijan | Belarus Bosnia and Herzegovina | Bulgaria | Croatia | Georgia | Kazakhstan |Kosovo | Kyrgyzstan | Macedonia | Moldova | Montenegro | Romania | Russia | Serbia | Tajikistan |Turkmenistan | Ukraine | Uzbekistan

Here we provide short summaries of 2016 MSI findings for the countries of the Western Balkans:

Albania

With few positive strides to report in the media realm, the MSI overall country score for Albania ( 2.55) remains virtually the same as in the 2015 study (2.52), categorizing its media system as near sustainability. According to the MSI Albania report, newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations continue to feel the weight and consequences of economic crisis, which silently erodes their independence. The panelists interviewed for the study also report problems with media regulators and with the public television station. Online media appear to be the only area of growth and expansion.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

With the overall country score: 1.97 (unsustainable mixed system; last year’s score 2.03), negative trends continued in Bosnia and Herzegovina (though at a slower pace compared with previous years) as the country seems unable to overcome the problems related to political and financial pressures. Issues highlighted by the panelists this year include an alarming lack of media ownership transparency, questionable patterns of government financing, and political control over the public broadcasters as well as a failure to reform the institution and provide a sustainable model of collecting broadcast fees. The objective concerning business performance fared the worst, reflecting decreasing revenues, corrupt finance patterns, controversial audience measurement systems, and the migration of international advertisers to other markets and non-journalistic platforms.

Croatia

Overall country score: 2.50 (media systems near sustainability; an increase from the last year when the score was 2.40)

“During the EU accession, Croatia at least tried to show its polite face in aligning its legal framework with the EU requirements and standards, including the media sector,” said one of the MSI panelists. “Post-accession, there’s no more leverage from Brussels, and no need to pretend that we are better than we actually are.”

By taking the path of threatening freedom of expression, Croatia is following Hungary, Slovenia, and—as in the last weeks of December 2015—Poland. The panelists clarified that the problems in those countries are the systematic measures to control their media sectors, while in Croatia the challenge is still more about the absence of any coherent media policy to prevent further erosion of the sector. But the result is about the same, panelists said. “The government will bitterly oppose any allegations on restricting freedom of speech. But it doesn’t take necessarily any proactive measures for that. It is enough to turn a blind eye [to] breaches of transparency of media ownership and tolerate draconian fines in libel cases to encourage the culture of self-censorship, with its devastating impact on media freedom,” said journalist Slavica Lukić.

In a market in which all major indicators have declined for the past eight years, the media sector has been brought to the very edge of bankruptcy, and its basic role in increasing the number of well-informed citizens has been seriously compromised.

Kosovo

The overall 2016 MSI score of 2.46 (an increase from 2.27 last year) shows that Kosovo may be characterized as a near-sustainable media environment. Certain issues nonetheless delay further progress, reads the IREX MSI report, including the violation of journalism ethical standards in new online media. The rapid growth of online news portals in recent years is no longer seen as a positive indicator contributing to the plurality of media. Within a loose legal infrastructure, no registration requirement and low ownership transparency, such news portals have emerged with the intent to denigrate targeted political figures, individuals, or even fellow media organizations. Public naming, public shaming, single-source reporting, defamatory language, and breach of copyright have become the new standard among certain online portals.

According to the MSI report, another setback in the Kosovar media sector was the failure to meet certain milestones, with at least two major deadlines missed in 2015. The first concerns efforts to identify a sustainable financing source for public media, with the government continuing to finance Radio Television of Kosovo. The other failure was attributed to the Independent Media Commission, which despite managing to adopt a new strategy and law on digital broadcasting, was unable to meet the deadline for transitioning to a digital broadcasting system by June 2015.

Several protests were organized during 2015, most of them triggering great attention from local and international media. In clashes between the police and demonstrators, some journalists were caught in the middle and sometimes suffered injuries at the hands of the police. The panelists interviewed for the report concluded that Kosovo media outlets are not doing enough to guarantee security of their journalists.

Macedonia

With the overall country score of1.62 (drop from 1.72 last year), Macedonia has an unsustainable mixed system.  According to the IREX MSI report, the prolonged political crisis has fortified the existing divisions in Macedonia’s media sector, primarily along political lines, into pro-government and critical/independent/pro-opposition media. The media are an important topic of discussion in the ongoing negotiations on reforms necessary to ensure free and fair elections, whenever they may come. Those reforms include the need to ensure a public broadcasting service that will serve the public interest and not the interests of the state, improve the conduct of the media during elections, and protect the media from interference in their editorial independence or business practices—especially through abuse of government advertising budgets, reads the report.

Montenegro

Negative trends in the media sector from previous years continued in Montenegro (overall score: 2.17 – media system near sustainability; barely an increase from 2.15 last year). The EU’s 2015 annual report on the country recognizes some progress in the area of freedom of expression. However, the EU called attention to resolving open cases of violence against journalists; ensuring the independence of the public broadcasting service; and developing guidelines for courts to align their rulings with those of the European Court for Human Rights in the area of freedom of expression, reads the IREX MSI report.

The media scene is still a battlefield of political and journalistic interests, according to the IREX report, resulting in perennial divisions within the media community. Political and commercial motivations drive these internal divisions, and they become quite visible during elections and political confrontations. At these flashpoints, media display their biases openly, supporting either the government or the opposition. As in previous years, fierce trading of accusations and insults between opposing media outlets is a regular feature, and the ruling party still holds undue influence on RTCG, the supposedly neutral public broadcasting service, reads the report.

Serbia

The long-term deterioration of media law implementation and enforcement, together with worsening economic conditions and withering political pressures, forced panelists interviewed for the MSI report to assess Serbia’s media sector with the lowest marks since the MSI began in 2001 (overall country score 1.71 – unsustainable mixed system; a drop from 1.80 last year).

According to the IREX MSI report, throughout 2015, the media sector in Serbia was characterized by the collapse of law, ethics, professionalism, and social norms. Constitutional laws as well as ethical standards were violated. The media privatization process formally ended in 2015, but several important media outlets have not completed the transition from state ownership. The new financing system, in which media outlets may secure funding from municipalities, was a disappointment to many. Media members expected these long-awaited reforms to be a remedy for higher independence in local areas. However, the new system has many voluntary requirements, which is undermining progress and improvements in these media, reads the report.

The report underscores some positive developments, as well. In an extreme example of politicians’ behavior toward journalists and the media, the defense minister made a vulgar and sexist remark about a TV B92 journalist who knelt near him in order to avoid blocking cameras. This event triggered protests from many journalists, but in a positive sign there were consequences: the prime minister fired the defense minister, despite the fact that he is believed to be a close political ally. Another bittersweet development was that, after a 16-year delay, the trial for the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija finally started in 2015.

The Media Sustainability Index (MSI) is a product of IREX with funding from USAID.

 

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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.