Press Freedom in South East Europe Declines

The 2017 World Press Freedom Index paints a bleak picture of press freedom in South East Europe, with a number of countries recording declining scores.

Compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) globally, the latest report reflects a world in which attacks on the media have become commonplace and strongmen are on the rise. ’We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies’, the report notes.

The 2017 Index shows that violations of the freedom to inform are less and less the prerogative of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. Once taken for granted, media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile in democracies as well, the report reads. In sickening statements, draconian laws, conflicts of interest, and even the use of physical violence, democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators, the RSF report notes.

Ever since the 2013 index, Reporters Without Borders has been calculating indicators of the overall level of media freedom violations in each of the world’s regions and worldwide ranking 180 countries according to journalists’ and media freedom. The higher the figure, the worse the situation.

The Worst Performers in South East Europe

Looking at the SEE region, the worst performer is, not surpsingly, Turkey which ranks 155, followed by Macedonia (111), Bulgaria (109) and Montenegro (106).

In Turkey, according to the RSF report,

“the witchhunt waged by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government against its media critics has come to a head since the abortive coup of July 2016. The authorities have used their fight against “terrorism” as grounds for an unprecedented purge. A state of emergency has allowed them to eliminate dozens of media outlets at the stroke of a pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulation publications. Dozens of journalists have been imprisoned without trial, turning Turkey into the world’s biggest prison for media personnel. Those still free are exposed to other forms of arbitrary treatment including waves of trials, withdrawal of press cards, cancellation of passports, and seizure of assets. Censorship of online social networks has also reached unprecedented levels”.

Although media freedom has declined throughout the Balkan region, the erosion of the rule of law has been most visible in Macedonia, a candidate for EU membership, notes the report.

“Defamation was removed from the criminal code in 2012, but prosecutions have been replaced by civil actions with the possibility of heavy fines and jail terms for reporters and media owners. There were many reports of threats, violence, harassment, and intimidation of journalists during political demonstrations in 2016, but of those responsible, few were charged. Political instability affects the work of journalists, and pressure from the ruling party has led some media outlets to censor themselves”, the report reads.

Bulgaria is ranked lower in the World Press Freedom Index than any other European Union member. This is due to an environment dominated by corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs, RSF concludes. One oligarch has six newspapers and controls nearly 80% of print media distribution.

“The government’s allocation of EU funding to certain media outlets is conducted with a complete lack of transparency, in effect bribing editors to go easy on the government in their political reporting or refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether”, the report reads.

As for Montenegro, RSF observes self-censorship among journalists as they are often the targets of violent verbal and physical attacks, and the perpetrators enjoy systematic impunity. The media are subject to political and economic pressure and reporters investigating government corruption are often accused of trying to harm the community, notes the report underscoring the case of investigative reporter Jovo Martinovic who spent nearly 15 months in custody with trial still underway. Although defamation is decriminalized, lawsuits against independent journalists and media are very common, the report notes.

Serbia and Croatia – the greatest drop in SEE

Croatia and Serbia recorded the greatest drop in the RSF Index since last year: Croatia fell 11 places ending up 74 in the ranking, and Serbia 7, thus occupying position 66.

RSF stresses government interference in public broadcasting company HRT in Croatia noting that Croatia’s Parliament fired HRT’s director-general in March 2016 and appointed an acting director who proceeded to demote or reassign approximately 70 journalists and editors as part of what critics have called an ideologically driven “purge.” The report also finds that “Journalists investigating corruption, organized crime, or war crimes are often subjected to harassment campaigns” and that “humiliating” media content has been criminalized since 2013. RSF also stresses criminalized defamation and the fact that insulting “the Republic, its emblem, its national hymn or flag” is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Media freedom in Serbia has declined ever since Aleksandar Vucic, Slobodan Milosevic’s former information minister, became Prime Minister in May 2014, notes RSF. It reports that that the media work under harsh financial and editorial pressure, and those that are most critical of the government are attacked publicly.

“The investigative media groups BIRN and CINS, the daily Danas, and the weekly Vreme are often targeted”, notes the report.

It also observes that the laws complying with European “standards” on freedom of information were approved but never put into effect.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is ranked 65th (3 places up since 2016). The report notes that the country has “the world’s most liberal media freedom laws but their implementation is held back by a saturated judicial system”. It is also noted that defamation was decriminalized in 2003 but lawsuits are still possible. Journalists are often the targets of threats and political pressure, and the situation is aggravated by the fact that the pro-government media continue to enjoy direct and indirect state subsidies, the report reads.

The greatest progess in SEE: Kosovo and Albania

Kosovo is ranked 82nd, having climbed 8 position in the ranking, while Albania climbed 6 positions ending up 76th.

Stil, RSF report finds many faults with the Kosovo media environment. It observes direct and indirect political interference, financial pressures, and concentrated ownership in the media. Also, journalists who criticize the Kosovar authorities are often accused of being “traitors” or “Serbian sympathizers.” Media that do not toe the government line may be subjected to intimidation in the form of financial or tax inspections, reads the report. It also notes that ethnic division in the country is mostly evident in the media, with “stilted cooperation and goodwill existing between Kosovo Albanian and Kosovo Serbian journalists”.

RSF notes about Albania:

“Despite the freedom of information laws adopted in 1999 and 2014, access to state-held information continues to be limited and the broadcast media regulatory authority, the AMA, is politicized”.

The best perfomers in SEE: Slovenia and Romania

Among the South East European countries, Slovenia and Romania rank the best: positions 37 and 46 respectively, both countries having climbed 3 places since last year. Yet, problems persist in both countries.

In Slovenia, defamation is still criminalized, and journalists and media outlets are often sued by well-known politicians, notes the RSF report.

As for Romania, the report underscores “Excessive politicization of the media, corrupt financing mechanisms, editorial policies subordinated to owner interests and intelligence agency infiltration of staff”, concluding that the media’s transformation into political propaganda tools has been particularly visible in election years.

With the rank 80, Moldova fell 4 positions since last year. The RSF Index notes that the country’s media is extremely polarized, like the country itself. “The editorial line of the leading media outlets correlates closely with the political and business interests of their owners”, the report reads and adds that “Journalistic independence and media ownership transparency are major challenges”. It also sees the broadcasting regulatory authority’s lack of independence as a source of concern.