Travesty of Media Freedoms in the Balkans

Photo: Noah Sillman @ Unsplash


Mach has been made of the EU’s failure to offer the Western Balkans countries more than the “European perspective” at the EU leaders summit in Sofia on 17 May. Now that the union has put the Balkans back on the agenda, watchers and the six Balkan leaders invited to Sofia seemed to have expected stronger commitments, dates in particular. They recalled a similar gathering in Thessaloniki 15 years ago, when the EU unambiguously cast the countries of the region as future EU members in the not too distant future. They asked about the European Commission’s own opinion from earlier this year which suggested the first new entrants, Montenegro and Serbia, could be ready to join by 2025. The Sofia declaration doesn’t even feature the word “membership” and there are no commitments on any dates. The Balkan leaders said they were upset, a message to the electorates that was then amplified through their countless mouthpieces in the media. Is this sentiment justified?

Let’s leave aside for the moment elements that limit Europe’s own capacity to commit to projects as big as enlargement: Brexit; the rise of institutionalised corruption wedded to all manner of bigotry in the east of the EU; Catalonia; divisions among key member states; handling Trump; and what on earth will become of Italy? Let’s instead look at the reasons why the Western Balkans EU bids should be taken seriously and with some urgency.

Only one of those reasons is straightforward and it is all about geopolitics. If Europe vacates the Balkans, someone else will fill the vacuum. That’s what Balkan politicians and analysts have argued for many years now. The EU, spooked by growing Russian and Turkish influence in the region, has finally come to agree and has now reengaged. As short on firm membership commitment as it may be, the Sofia declaration is certainly a good game plan for a decisively enhanced EU presence in the Western Balkans, including new efforts to support “independent and pluralistic media” (even if that’s not really an area where Balkan leaders welcome support).

It is About Values

Europe’s re-engagement with the region is welcome in any case, though a few important footnotes come to mind, the first one of which is that the professed pro-Western orientation of interest groups that have dominated politics and life at large in the Western Balkans has often stifled democratic development. Whether they once were extreme warmongers and West-haters or always loved America, freedom and all that, most Balkan leaders have now mastered the art of weaponising geopolitics to subdue electorates. Because we are pro-Western and have delivered some results in that department—NATO membership for Albania and Montenegro; accession talks for Serbia and Montenegro; a prospect of a European deliverance from the Kosovo nightmare for Serbia—we aren’t to be judged too harshly on the domestic front. And who else is there anyway? Electorates seem happy to oblige as do large parts of civil society and most media outlets. Indeed, the ability of many formerly pro-democracy actors to look the other way as long as their preferred geopolitical outcome is on the cards is a remarkable phenomenon.

Yet, the EU has never been, nor can it ever be, only about geopolitics, nor was it a defence alliance last time we checked. It’s a community based on shared values first and foremost, even if that may sound rather hollow at times. While the Western Balkans countries have made some efforts in harmonising their legislative and regulatory environments with the EU, over the past decade or so the region has in many respects been moving away from European values with some speed. The EU now fully realises this, even if it has little appetite for confrontation with Balkan strongmen for fear of rocking the boat.

In the opening passages of its enlargement strategy document from earlier this year, the very one in which Montenegro and Serbia are seen as potentially ready for membership by 2025, the European Commission states that the countries of the Western Balkans “show clear elements of state capture”. Read the whole document, though, and you’ll wonder if the phrase is a tad too charitable. Highlighting corruption and links with organised crime at every level of government, the document depicts societies in which key walks of public life, including the judiciary and the media, are held captive by interest groups intent on servicing and cementing the system that keeps them on top. The list of those “elements of state capture” is so exhaustive that you’ll ask whether there is anything worth capturing still left. More to the point, how can anyone who reads this document argue for unconditional and speedy accession?

Media Capture

Take freedom of expression, a key European value. It should be anchored in an enabling environment for free and vibrant media. The Western Balkans countries have made a travesty of it. Public service broadcasters are for the most part propagandists of governments and linked interest groups, their governing and management structures more often than not filled with government loyalists. The same goes for electronic media regulators, with outrageous breaches of media ethics passing unchecked. Private outlets are often the most important tools for delivering aggressive government messaging, their ownership or business rationale often murky. Public money is used in more ways than one to prop up pro-government outlets. Advertising markets are almost entirely controlled by groups closely linked to government. Lawsuits are routinely used to supress freedom of expression. The region is flooded by what’s now commonly referred to as fake news, though an important point is that misinformation generated domestically still dwarfs that coming from abroad.

Top government officials regularly speak of rare wayward journalists and independent outlets in derogatory or even threatening manner, often using discriminatory language. While murders are relatively rare, several cases of slain journalists remain unsolved and as such they very much burden the media scenes in the region as a stark reminder that independent reporting can be dangerous. Threats and other forms of intimidation are a daily occurrence and physical attacks are frequent. Their main characteristic seems to be that they are precisely targeted and executed in what can be described as a professional manner.  In rare cases when perpetrators are identified and prosecuted, they receive mild sentences. The prosecutors never seem interested in those behind the attacks and their true motives.

Impunity Reigns

The wounding earlier this month of Olivera Lakić, an investigative reporter with Montenegro’s daily Vijesti, is a case in point. Back in 2011 Lakić uncovered a very significant corruption story with implications for top officials. She received terrible and very specific threats, which were reported to police, which then failed to investigate them properly. She was then attacked and severely beaten in 2012 as she tried to enter her apartment building. A single perpetrator was identified, tried and sentenced to a rather symbolic sentence, but the trial shed no light to the motive and those behind the attack. On 8 May this year she was ambushed at the very same spot by a single gunman who fired only one bullet and shot Lakić in the leg and then rather calmly disappeared from the scene with two helpers who were nearby. The likely intention was to intimidate her, her paper and all other journalists.

The aftermath of the attack was also rather familiar. Condemnations poured in from Western governments and international organisations. In a strong show of support, the EU commissioner for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, visited Vijesti and Lakić. Police said they would prioritise the case. It wouldn’t be surprising if they produced a suspect perpetrator soon. Judging by previous cases in Montenegro and elsewhere, the likelihood is they will not identify those behind the attack and that this case will very soon feel like a piece of yesterday’s news, just as the last month car bomb explosion in front of the house of another Montenegrin journalist already feels.

The important point here is that such attacks take place in an atmosphere of daily harangues against journalists from top politicians, often the very politicians who enjoy support from Western governments because of their nominal pro-Western orientation. Such harangues cast independent journalists and other civil society actors as fair game and in effect normalise impunity.

The vicious circle is completed by poor public response to attacks against journalists. In Lakić’s case only a few hundred gathered to demand speedy investigation and a stop to the atmosphere of fear in relation to freedom of expression.  In many other cases of attacks on reporters there was no public protest to speak of.

Among other things, the lack of public engagement indicates low levels of media literacy. Many members of the public hold the media in low esteem, something that may or may not be justified, but the point still stands that the media won’t change before there is a stronger demand for better media and a public ready to robustly defend freedom of expression.

SEENPM and its member organisations in the Western Balkans will redouble their efforts to support media and information literacy in the region through national and regional projects. Among other things, the network now operates a website dedicated to media and information literacy.