If countries in Southeast Europe do not take steps to address lingering problems in the area of media freedom, what is ultimately at stake is democracy, the OSCE has warned.
By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 18/10/13
Journalists holding placards reading "Ataturk's agency has become Arinc's (Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc) channel" protest on July 24th in Ankara against censorship in Turkish media. [AFP]
Despite progress that many countries in the region are making in integrating with European institutions addressing corruption and solving economic challenges, media freedom in southeast Europe is continuing to deteriorate, posing a direct threat to democratic reform, experts told SETimes.
"If the situation does not improve what is ultimately at stake is freedom and democracy," said Dunja Mijatovic of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. "Violence, harassment and intimidation against journalists are an attack on democracy itself."
Christian Mihr, executive director of Reporters Without Borders Germany, told SETimes that there are common patterns of violation of media freedom in southeast Europe.
"In several countries we really still see that journalists are faced with violence by organised crime groups, but even by groups who are at least close to power groups," he said.
Challenges abound throughout the region. Reporters Without Borders reports that press freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has fallen consistently since 2006. The international media organisation Committee to Protect Journalists, citing Turkey's practice of jailing journalists in "retaliation" for their work, last month appealed to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to address what it calls "the government's failure to safeguard press freedom [that] undermines the great strengths" of Turkey.
This year, four television outlets that broadcast the Gezi Park demonstrations were fined by the Turkish government on grounds that the telecasts were "harmful propaganda for minors."
Mihr described the media situation in Turkey as "very serious," particularly in terms of the number of journalists in prison.
"If we talk about the number of imprisoned journalists, Turkey and China are the worst countries worldwide," he told SETimes. "What in Turkey is really a serious problem is that all the anti-terrorist laws are used, or misused to say it like that, against independent journalists who just do their job and this is very often talking and investigating about the situation of the Kurdish people, about the Kurdish conflict."
There are three categories of journalists that are mostly exposed to imprisonment in Turkey: investigative journalists, those charged to be conspirators in planned anti-state coups and journalists in jail on terrorism charges.
Despite international pressure on the Turkish government, it has not taken any signifant steps to improve the situation, with certain articles in the penal code and the anti-terrorism law viewed as posing a serious threat to freedom of expression and of the media in the country.
"Despite our efforts, there was no significant development regarding freedom of expression in the fourth judicial package [announced on April 30th this year]," Ece Milli, campaign and activism co-ordinator at Amnesty International-Turkey, told SETimes.
"We also lobbied with government and opposition parties as well as other relevant bodies, but got no results," she said. "We cannot say nothing has been done during past years to improve the situation. Yet, progress is extremely slow."
Macedonia's press freedom ranking has fallen from 34 to 116 since 2009, with much of the recent attention falling on the arrest this year of investigative reporter Tomislav Kozarevski, who was charged in May for an article he wrote in 2008 for Reporter 92 magazine in which he revealed the identity of an alleged protected witness in a murder case. Earlier this year, the witness told the court that he had given false testimony under police threat. It also turned out that he was not given a protected witness status until 2010.
Kozarevski, who now works for Nova Makedonija, has been in custody on an initial 30-day detention that has been extended five times. Numerous media organisations, including the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the Macedonian Federation of Journalists, OSCE and Reporters Without Borders, have unsuccessfully sought his release.
Another problem observed in most of the countries, but especially in Bulgaria and Romania, was the lack in transparency regarding the ownership of media, Mihr said. Reporters Without borders also cited "a wide gap between texts of laws and the practice, and the respect for laws," he said.
Georgi Lozanov, head of Bulgaria's Council for Electronic Media, agreed that media ownership is a source of the problem in Bulgaria.
"Some of the recognised big investors, such as [Rupert] Murdoch and [the German media group] WAZ left the country and were replaced by local investors bearing the internal contradictions of Bulgaria's transition," he told SETimes. "We often hear [people] talk about monopolies, about monopolists" in this sector, Lozanov added.
However, there isn't a solid enough legal basis for an objective analysis or for sanctioning such behavior, or even for defining someone as a monopolist, he said.
Correspondents Marina Stojanovska in Skopje and Erisa Dautaj Senderdem in Istanbul contributed to this report.
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