Balkans, EU continue struggle for press freedom

13/03/2014

Balkan countries remain a dangerous place for journalists, according to a recent report on media freedom.

By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Podgorica -- 13/03/14

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Macedonian journalists warn about regression of media freedom in the country. [Tomislav Georgiev/SETimes]

A report by the international media NGO Reporters Without Borders noting that freedom of information and journalists' lives in the region are at risk alarmed international experts and media freedom defenders who are concerned about journalists' rights in Balkans.

"Unfortunately, the situation in the whole region is far from ideal," Dunja Mijatovic, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, told SETimes. "Looking generally in almost all countries, we can see more and more economic pressure on journalists and the media."

The report lowered Montenegro's rating to 114th out of 180 nations -- its lowest mark in the history of the annual report – citing journalist safety.

Soon after the report was released, a vehicle of the Montenegro daily newspaper Vijesti was set on fire -- the fifth time in the last two years that a Vijesti vehicle was burned. Police have not investigated any of these cases so far.

Oliver Vujovic, secretary general of the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), said a large number of unsolved attacks on journalists in Montenegro indicate that "some state structures are not doing their job."

"I absolutely have no illusions that they will handle something because the judiciary in Montenegro is a part of the ruling system; they've proved that too many times," Esad Kocan, chief editor of the Montenegro's weekly Monitor, told SETimes.

"Frequent physical attacks on journalists are common in Greece, too," Vujovic told SETimes. "Bulgaria and Romania are two states -- the young members of the EU, in which we have a lot of problems. If we talk about Bulgaria, I think first of various forms of attacks and threats against journalists."

Bulgaria, ranked 100th in the World Press Freedom Index, retains the status of lowest-ranked EU country, dropping 13 positions from last year and 66 positions in the past decade. The country had "a trying year marked by five months of major protests and political tension," according to the report. "Independent journalists, especially investigative reporters, are meanwhile exposed to harassment that can take the form of arson attacks on their cars."

Yana Buhrer Tavanier, campaigns and communications director of the Sofia-based Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, said "the entangling of economic and political interests on one hand and the media on the other for the past year has increased to a level of almost complete suffocation of the freedom of expression."

"Media outlets, more than ever, are used as machines of manipulation," Tavanier told SETimes. "Censorship is huge, but self-censorship is even stronger," she added, acknowledging that "there are territories of media freedom, but these are just islands in an ocean of falsification."

This year's report ranked Macedonia six places below last year's position, at 123rd place. Although Macedonia has been tackling reforms designed to put it on the road to EU membership, "the democratic window cannot hide the strong violations of the freedom of information," according to the report.

Journalist Tomislav Kezarovski has become the symbol of these violations. After he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in October 2013 for revealing the name of a protected witness in a murder case, his jail term was changed, under international pressure, to house arrest. '

'The cases of the arrest and imprisonment of journalists is only the peak of the iceberg of constant torture of professional journalists," Tamara Chausidis, a president of the Independent Union of Journalists and media workers of Macedonia, told SETimes. "It is performed either by corruption of owners with paid campaigns and commercials from the state budget or by economic pressure of both the owners and the journalist."

Macedonian journalists said the report only confirms the tendency of regression of media freedom in the country.

''Although reforms are announced in this field, as a country we regress from year to year. In this report we have an even lower ranking than Kosovo, which is a fact that should be concerning for all of us,'' Besim Iljazi, editor-in-chief of the Albanian language daily Koha, told SETimes.

A major advance in freedom of the press was noted in Albania, which is five places lower than Kosovo and ranks at 80th place. Serbia is 54th, Croatia at 65th, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is 66th.

"In BiH it should be noted the difficult situation of local journalists -- those who work in small communities -- where there is a strong pressure of government and business circles on their work, as well as insults by politicians," Vujovic said.

To improve the situation, the state needs to protect reporters and civil society organisations need to be more active, media experts and journalists said.

"Journalists should have greater public support and the public needs to understand that the journalists are just doing their job," Kocan said.

"The state needs to do its job so that the judiciary, police and prosecutors are functioning efficiently and quickly in all forms of threats to journalists," Vujovic said.

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Seeking justice in cases involving lies, slander and abuse is also of key significance, Tavanier said, adding that other measures may include "supporting investigative journalists and high quality media, promoting and monitoring media self-regulation, developing programmes to increase the literacy of media professionals at various levels."

"The first and main thing that countries need to do is to let them to do their work free, and to provide them with the legal and economic framework for their independence," Mijatovic said. "This is not easy, but it is not impossible. As for the physical security, it is crucial that any attack against journalists must not be unpunished. Perpetrators of such acts must know that justices will catch up on them."

Correspondents Tzvetina Borisova in Sofia and Marina Stojanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.

What are the best ways to improve the media freedom in the region and protect journalists? Share your thoughts in comments.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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