A new report issued on March 26 by the European Fund for the Balkans, entitled “Media freedom and integrity in the Western Balkans: Recent developments”, says media freedom in the three Balkan countries has “declined sharply”.
The report says journalists in Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia are facing harassment by governments, other political actors and by difficult economic conditions in which competition for scarce advertising (notably from public bodies) places the media in a position of dependence.
Direct and indirect interference by the authorities in everyday editorial coverage is cited as a commonplace.
“In a situation where electoral politics is often fiercely competitive but the rule of law incomplete, the temptation is great for those in power, or those seeking power, to pressure the media in pursuit of their political agendas,” the report says.
The report also notes the Serbian government’s attack on BIRN in January, which came in response to BIRN’s publication of an investigation into the tender awarded for the repair of the state-owned Tamnava mine.
The BIRN investigation said the Serbian power company EPS awarded the contract to a consortium of two companies with no relevant experience, one of whose directors is standing trial for tax evasion.
Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian Prime Minister, called the authors of the report “liars”, saying they “got the money from [Michael] Davenport”, head of the EU delegation in Belgrade, “to speak against the Serbian government”.
The report called this an example of Vucic’s “combative attitude toward the media”. It went on to say that no one would compare Serbia today with the situation under the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, when journalists were assassinated and there was outright censorship.
“However, there are clear authoritarian tendencies in the current government that find their most tangible expression in the instrumentalisation of the media and in relentless attacks on those who persist in reporting things as they are,” the report added.
The situation in Bosnia is seen as little better. According to the report, the most concerning incident occurred at the end of December 2014, when police raided the offices of Intersoft, owners of Klix.ba, a popular web portal.
Acting on a warrant from Sarajevo municipal court, the authorities were searching for the original recording of a conversation published by Klix in November that had caused a political scandal in Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two entities.
In the recording, Zeljka Cvijanovic, the Republika Srpska prime minister, appeared to be discussing payment of bribes to two opposition parliamentarians in exchange for their support for the government being formed by the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, the party led by the Republika Srpska President, Milorad Dodik.
An additional cause of concern for freedom of expression in Bosnia was the adoption of the Law on Public Peace and Order, which criminalises social media postings that disturb public order or contain indecent, offensive or insulting content. The law has “raised fears that the authorities might in the future seek to clamp down on online expression such as Tweets or Facebook posts,” the report added.
In Macedonia, a fragmented media market, where competition for advertising is intense, leaves the media susceptible to economic pressure from advertisers and the government, which since 2006 has been in the hands of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, the report noted.
”This is especially troubling as the government has in recent years massively expanded its media campaigns, which has widened its influence over the media,” the report said.
According to the document, observers are worried by the use of civil lawsuits in defamation cases and by the imposition of crippling fines by the Macedonian courts.
The report blames the countries’ governments for the decline of media freedom and integrity, and the EU, which all three countries wish to join.
“There is a sense that the EU accession process, in which all the countries of the region are engaged in one form or another, provides insufficient safeguards against infringements of media freedom and freedom of expression,” the report concluded.
The European Fund for the Balkans is a joint initiative of European foundations — the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the King Baudouin Foundation, the Compagnia di San Paolo and the ERSTE Foundation.
It is designed to undertake and support initiatives aimed at bringing the Western Balkans closer to the European Union through grant-giving and operational programmes and, as such, is focused on individuals and organisations from Western Balkan countries.