Press freedom should be high on EU-Balkans summit agenda, RSF says
While respect for press freedom is a condition of membership of the European Union, it is not on the program of the summit between the EU Member States and the six countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – to be held on October 6 in Slovenia.
However, none of these countries has made significant progress on media freedom. In fact, all of them saw their scores deteriorate on RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, with the exception of Bosnia, which saw very little improvement.
“Freedom of the press should not be a taboo subject at the EU-Balkans summit,”Said Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s EU / Balkans office. “Support for investigative and professional journalism in the Balkans is an essential remedy to help the region tackle two of its main problems: corruption and the Covid-19 pandemic. The EU should undoubtedly be more ambitious in its use of its appeal to the Western Balkans to provide citizens in the region with access to more reliable news and information.“
Crimes of violence against journalists enjoy a worrying level of impunity in the Western Balkans. In Serbia, the judiciary has yet to convict those responsible for the investigative journalist Slavko Curuvijain 1999, or the Molotov cocktail attack on another investigative journalist, Milan jovanovic, in 2018.
Authorities also failed to punish those responsible for bombing last year outside the journalist. Elidon Ndrekaat his home in Albania or the brutal attack on a journalist Visar Duriq outside his home in Kosovo in February 2021. The ineffectiveness of the judicial systems, mainly due to their lack of independence, was also manifested in Montenegro, where the award-winning journalist Jovo Martinovic has been the subject of arbitrary proceedings since 2015.
Professional journalists who investigate topics of public interest such as Covid-19 and migration are also often hampered by authorities. Ana Lalic, a Serbian journalist, Tatjana Lazarevic, who works for the Kosovar media KoSSev, and Bosnian freelance writer Nidzara Ahmetasevic have all been arbitrarily arrested or harassed by police while covering these topics over the past year.
Disinformation is flourishing in the Balkans and fake news – which even the mainstream media now peddle – poses a major problem for society as a whole in connection with the pandemic. Many tabloids relay Covid-19 conspiracy theories as Happy Television, a channel broadcasting in several countries in the region, promotes questionable vaccination theories.
The high level of disinformation about coronaviruses in the Balkans is accompanied by a relatively low vaccination rate, although it is difficult to prove a direct link between the two. The vaccination rate ranges from 23% to 45% in the six Balkan countries while the EU average exceeds 70%.
As a result of their criticism of the government, independent media outlets that broadcast reliable news and information are often discriminated against through an opaque and unfair distribution of public advertising. They are also the target of draconian bills drafted with the declared aim of combating fake news, as in Albania.
Once the candidate countries become members of the EU, the Union fights to defend press freedom within its borders. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa often attacks journalists as his government, organizer of the EU-Balkans summit, has arbitrarily suspended funding for the national news agency STA, recently forcing its director to to resign.
Bulgaria is the lowest ranked country in the EU / Balkans region in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, having lost 61 places since joining the EU in 2007. Hungary has dropped 64 places and the Poland has lost 32 places since 2004.
Bosnia is ranked 58th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, while Kosovo is 78th, Albania is 83rd, North Macedonia is 90th, Serbia is 93rd, and Montenegro is 104th.