In-depth | Media

Press freedoms in decline

By - 03.05.2017

Regional media targeted by politicians frantically struggling to survive.

As May 3, World Press Freedom Day, approached, local and international reports arrived highlighting the ever-more difficult position of the media and media workers in the Western Balkans. Respected organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders, declared 2017 as one of the toughest years for the media since 1993, when World Press Freedom Day was first announced by the U.N. General Assembly.  

According to Reporters Without Borders’ relative rankings, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the best country in the region in terms of media freedoms, occupying 65th place out of 180 countries, directly followed by Serbia, while Croatia is in 74th position. Kosovo is in 82nd place, whereas Montenegro is in a distant 106th place. Macedonia brings up the rear in terms of the Western Balkans in 111th place. For most states, especially Serbia and Croatia, a visible decline has been witnessed in comparison to the previous year.

A similar assessment on the media situation in the region is brought by Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that promotes freedom of speech. On their press freedom scale of 0 (most free) to 100 (least free), Croatia (41) leads the way regionally followed by Montenegro (44), Kosovo (48), Serbia (49) and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania (both 51) — all are classed as ‘partially free.’ Macedonia (64) is the worst scoring country in the region and is classed as ‘not free,’ a deterioration even from last year where it scored 57 and was classed as ‘partially free.’

Within the Western Balkans region, Serbia has experienced the largest decline in media freedoms with Freedom House highlighting that press freedom has eroded under the administration of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who recently won presidential elections in this country. “Independent and investigative journalists face frequent harassment, including by government officials and in pro-government media,” the reports says. “Physical attacks against journalists take place each year, and death threats and other intimidation targeting media workers are a serious concern.”

Nedim Sejdinovic, the president of the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina, who has been exposed to constant attacks, believes that the media situation in Serbia is worse than under Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.

Experts and media workers expect that the trends in Serbia will continue, since all indicators show an ongoing decline. Ilir Gasi, director of the media professionalism group “Slavko Curuvija” Foundation, says that the media in Serbia function as “a system of simple amplifiers of attitudes of the ruling structures.”

“The salaries in journalism are below the general average, while many journalists work on temporary contracts that mean that at any moment they can be sacked without much explanation,” Gasi explains, adding that the system of protecting workers’ rights in the media industry is also at a very low level. “We have no functioning unions, inspectorates, or courts,” he says. “Journalists and editors are trained to assume in advance what they should or shouldn’t write.”

Total media control

The fact that Serbia is officially a candidate for EU membership has not not improved its media freedoms. Nedim Sejdinovic, president of the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina, has been exposed to constant attacks and believes that the media situation in Serbia is worse than under Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. There are many reasons for this, he says, but one is that — alongside decreasing foreign donations to the media — the government has found ways “as it did during the ’90s, to practically control the entire domestic cash flow to the media, whether its various state or para-state means, or even the money coming from private multinational companies.”

The methodology of international reports has been made in such a way as to identify the general media issues in certain states, but in this way cannot follow up on specifics, such as the destruction of the independent media scene that occurred in Serbia in the ’90s, as well as a lack of finances provided for non-profit media that should act in the public interest. However, noteworthy initiatives are still appearing, such as the Center for Investigative Research of Serbia (CINS), KRIK, PodrziRTV or Novinari ne klece (“Journalists Don’t Kneel”), which all represent professional attempts of resistance to threats against their profession.

An informal initiative called Novinarska mreza (Journalist Network) has also been functioning since the end of 2016. It was established as a cooperation of colleagues from former Yugoslavia to grow into a support group to help threatened journalists.

Belgrade-based journalist and one of the initiators of the Network, Zarka Radoja, says that even though many journalists in the region are talking about the lack of solidarity among themselves as professionals, the experience with the Network shows the opposite, “at least at a basic level.” “We are ready to support colleagues exposed to attacks and threats,” she says. “As much as it may seem unimportant, in deeply divided societies, the problems that we share and recognize among ourselves, showing that we have solidarity, is a small revolutionary act.”

In Macedonia, the recent violent storming of the parliament by extremist groups supported by the VMRO-DPMNE party, showed the gravity of the political and social situation in a state in which journalists have been facing the most brutal pressures for years, and for whom the concept of freedom has become an unfamiliar one.

Borjan Jovanovski is a veteran of Macedonian TV journalism, who has been the target of attacks for years: “All of us who are persistent in the intent to keep journalism alive have become the underground. We exist solely thanks to foreign help, which is why we are called foreign mercenaries. This label is not harmless if you take into account what has happened to us throughout the years,” he says, adding that he is often labeled a traitor and spat at in public places and that in one incident a funeral wreath bearing his and his wife’s names was left on his doorstep.

“We try to save journalism as much as we can so that we would have something to start from on some better occasion.”

Buying media space

In Kosovo many journalists believe that the situation has not changed in comparison to previous years and that the trend of pressure, assaults, and even armed attacks is continuing; however they still believe that resistance exists and that pressure is applied by journalists on institutions to at least partially do their job properly.

Shkelqim Hysenaj, president of the Association of Professional Journalists, points to the fact that according to the 2016 “Worlds of Journalism Study” research, as many as 86 percent of Kosovo journalists do not have permanent contracts.

“Today, Albania doesn’t have any media, but does have offices that multiply propaganda offered by political parties.”

BIRN Albania editor, Gjergj Erebara

“Journalists face different problems and their freedom is mostly limited to the place in which they work,” he explains. “Besides this, there are also certain external factors, such as the influence of a variety of interest groups, politics and political leaders that influence journalistic freedoms and the profession they want to properly perform.”

Albania has seen a significant decline in press freedoms according to Reporters Without Borders; in 2003, it was ranked in 35th place globally, but since then has dropped 47 places.

Gjergj Erebara, an editor at BIRN Albania believes that the problems are similar, but are reflected above all in the influence on the media by politics. “After 2000, an economically powerful group, closely connected to the political class, created, bought, and financed media that were put into operation for the benefit of the current political class, of one party or another,” he says. “In 2007, during the local elections, some politicians were so strong that they started paying for the production of ‘TV chronicles,’ which they later gave away to their favored media for broadcasting.”

Erebara says that In 2009, this practice was established at a higher level. “The main political parties started distributing the video footage of their election campaign activities, while journalists were forced to remain outside gatherings, often being prohibited from recording election campaign meetings,” he says. “Today, Albania doesn’t have any media, but does have offices that multiply propaganda offered by political parties.”

However, despite all these negative phenomena, Erebara believes that journalists in Albania are the most active part of society and that they don’t stop fighting.

Bitter struggle for survival

The country that according to Reporters Without Borders is the best in the Western Balkans in terms of its media freedoms, Bosnia and Herzegovina, does not officially have systemic pressures on its journalists. But there are different types of pressure that complicate the jobs of media workers, such as non-compliance with the Law on Freedom of Access to Information.

The public service broadcaster is also facing the biggest challenges since it was founded in 1999, partly due to a difficult financial situation, and partly because of attempts to divide the channels on an ethnic basis, in order to introduce a new public broadcasting service in the Croatian language.

Issues relating to workers’ rights in the media industry are in a similar position to those in other countries. Gordana Katana, long time journalist in Banja Luka and correspondent for daily Oslobodjenje, explains how employers drastically increase the number of working hours and do not comply with the provisions of the Labour Law in terms of rights relating to vacations, overtime work, and working on holidays. “Special collective contracts are worded so as to represent the sum of the rights of employers, which leaves no room for journalists to call upon the minimum rights from the Labour Law,” she says.

A wider problem

The only EU member state in the region, Croatia, used to be a good example as printed media had huge circulation, and television broadcasters had good ratings. Today, the situation is completely different, and the media space is overwhelmed with good and bad texts, whereas everyday there are less jobs for journalists.

"It is difficult to talk about media freedoms and independent journalism. We can only talk about the bitter struggle for survival.”

Ivica Djikic, journalist from Croatia.

Ivica Djikic, a journalist who has suffered multiple pressures in his career, believes that in Croatia there are magnificent texts and extraordinary authors, but “journalism and the media industry, especially when it comes to serious and qualitative political journalism, cannot be based on exceptions, on existential insecurity of journalists, or volunteering and symbolic honoraria for published texts.” He adds that in Croatia today, “it is difficult to talk about media freedoms and independent journalism. We can only talk about the bitter struggle for survival.”

Goran Borkovic, an editor at the portal, thinks alike. He believes that the state must react, and that Croatian journalism is approaching an exceptionally difficult period. Recently his portal faced a dead-end situation; when HDZ cut all public funds for nonprofit media after coming to power in 2016, he started a crowdfunding campaign and managed to survive for 5 months. “Primarily thanks to my colleagues, we managed to gather 10,000 dollars and survive for five months,” he says.

However Borkovic says that it is not a long term solution. “A solution requires the systematic care of the state, because soon the media will either disappear or become a mere service of certain interest groups, which will have reason to maintain them until they are needed for pushing forward personal interests,” he concludes.

At a time of ever-increasing conservatism, marked by a strengthening of the far-right and terrorism used as a justification for curtailing all kinds of freedoms, it is clear that the Western Balkans are not alone in experiencing a decline in media freedoms; the press is also under attack from politicians in the Western capitalist societies of the EU and U.S. and a large number of European states have adopted laws that allow intelligence agencies to put journalists and their sources under constant surveillance.

All this does not bode well for the media located on the European periphery. A precarious situation for the journalistic profession, political pressures and control, and examples of beatings and arrests, only speak of the fact that ahead lies a period of fighting for the rights of the media, and for basic civil liberties — the very basic ones.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0