Thursday

21st Jun 2018

Opinion

EU should stick up for journalists in Western Balkans

  • 'Free and independent media are crucial for democratic development' (Photo: Marco Fieber)

It’s not easy to be an investigative journalist in the Western Balkans. Besides the inherent challenges of the job, reporters can face physical attacks, intimidation, even death threats. Reporting an attack to the authorities rarely brings justice.

Journalists who offend powerful interests can face libel suits or smear campaigns, and be called “enemies of the state” or “foreign agents.”

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... our join as a group

State advertising and links between media owners and politicians put financial and political pressure on outlets to toe a particular editorial line.

While things have improved for independent journalism since the Yugoslav wars, when media were largely used as government propaganda tools, old government attitudes and habits die hard.

Left unchecked, these problems are shrinking media freedom in the Western Balkans. Free and independent media are crucial for democratic development as they facilitate the flow of ideas, opinions and information so people can make informed choices.

Investigative media and journalists have a key role to play as public watchdogs, acting as a check on the executive. Their work is vital to democratic progress in the region.

A Human Rights Watch report released on 15 July documents curbs on media freedom in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro – all aspiring for EU membership.

Eighty-six journalists and editors we interviewed described a hostile working environment in which crimes against journalists were rarely prosecuted and a weak government response sends a message that there won’t be any real consequences for those who may seek to stifle media freedom.

An investigative journalist in Serbia told me that after he was violently attacked, the investigation was obstructed by both police and prosecution. The attacker ultimately was sentenced to a year in prison, overturned as part of a general amnesty.

Another journalist in Bosnia said she had been beaten. The authorities downplayed the seriousness of the attack, though it was preceded by several death threats, all reported to the police. In the end, the court sentenced the attacker to three months and the equivalent of €300 in fines.

Other journalists described how police and prosecutors in the few instances in which cases reach courts dismissed threats as something “not to worry about.”

One journalist in Serbia described the response by police when he reported repeated death threats and destruction of his car: “What can you do, you have a difficult job.”

Outlets and journalists who report unfavourably on those in power find themselves the object of smear campaigns spearheaded by pro-government media outlets.

One woman media owner told us that pro-government media frequently referred to her as a “prostitute;” another journalist said she was called a “Serbian spy,” while a male journalist said he was called a “transgender fool.”

Ruling political and business elites use various insidious means to push journalists to quit reporting on sensitive issues. Punitive arbitrary financial inspections are one method to silence critical voices; keeping journalists in courts contesting civil suits is another tactic.

The Internet has provided yet another array of possibilities to interfere with independent media, either by issuing threats on websites and social media or through cyberattacks against critical websites.

The state response to these cyber-crimes has been weak at best, negligent at worst.

The governments in the Western Balkan are all aspiring to EU membership. Media freedom is a cornerstone of the Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership.

To achieve this will take more than simply transposing EU law into local legal systems. It requires a change in attitude by governments in the Western Balkans, and a commitment to ensuring that journalists can carry out their work without fear or favour.

The European Parliament has already flagged the issue as a concern, and it features in the Commission’s annual progress reports. But the EU needs to up the pressure, and demand concrete progress by the Western Balkan countries.

That should include making it a priority to promptly and thoroughly investigate crimes against journalists and to publicly condemn attacks on the media.

Journalists in the Western Balkans committed to speaking truth to power deserve nothing less.

Lydia Gall is the Balkans and eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO

EU trade bill threatens media freedom

MEPs are voting on legislation to protect trade secrets, in a bill which threatens to impede investigative journalists and whistleblowers.

EU needs comprehensive 'sexuality education'

The subject is mandatory by law in some form in nearly all EU countries - but it is mostly reproduction- and biology-centred, covering topics such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections.

Fate of EU refugee deal hangs in the balance

Europe's choice is between unplanned, reactive, fragmented, ineffective migration policy and planned, regulated, documented movements of people, writes International Rescue Committee chief David Miliband.

The Baltic 'Big Sea' strategy

The Baltic Sea is almost an inland European lake - it borders Norway, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Kaliningrad and Russia. It also has an EU strategy - and an action plan.

Is EU retail sector equipped for 21st century?

After a thorough analysis in cooperation with EU countries we have identified many regulatory restrictions that hamper innovation and investment in the retail sector.

EU summit: migrants get a 'vote' too

Non-citizens from Nigeria to Afghanistan get a binding 'vote' on whatever the EU's internal debates submit to them. They will vote with their feet on whether to keep trying their luck when faced with a new system.

EU needs comprehensive 'sexuality education'

The subject is mandatory by law in some form in nearly all EU countries - but it is mostly reproduction- and biology-centred, covering topics such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections.

Long-distance animal transport: unthinkable still happening

A complete overhaul of animal products' supply chains is needed, privileging local food chains including local slaughtering which is proven to benefit the environment, the resilience of our economy, food safety and animal welfare.

News in Brief

  1. PES to announce 'spitzenkandidat' names in October
  2. Macedonian parliament ratifies name deal
  3. EU to hit US with import duties from Friday
  4. Commission: New on-road CO2 test would take years
  5. Juncker orders migration 'mini-summit' on Sunday
  6. Luxembourg gave illegal state aid to energy firm
  7. Negotiators lower finger printing age of refugees to six
  8. EU to lift its internal data storage barriers

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  2. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMHRMI Launches Lawsuits Against Individuals and Countries Involved in Changing Macedonia's Name
  3. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  4. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  6. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  10. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  11. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network

Latest News

  1. How to get around the EU posted workers directive
  2. EU needs comprehensive 'sexuality education'
  3. Fate of EU refugee deal hangs in the balance
  4. Merkel, Macron in pre-summit pledge on migration, eurozone
  5. Hungary to push ahead with 'Stop Soros' law on NGOs
  6. Swedish party puts EU referendums back in fashion
  7. EU summit set to outsource asylum
  8. Dutch request to clarify Brexit Britons' rights annulled

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  2. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  4. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  7. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  9. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  10. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  11. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  12. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us