Saturday

18th Nov 2017

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.”

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

Mind the gap: inequality in our cities

Minimum wages, 'living' wages and a universal basic income are all part of the ongoing mix to find ways to reduce social inequality across the EU.

The anti-glyphosate lobby strikes again

Opponents of glyphosate too often rely on one - contested - piece of research, or smear their opponents as stooges for the chemicals industry.

EU's eastern partnership needs revival

A week before a summit with EU eastern neighbours, Sweden and Poland's foreign ministers propose "a way ahead" for the relationship that is more focused on people's needs.

Clean energy package needs market, not just targets

While discussions on targets and objectives are important, the focus must not be on the percentage, but rather on delivering fundamental market reforms in order to reach targets in place.

EU's eastern partnership needs revival

A week before a summit with EU eastern neighbours, Sweden and Poland's foreign ministers propose "a way ahead" for the relationship that is more focused on people's needs.

News in Brief

  1. Bonn climate talks extend into Friday evening
  2. UK needs to move on Brexit by early December, Tusk says
  3. Puigdemont extradition decision postponed to December
  4. Ireland wants written UK guarantees to avoid hard border
  5. US did not obstruct climate talks, says German minister
  6. EU signs social declaration
  7. Puigdemont to be heard by Belgian judges
  8. Steep fall in migrants reaching EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressAntisemitism in Europe Today: Is It Still a Threat to Free and Open Society?
  2. Counter BalanceNew Report: Juncker Plan Backs Billions in Fossil Fuels and Carbon-Heavy Infrastructure
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic countries prioritise fossil fuel subsidy reform
  4. Mission of China to the EUNew era for China brings new opportunities to all
  5. ACCASmall and Medium Sized Practices Must 'Offer the Whole Package'
  6. UNICEFAhead of the African Union - EU Summit, Survey Highlights Impact of Conflict on Education
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council Calls for Closer Co-Operation on Foreign Policy
  8. Swedish EnterprisesTrilogue Negotiations - Striking the Balance Between Transparency and Efficiency
  9. Access EuropeProspects for US-EU Relations Under the Trump Administration - 28 November 2017
  10. World Vision20 November: Exchange of Views at the EP on Children Affected by the Syria Crisis
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable Growth the Nordic Way: Climate Solutions for a Sustainable Future
  12. EU2017EEHow Data Fuels Estonia's Economy

Latest News

  1. EU keeps former Soviet states at arm's length
  2. EU leaders make pledge on social issues after populist backlash
  3. EU agencies and eastern neighbours This WEEK
  4. Germany slams Dutch call for more ambitious EU climate goal
  5. Mind the gap: inequality in our cities
  6. Climate activists 'disappointed' with EU at climate talks
  7. Davis outlines UK vision on Brexit in Berlin
  8. German coalition talks in near collapse

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Step Up Water Management Cooperation
  2. CECEMachinery Industry Calls for Joint EU Approach to Develop Digital Construction Sector
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersMale Business Leaders Gather in Copenhagen to Advance Gender Equality
  4. EnelNo ETS Deal Means It Can Still Be Strengthened
  5. EU2017EEEstonia Anticipates More Digital Cooperation With Sweden
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina Launches Campaign to Protect IPR of Foreign Companies
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Condemns Attacks on Ruta Vanagaite and the Shredding of Her Books in Lithuania
  8. Bio-Based IndustriesDiscover the Future of the Bio-Based Economy. Register Now for the BBI Stakeholder Forum!
  9. European Free AllianceWelcome Catalonia!
  10. UNICEFGrowing Number of Unaccompanied Refugee Children in Greece in Need of Shelter
  11. Counter BalanceNature Destruction Cannot Be Compensated For, Say NGOs
  12. CES - Silicones EuropeSilicones - Enabling the Next Big Leap in Prosthetics and Health