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27th Nov 2021

Press freedom in Balkans better than some EU states

  • Sofia: Media freedoms in Bulgaria rank the worst in the EU (Photo: dimnikolov)

Press freedoms in three EU candidate countries now fare better than some member states, such as Bulgaria and Hungary.

The World Press Freedom index, by Reporters without Borders, published on Tuesday (21 April) ranks Bulgaria as the worst offender in the European Union.

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The report assesses some 180 countries, listing, globally, Norway as having the most free press, and North Korea as the world's worst.

Ranked 111th on the global stage (with one being the best and 180 the worst), the media pluralism and independence landscape in Bulgaria remains in a dire state.

The report says the backsliding in Bulgaria is linked to widespread "corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs."

It says the state hands out EU funds and other money to government-friendly outlets - while at the same time harassing independent media.

Among the worst offenders is 39-year old Bulgarian media magnate Delyan Peevski, who in 2013 was appointed head of the State Agency of National Security.

Although his appointment was later rescinded, the move triggered protests at a scale never before seen in the country over the previous two decades.

Peevski also won a seat in the European Parliament last year - which he never took up.

Asked to respond on the report and specifically Bulgaria's ranking, the European Commission said independent pluralistic media must be able to operate freely.

Other than highlighting problems in a future rule-of-law report, the commission said it is legally hamstrung to do anything about it.

"It is the responsibility of member states to take action to protect media freedom and pluralism," said a commission spokesperson in Brussels.

The annual report comes against a backdrop of recent manoeuvres in Hungary, that could land journalists in jail if they are deemed by the government to have spread bogus or harmful information on the virus Covid-19.

Around 22 EU states have declared a state of emergency or state of danger.

"We didn't see a real argument to go to the court to start an infringement in one or another country," EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders last week.

But he did point out Hungary's refusal to impose an expiry date on its state of emergency as an issue, as well as the threat of jail for journalists spreading so-called fake news.

At 89th position, Hungary is ranked the second-worst in terms of media freedom in the EU, after Bulgaria. Malta comes in as third-worst in the EU.

In comparison, EU candidate countries such as Albania come in at 84th, followed by Serbia at 93rd and Montenegro at 104th.

With journalists in the past three years having been murdered in Slovakia and Malta, death threats continue to emerge.

Among them is Slovenian investigative journalist Blaž Zgaga.

Zgaga had filed freedom of information requests on the newly-founded Crisis Headquarters, a government structure in charge of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

His request was instead met with a disparaging tweet from the official account of the Crisis Headquarters, which in turn triggered a smear campaign from the far-right ruling party Slovenska Demokratska Stranka.

Now Zgaga has received anonymous threats against his life.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and six other press freedom organisations have since written to the European Commission asking for its help.

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