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Journalists at Risk as Media Freedom Declines in Former Yugoslavia

The countries that have re-emerged from Yugoslavia are struggling to liberate themselves from repressive practices of the past. As time goes on, press freedom is only on the decline.

Media in former Yugoslavia are facing hard times: violent attacks on investigative journalists, politicians meddling in public media and aggressive smear campaigns against reporters are common in the region. Over a quarter of a century after Josip Broz Tito’s communist state in southeastern Europe fell apart, journalists are being silenced aggressively.

The transition into democracy, and toward free press associated with it, is not easy for the countries that have re-emerged from Yugoslavia. The young states are struggling to liberate themselves from repressive practices of the past, but to become members of the E.U., they will need to crank it up a few notches.

Last month, a Montenegrin investigative journalist paid a high price for doing her job. As a reporter who often wrote about the ties between state officials and criminals, Olivera Lakić became the victim of the second attack on a journalist in just over a month in the tiny country. The 49-year-old was shot in her leg in front of her apartment building in the capital Podgorica, five-and-half weeks after a car bomb exploded outside the house of yet another reporter specializing in corruption and crime.

Montenegro hopes to join the E.U. by 2025. For that to happen, the Balkan state of 650,000 must meet E.U. standards and wipe out widespread organized crime and corruption first. Reporters covering these subjects have to look over their shoulder constantly.

While Montenegro is seen as one of ex-Yugoslavia’s frontrunner candidates for E.U. membership, the latest attack will affect its bid, the bloc warned. “This has an impact on the standing and reputation of the country,” Johannes Hahn, the commissioner responsible for enlargement, told reporters after he visited Olivera Lakić. “It is on our radar screen and we expect a proper investigation.”

Yugoslavia’s Breakup

Montenegro was the last nation to become independent following the 1992 breakup of Yugoslavia. For the first 14 years after the disintegration, it formed a state with Serbia, but the two separated in 2006 after the Montenegrins narrowly voted for independence in a referendum. It drew the most recent political border in the Balkans.

Two ex-Yugoslav republics have managed to join the European Union. Slovenia became a member in 2004, and Croatia followed in 2013. The other five have been left in the perennial E.U. waiting room: Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro have gained candidate status, while Bosnia & Herzegovina and newcomer Kosovo remain potential candidates.

The E.U.’s strategy for the Western Balkans, adopted by the Commission in February, indicated for the whole area that particular focus is needed to “safeguard the freedom of expression and independence of media as a pillar of democracy.”

Following the recent violence in Montenegro, Reporters Without Borders, an NGO promoting and defending freedom of information and press, protested the threats to investigative journalism in the country. The small state ranks 103rd out of 180 countries surveyed in the NGO’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, after Lebanon, Ukraine, and Brazil.

Press Freedom Downhill

As time goes on for these young states, however, press freedom is only on the decline. The annual press index by Reporters Without Borders shows that entire former Yugoslavia ranked worse this year than it did a decade ago.

Montenegro, for example, slipped from 52nd place in 2008 to 103rd in 2018. Macedonia dropped 67 places since 2008 and now ranks 109th, the lowest of all former Yugoslav republics.

Reporters Without Border’s data shows that joining the E.U. isn’t the only solution to raise the grade. While E.U. member Slovenia constantly scores better than the rest, the state placing second is not fellow member state Croatia, as would be expected, but Bosnia & Herzegovina. This country hasn’t even made the list for candidacy, but its potential has been recognized.

The 2018 Nations in Transit report by Freedom House stated that the media environment in Slovenia has been relatively good, “compared with the worsening situation for journalists and of the press in the region.” However, outlets are to a great extent owned by corrupt politicians and oligarchs, which makes the media less varied and fuels self-censorship among journalists.

The report indicated this as general problems in the region, together with economic pressure, continuing interference of politicians, violent attacks, and threats to journalists.

Dangerous Environment

The issue of physical threats remains among the gravest concerns, according to media lawyer Flutura Kusari of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), an NGO countering attacks on the press. “Politicians are creating a difficult, if not dangerous, environment for journalists in the area by naming and shaming them,” she told The Globe Post. “They also orchestrate smear campaigns which ultimately lead to threats and violence.”

Jelena Cosic of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) recognized this. “State-controlled media publish backlash stories about BIRN or BIRN journalists,” she told The Globe Post. “We are constantly mentioned by state officials in Serbia, usually in the context of the media being influenced or hired by foreign governments to cover their agendas.”

This impedes BIRN’s work, as requests of information are denied or given answers are useless. “It’s also not unusual that officials refuse to give us interviews,” Cosic said.

According to Kusari, politicians don’t consider safeguarding journalists and guaranteeing the right of freedom of expression as a priority. “They don’t want to understand the role of media. They don’t consider themselves being accountable to journalists and try to avoid them by using social media to ‘inform’ the public,” she said. “The right to access information is not respected by public institutions and journalists face difficulties when demanding access.”

Obligation to Protect

Todor Gardos, a Balkans researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that the ex-Yugoslav republics don’t necessarily struggle to create free press. “Rather, they often fail to protect journalists from violent attacks,” he told The Globe Post.

Cosic from BIRN said the platform’s journalists have faced threats, but law-enforcement authorities handled none of the matters. “We have reported to the police but never got answers.”

Gardos believes that governments across the region have the ongoing obligation to protect journalists from attacks and ensure that media can thrive. “The key is political will and control on powerful political and business interests, who are often behind attacks on investigative journalists.”

Human Rights Watch published a report on media freedom in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia three years ago. Based on interviews with 86 journalists, editors, and media owners, the human rights organization concluded that the journalists have to work in a “hostile environment.” The interviewees described a “difficult media space” in which they faced threats, attacks, and other types of intimidation and interference with their work.

Gardos said many of the current attacks in the region have the same pattern. Political elites are often hostile to critical media and attempt to silence them as a result. Journalists reporting on sensitive issues are accused of being spies, criminals or drug addicts in pro-government media.”

This has, beyond personal consequences, increased self-censorship and the sense of impunity for crimes against journalists, which may encourage more attacks, a broader effect on societies, the researcher said. “Media freedom and pluralism are necessary for a democratic society to thrive and to have a vibrant debate on issues of interest.”

Cornerstone of Democracy

Cosic of BIRN called investigative journalism one of the cornerstones of democracy, “especially in the fragile Balkan states.”

The lack of press freedom here means that politicians are not accountable to their voters and the public at large, media lawyer Kusari said. “There cannot be democracy without a free press. Politicians must understand this basic requirement and not try to undermine journalists’ work.”

She continued by saying that the solution to this problem lays in the hands of state actors. “They must pass legislation that guarantees press freedom, and at the same time they must refrain from interfering with journalists and the media.” She added that crimes against reporters must be investigated independently, promptly and professionally.

Kusari also sees a role for media owners and journalists. “Owners have the responsibility to treat journalists fairly, provide them job security, pay them on time and allow them to conduct journalism independently. Journalists should unionize in non-governmental organizations or syndicates and respect all ethical and legal requirements when doing their work.”

Gardos from Human Rights Watch emphasized that strong standards to ensure media freedom are required as part of E.U. negotiations. He thinks that, in the wake of recent murders inside the E.U. on journalists in Malta and Slovakia, it is likely that even stronger protections will be introduced. “These will have to be taken on board by the Western Balkans countries if they want to become part of the E.U.”

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