At the panel discussion "Media (un) freedom in South Eastern Europe" on July 9, 2015 journalists from Bulgaria, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia reported on the highly critical situation of the media system in their countries.
Here, in the Balkans, we love to compete who’s got it worse. In an inter-Balkan group, we immediately start the tales of whose country from the region has got it worse, whose government is more incompetent, more corrupt, where the media are most yellow and disgusting. To a casual observer such talk must seem quite sado-mazo, but actually it has its reasons. People in the Balkans, who want normality of the Western-European variety, fall in despair at our inability to achieve it at home. Thus we often believe we could be helped from the outside. Such competition formed in Berlin, where the Heinrich Böll Foundation gathered journalists from all countries of the region at a conference, dedicated to media freedom in South-Eastern Europe. The goal was to not only share our experiences in national media surroundings, but also formulate how we can be helped.
And help is definitely needed, as the media situation in the region, especially in the countries of the Western Balkans is sometimes even desperate. And it is exactly these countries that raised the most interest in Berlin, at the expense of the ones that are already in the EU, but have the same problems. I participated in the conference in my capacity of a journalist from Bulgaria, who lives and has a view on the media environment in Croatia as well. The accent of my presentation during the conference and in all meetings in the German capital was that very careful conclusions must be drawn from the mistakes made with Bulgaria and Romania, even Hungary, when we look for the best approach to countries of the Western Balkans enlargement.
A starting point for this accent is the fact that in the freedom of press index Bulgaria has dropped more than double in ten years. In 2005, when the country signed its Treaty of Accession on April 25 in Luxembourg, it was in the 48th place. Ten years later, eight after joining the EU, Bulgaria is at the 106th position in the index. Hungary has also dropped significantly. In 2005, a year after acceding, Hungary is at the enviable 12th place in the index. At the moment it is 65th. Difference is Hungary is in the EU spotlight and Bulgaria is not. Romania, which joined the EU together with Bulgaria and under a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) in the areas of justice and internal affairs, shows rather an improvement in the last ten years. In 2005, when Bucharest also signed its Treaty of Accession, the country was ranked 70th (out of 161) and today it is at the 52nd place (out of 180).
It is important to note, however, that Romania has been better. In the year of its accession (2007) the country jumped from number 70 all the way to 42, where it stayed for a long time. In 2014, it is 45th. Another notable fact is that the European Commission (EC) mentioned for the first time media in its special report on Romania two years ago. The unprecedented criticisms and threats of the EC led to the serious decoupling of Romania from Bulgaria. Croatia, which joined on July 1 2013, is relatively stable in the press index. In 2005, when the country began accession negotiations, it was at number 56 and now it is 58th. Its best position is also from 2007 when Croatia was ranked 41st.
Where are the Western Balkans countries?
Montenegro is the only country that is negotiating for membership with the EU. There is no data for it from 2005. The first data is from 2007 when the small Balkan state is at the relatively good 58th position. This year it is 114th. Serbia has had candidate-country status since last year, but is not negotiating. At the moment it is 67th, same as in 2007. Another country of the region with a candidate status but not negotiating is Macedonia. The former Yugoslav republic received a candidate status together with Croatia in 2005 when it was 43rd in the press index. Ten years later Macedonia is 112th and was even further behind last year – 123rd out of 180 states.
Out of all countries in the region, both members and not, the three with the most terrifying media environment (by order of position) are Macedonia (117), Montenegro (114) and Bulgaria (106). Albeit this fact is developed in some detail in the European Commission’s reports on the progress of the candidates towards membership, the subject is completely absent from the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism with which the EU monitors how Bulgaria keeps its promises for reforms in the judiciary and a battle against corruption and organised crime. Unlike Romania. This is one of the serious oversights of the EC and euinside has demanded for several years that media environment becomes part of the scope of the Mechanism. Bulgaria’s plummeting in the press index is an argument enough in favour of this proposal.
In Đukanović’s democratura
Despite being very close to each other, the situation in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Montenegro is very different. The state of things in the two former Yugoslav republics is definitely more critical, with attacks against journalists and even murders being common. In its report of last year the EC voices serious concerns about the freedom of expression and media, and urges for acceleration of investigations of the cases of violence against journalists. The colleague Željko Ivanović from Montenegro’s most popular newspaper Vijesti took part in the Berlin conference on 9th June. The newspaper is also the one most often attacked. Bomb attacks in front of the paper’s offices as well as physical attacks and threats against journalists from the medium were a central theme in the small Balkan republic over the last year and the year before, but continue to remain unsolved. Željko often joked (seriously) that all countries of the region should join the EU only after they put a Prime Minister in prison, following Croatia’s example.
It was him who mentioned the extremely accurate word from the title of this article – democratura (a democratic dictatorship), reminding that this phenomenon started exactly from Montenegro with dictator Milo Đukanović. The colleague claims all others – Vučić in Serbia, Orbán in Hungary, Thaçi in Kosovo - have been developing following Đukanović’s model. According to him, democratura is a result of another very sweet paraphrase – lost in transition. He quoted Belgrade University professor Snježana Milivojević, who says many of the media in the region survived the dictatorship in the 1990’s, but could not survive democracy. He kept showing the example of Croatia, where to a population of a little over 4 million there are 3 national television stations. Montenegro, whose market is 20 times smaller, he says, has 7 national TV stations and 4 daily newspapers. Total advertisement budget in Croatia, in his words, is close to 200 million Euros, while in Montenegro it is 10 million.
He became very angry during the discussion at a question, posed to all participants in the first panel, for all participants come from media financed by foreign donors. And the question was whether they are also corrupt and following foreign orders.
“Because the right question is not why are you financed by western donors because you are same like this propaganda which are financed by local governments. No, the right question is how and why you cannot survive in a market without western donors and that media and independent media who played that role, which Pescanik plays in Serbia, can't survive because local government destroys any possibility for them to run money in some normal market way and to survive without a foreign donor.”
After this he asked the audience to name a single country helped by Russia to create a democracy. “Where did Russia, Putin, or before Putin, anybody, who did something to implement human rights, freedom of media?”, he asked heatedly and reminded that Western Europe was rebuilt after WWII thanks to grants from the USA.
“All Eastern Europe, democratic values, freedom of media, human rights was built thanks to western support. You can't put everything in the same box”, he said in an ominous reflection of the “debate” we have in Bulgaria.
In March of 2012, the journalist from Vijesti Olivera Lakić was attacked in front of her home in Podgorica after having received threats for over a year because of her investigations on tobacco smuggling. In December of 2013, a bomb went off under the windows of editor-in-chief of the newspaper Mihailo Jovović. That same year a bomb went off in front of the home of Vijesti’s correspondent in Berane Tufik Softić. In 2011, there were several arson cases involving automobiles of Montenegro’s most read newspaper. Many journalists from the daily have received death threats. Željko Ivanović admits he is of the generation of the last journalist Mohicans. Young people adamantly refuse to be subjected to such harassment in the name of the cause.
Vučić will not go in peace
In the Heinrich Böll Foundation auditorium in Berlin on June 9 there were several of these heroes of their time. Among them Svetlana Lukić, co-founder of one of the very read Serbian websites Peščanik, which often publishes translated articles from opposition sites in Russia, aiming to show the picture of the beloved by Serbia Russia is not the one painted by the government in Belgrade. The first impression of Svetlana is of a private person, but when you talk to her you find out how strong she is. Her hands are trembling from the continuous stress she is under. She smokes a lot and admits with regret that she has lost many of her friends and close ones because of what she does. They see her as a traitor. Unlike her Montenegrin colleague she has no sense of humour. Perhaps it vanished somewhere in the stress. Her face is strained and tired, but expresses determination that what she is doing is correct.
(Un)free media in Southeast Europa - Panel 1
She tells of being fired from the national television as a traitor and enemy of Serbia at the time when the current Prime Minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić was Minister of Information and the right hand of Slobodan Milošević. In Serbia, she says, there are 1.400 media. “This is organised chaos”. No one knows who the owners are. At the same time, she resents, the EU supports the privatisation of state media. “If you're a normal person would you buy Politika if you don’t know who owns half of the capital?”. She also says Serbia has a new dictatorship that has a different approach to the old socialist legacy. She tells of things that are common in Bulgaria as well – hate speech in Serbian media remains unpunished and ignored. All of Serbia’s rulers are treated as a stability factor by the EU. In her words the media environment in Serbia is just as bad as in the time of Milošević. A statement, made by Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon (Socialists and Democrats) during a hearing in the European Parliament in the beginning of this year.
In its report on Serbia the EC pays a lot of attention to the media situation than in other countries. The Commission raises concerns about the worsening conditions to the freedom of expression. The report quotes the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which has established during the monitoring of elections in Serbia last year that media coverage was not analytical enough and was influenced by the political parties in power, including through public financing. This has led to a widespread self-censorship. "A continued lack of transparency over media ownership and sources of media advertising and funding was accompanied by a tendency to self-censorship in the media”, concludes the EC in its report for 2014.
Serbia is expecting to start EU membership negotiations any time now. Opening the first chapters will prove that it has truly set foot on the European path. Svetlana Lukić is of the mind, however, that the first chapters will be a present to Vučić. She is convinced he will not cede power peacefully. We have king Aleksandar and a caricature parliament she says, speaking in “nash” (our language) – the polite form that does not allow a distinction between Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, or Montenegrin languages to be made, which could offend someone.
Democraturas with international participation/complicity
During the discussion colleagues from Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina presented two distinct, while at the same time too similar cases. Agron Bajrami, editor-in-chief of Kosovo daily newspaper Koha Ditore says technically in Kosovo there is freedom of speech, but.... with consequences. The trouble begins after you exercise your freedom of expression. Most common are threats and attacks against individual journalists, but there is also trouble for media that are “practising this freedom of speech and professional reporting”. The biggest blow to the few left independent and professional colleagues in Kosovo surprisingly comes from... the EU. It was exactly Koha Ditore that exposed corruption in the European civil mission in Kosovo EULEX. In the words of Agron, however, the newspaper was put under a lot of pressure from the European mission not to disclose its findings. Accusations denied immediately back then by mission boss Gabriele Meucci. This, says the Kosovo journalist and frequent guest columnist for the Montenegrin Vijesti, severely lowers trust and belief that anything could be changed with the help of the international community.
Agron Bajrami tells also that the government in Kosovo is the largest employer, investor, and the richest organisation in the country. Corruption is high placed and rule of law is selective. Parties behave as if what they do is their own internal affair. “It's like a Cosa Nostra, if I may say, in which media as well as the public are excluded fully. No transparency and no accountability”, continues the Kosovo journalist. Parties are not democratic, he says, for even party primaries are manipulated. The problem is that all this is developing and thriving in plain sight from the international community, which participates actively in the new state.
A similar situation exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) as told by investigating journalist Leila Bičakčić who works for the Centre for Investigative Reporting, fully financed by foreign donors. "Kosovo and BiH are being two experiments of the international community”, she says. “We, same as Kosovo, have a huge international presence for the last 20 plus years.” This has not, however, helped significantly. Because of the difficult state structure in BiH there are 44 TV stations, 140 radio stations, 10 private daily newspapers, 4 information agencies, 100 magazines and 80 online outlets in a country with a population of 3.7 million that lives on the edge of poverty, says Leila. Pluralism exists so far as there is pluralism of state entities. Ownership of media is not transparent there either. Media are used as an extension to party influence.
Advertisement industry is politically bound and self-censorship is another problem that is turning into a journalism standard. Threats to journalists, unlawful surveillance and wiretapping are normal practise, says the Bosnian journalist. Bosnia is doing relatively well in the international press index – right behind Croatia – however, she says, if you look at the violence element Bosnia and Herzegovina ranks right beside Sierra Leone and Algeria.
The words of both journalists are backed by the findings of the EC in the progress reports for 2014. For Kosovo it says that the economic sustainability of media is not ensured. Kosovo does not have effective rules for media ownership and transparency. It is important to note that neither does Bulgaria, regardless of its membership in the EU and regardless of this being a part of the governing programme of the current government, which has been in power for almost a year, but has not began any work on this part of its programme. According to the EC, in Kosovo this has brought an excessive concentration and violations of independence. Government advertisement also has a profound effect on some media’s editorial policy. Just like in Bulgaria. In regard of BiH, there are observations of political and financial pressure towards media there as well.
As in all other countries of the region government financing is a problem. Public media that are not financed by the public broadcasting system get their financing from municipal and cantonal budgets, thus leaving them under severe political pressure. This is most felt in the Republika Srpska, which finances both public and private media with total lack of clear criteria of how the subsidies are allocated, says the EC report.
Macedonia’s downfall in front of EU’s eyes
“The situation on media freedom continued to deteriorate. Government influence on media output is exercised through, inter alia, state-financed advertising. There is a scarcity of truly independent reporting and lack of accurate and objective information being made available through mainstream media to the public, and a lack of informed public debate”,
says the assessment of the EC on Macedonia, which imploded shortly before the Berlin conference. At the conference, journalist Sašo Ordanoski presented the scary picture of the media situation in the former Yugoslav republic. He showed photos and information on the attacks on journalists of just the last (as of June 9) 45 days. Bomb attacks, beatings, threats. According to him, from the day of its coming to power in 2006 the government of Nikola Gruevski had a clear plan not to join the EU, regardless of the public declarations to the contrary.
(Un)free media in Southeast Europa - Panel 2
Journalist and university professor Ordanoski said also that Macedonia is one of the rare examples in Europe where a populist government actually rules by majority. Perhaps we should mention in parentheses that another such case is Bulgaria. As in all the other countries of the region the government of Macedonia is the largest advertiser. It spends around 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the country’s budget for propaganda, as Sašo named it. The media environment problems are structural and cannot be solved only by political measures before elections. There is a need of restructuring of the media system, which, however, is difficult to achieve if there is no political will present.
The Croatian example
The media situation in Croatia is relatively stable and good due to one major reason – the most watched/read media have foreign ownership. In Croatian state owned-media, though, the situation is just as subservient as in other countries of South-East Europe. In a situation of growing nationalism in Croatia populist phenomena are starting to emerge, inserting noise in the otherwise levelled media environment. Such example is the website of the boss of the For the family (U ime obitelji) initiative Željka Markić. Another troubling example was the fired adviser of former president Ivo Josipović exactly a year ago. Dejan Jović was fired because of his voiced opinion in a specialised scientific magazine that did not coincide with the opinion of Mr Josipović and the largest opposition party in the eve of the presidential elections.
It is curious that Jasmina Klarića wrote [in Croatian] recently in the Rijeka left-centrist newspaper Novi List namely about democraturas, pointing out that this phenomenon is coming to Croatia. According to her, the outlines of a democratura can be seen not only in the ideas of opposition HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko, but in the behaviour of key figures of this party as well. If the HDZ wins, she writes, at the parliamentary elections later this year or in the beginning of next it is quite possible that ignoring, contempt, and pressure on media is imminent. According to a well-informed source in Berlin, Croatia will also turn into a problem. This problem stems to a certain degree from the fact that political parties in Croatia are not democratic in their nature as well.
Brussels, we have a problem!
Although the problem with media, especially in the countries of the Western Balkans, entered the EC’s field of vision with the progress reports paying much more and deeper attention to the media environment, the EU as a whole remains rather passive regarding the rapidly developing problems even within its own ranks. The case of Hungary is proverbial, but it is important to note it is not the only one. Before departing from the country US ambassador to Bulgaria Marcie Ries spoke at length on media freedom in an interview [in Bulgarian] for the Bulgarian Dnevnik.
Although restraining herself from giving a definite assessment, she said that one of the subjects that she spoke at length about during her mandate in Bulgaria was media freedom. Not only because she was a journalist before, but also because
"media have a very important role to inform people on subjects of public interest, especially in informing voters. Investigative journalism is also very important. When there exists a less than full media freedom, when we hear of cases of self-censure, when there is a problem with the transparency of ownership, this raises concerns. There were times when it was considered that journalism must be fully objective. Nowadays in the US too we have accepted that one media backs a certain political position, another one takes a different one and this is acceptable, as long as we know who the owners are and know what to expect when we read. Transparency of ownership is very important.”
You can rarely hear such messages from the EU, however. A nice exception lately was the boss of the European Parliament Martin Schulz (Socialists and Democrats, Germany) who stated on his visit to Belgrade:
“I must confess that there is one issue that is of great concern to the European Parliament: freedom of the press. When we open chapters we need to have a serious discussion about the media. The independence, diversity and freedom of the media must be guaranteed in all the EU Member States, and the same goes for any country wishing to join the EU.”
Leila Bičakčić is adamant, however, that you cannot expect the international community, even if it is the EU, to do most of the work in the countries involved. Accession to the EU is not mandatory, it is an option. Thus it is necessary that the job is done from within. “The journalists are accepting the rules of the game, they are not fighting for their rights, they are not supporting each other”, she said and gave the example of journalists who often lack support from their colleagues. “And in such an environment we're expecting someone to do the job for us? We're still suffering from the post-socialism syndrome where citizens need to be silent”, she concluded.
Kosovo colleague Agron Bajrami noted that the problem is in the priorities. “The problem is about the priorities. How much is freedom of media a priority for EU or for the western countries which have invested so much in the region and in Kosovo in particular? Media freedom is part of a system of freedoms and values which eventually should lead us into becoming into a country which merits EU membership. If you become European it wouldn’t matter if you become a member of the EU or not”, he said. According to him, the EU is too ready to sacrifice media freedom in the name of stability. Sharing this opinion is Sašo Ordanoski, who says the EU is facing the dilemma “stability versus democracy”.
Željko Ivanović was lenient in showing understanding to the EU. “I understand the position of the EU is not simple. But somebody should take a strong position”, he said. In this regard, it is important to note the open letter that Macedonian journalist from NOVA television Borjan Jovanovski, one of the threatened journalists in Macedonia, sent to Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn making a parallel to the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. A passage from it seems extremely appropriate for the occasion:
”If after everything that has been publicly revealed about Gruevski's attitude towards the principles of the rule of law, you once again grant him the recommendation for the start of the negotiations on the basis of some (any) kind of political agreement, you are entering a vicious circle that would be very hard to escape from. If Gruevski, as you have come to know him from the audio materials, is worthy of being given the recommendation, what rights and credibility would you have to demand from Milo Đukanović in Monte Negro to respond to the EU demands to deliver "the big fish" to the face of justice? And what credibility would you have to ask from Vučić in Serbia to get back on the right track?”.
The "stability versus democracy" dilemma is really serious and the EU does not have many good moves, but it does have some. A possible solution is to funnel euro funds in support of quality journalism. So far the EU had a few and very limited in subject programmes in support of media within and outside of the EU, whose success is lightly put questionable. It is often the case of working on projects, whose goal is to propagate subjects important to the EC and the EP, which are, however, quite far away from the real problems. This practise can change with the media that hold to high journalism standards and ethics receive subsidies. If those standards and ethics are violated the subsidy is immediately withdrawn. This will stimulate many of the larger media, as well as small independent journalists who are trying to start their own way, in despair by the media-government dependence. A special priority should be given to investigative journalism.
Besides, some of the last Mohicans of journalism in the region deserve to be awarded for still standing between corruption and government. Everyone I met in Berlin is a person, whose every day is a battle for survival. And there are many more colleagues of theirs in the region and outside it. Their labour and self-sacrifice must be acknowledged by the Union that has democratic values as the foundation of its existence. Besides, it is not enough for just the boss of the European Parliament to talk about the problems with the media. There is need for this to become a priority to the Council as well. In order to be able to legitimately talk about this, however, the Council needs to be honest to itself by pointing a finger at the member countries that have allowed and are even tolerating the dependency of media. This would mean that European Political Parties to stop hushing the vices of their own, pointing out only the mistakes of their opponents. In the case of Bulgaria, the media situation must be closely monitored, as is the battle against corruption and organised crime.
It is very important to insist on transparency of media ownership and to the point where reports on incomes and expenses are published even for private media. At the end of the day, when we are talking about something called “the fourth estate” you should disregard the excuse that this is a question of private property. It is important to see how the media are spending their money and where they get it from, so there is light shed on what interests are they backing. This must be publicly available. The EC should continue to monitor the development of the media environment in the process of enlargement and should demand guarantees for results during the negotiations. Lastly, the EU should clearly see that there is no stability without democracy.
This article was first published on www.euinside.eu.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev.