2020 WPF Index: What about the Balkans?

2020 WPF Index: What about the Balkans?

“Entering a decisive decade for journalism, exacerbated by coronavirus”

The 2020 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), shows that the coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism, with the Covid-19 pandemic highlighting and amplifying the many crises that threaten the right to freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information.

This 2020 edition of the Index, which evaluates the situation for journalists each year in 180 countries and territories, suggests that the next ten years will be pivotal for press freedom because of converging crises affecting the future of journalism: a geopolitical crisis (due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes); a technological crisis (due to a lack of democratic guarantees); a democratic crisis (due to polarisation and repressive policies); a crisis of trust (due to suspicion and even hatred of the media); and an economic crisis (impoverishing quality journalism).

These five areas of crisis – the effects of which the Index’s methodology allows us to evaluate – are now compounded by a global public health crisis.

“We are entering a decisive decade for journalism linked to crises that affect its future,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor. What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today.”

There is a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a country’s ranking in the Index. Both China (177th) and Iran (down 3 at 173rd) censored their major coronavirus outbreaks extensively. In Iraq (down 6 at 162nd), the authorities stripped Reuters of its licence for three months after it published a story questioning official coronavirus figures. Even in Europe, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary (down 2 at 89th), had a “coronavirus” law passed with penalties of up to five years in prison for false information, a completely disproportionate and coercive measure.

“The public health crisis provides authoritarian governments with an opportunity to implement the notorious “shock doctrine” – to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times,” Deloire added. “For this decisive decade to not be a disastrous one, people of goodwill, whoever they are, must campaign for journalists to be able to fulfil their role as society’s trusted third parties, which means they must have the capacity to do so.”

Balkan countries covered by the Independent Balkan News Agency IBNA

27 Cyprus (+1)

Political influence

Although press freedom in the Republic of Cyprus is guaranteed by the constitution, political parties, the Orthodox Church and commercial interests have a great deal of influence over the media. Journalism is also hampered by certain bans on the use of geographical names not accepted by the state; on the denial of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes not recognised by the state. Defamation is criminalized. Recently, the Auditor General publicly threatened English-language daily Cyprus Mail, for using a Turkish geographical name in its reports. He said the paper “committed a criminal offence” and added he would examine the subsidy given to the paper.

32 Slovenia (+2)

Threats, systematic smear campaigns and media concentration

The problems for press freedom continue despite pressure from international NGOs for improvements. Defamation is still criminalized and well-known politicians continue to subject media outlets to intimidatory lawsuits and often slanderous verbal attacks. Despite repeated requests from the media, there has been no modification of the “right to correction” in the 2006 Mass Media Act, under which anyone who feels offended or insulted by a newspaper article can insist on the newspaper publishing a correction in the same position as the original article. There were no physical attacks against journalists in 2019 but a car driver who was convicted of deliberately attacking a public TV reporter and cameraman in 2018 was given no more than a suspended six-month prison sentence, triggering protests by Slovenian journalists’ organizations. The SDS, a far-right nationalist party founded by oligarchs allied with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, has stepped up its campaigns of smears and threats against journalists, both on social media and in the SDS’s own media outlets, some of which are now owned by KESMA, the foundation in charge of a network of pro-government media outlets in Hungary. The high level of media ownership concentration in Slovenia is weakening pluralism and encouraging self-censorship.

48 Romania (-1)

Status quo

Despite many changes at the highest level of government, respect for press freedom has not improved. The attitude towards journalism and free speech that prevails within the state and the political class continues to encourage censorship and self-censorship. The media’s funding mechanisms are opaque or even corrupt, and editorial policies are subordinated to owner interests. The media have gradually been turned into political propaganda tools and are routinely subjected to surveillance by the security services.

Dozens of media owners are currently the target of criminal proceedings by anti-corruption units or by the prosecutor-general’s office. The authorities have also pressured journalists to reveal their sources or to refrain from being critical. With the ruling coalition’s encouragement, a nationalist discourse is becoming more and more radical and is targeting ethnic and sexual minorities. The Hungarian minority’s freedom of expression has in particular been targeted. The possibility of criminalizing “insulting the state or its leaders” is again being discussed at high levels. The authorities, private-sector companies and members of the public recently began invoking the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as grounds for denying access to information, or to threaten and prosecute journalists in connection with their investigative reporting.

58 Bosnia Herzegovina (+5)

Further collapse of public service broadcasters

The polarised political climate, marked by constant verbal attacks and nationalist rhetoric, has created a hostile environment for press freedom. Editorial policies reflecting ethnic divisions and hate speech are ever more evident. Journalists are attacked for their ethnic origins as well as what they write. Defamation suits by politicians often serve to intimidate journalists and deter them from pursuing their work. The instrumentalisation of the media for political purposes continues, and this is increasingly evident in the case of public service broadcasters. While investigative journalists have brought several significant scandals to light in recent months – allegations of corruption involving top court officials, issuing fake high school diplomas, reports of attempts by neighboring Croatia to portray Bosnia-Herzegovina as a terrorist hub – but the State Prosecution did little to tackle the problems. Media ownership concentration is a source of concern, especially as ownership is not transparent. Employment conditions for journalists are precarious: they are hired on short contracts and are paid little.

59 Croatia (+5)

Problematic public TV

Croatian journalists who investigate corruption, organised crime or war crimes are often subjected to harassment campaigns. Defamation is criminalized and insulting “the Republic, its emblem, its national hymn or flag” is punishable by up to three years in prison. Worse still, “humiliating” media content has been criminalized since 2013. The government has not stopped meddling in the affairs of public TV broadcaster HRT, and HRT’s management continues to sue employees who have complained about this problem, and has gone so far as to bring a complaint against the Association of Croatian Journalists. Meanwhile physical attacks, along with threats and cyber-violence, continue to be a major problem for journalists without any reaction from the authorities.

65 Greece (0)

A presidential decree that could affect press freedom

Centre-right New Democracy party enjoyed a landslide victory over incumbent Syriza in the July 2019 general election. Soon afterwards, a new presidential decree, placed public broadcaster ERT and state news agency ANA-MPA under the direct supervision of the new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. It remains to be seen how this new set-up will affect press freedom in the country. Elsewhere, journalists continued to face difficulties in doing their job, with a reporter covering demonstrations marking the 46th anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic uprising being attacked by police, a photojournalist covering the evacuation of a squat being arrested and detained, while the headquarters of the Athens Voice weekly newspaper were ransacked by an anarchist group.

70 Kosovo (+5)

Continued press instability

The media in Kosovo, as almost everything else in the country, remains divided along ethnic lines. The access to information is often limited to one ethnic or political group, with the majority of media reporting predominantly on issues concerning their own nationality. Some of the shared concerns are physical and verbal attacks on journalists, cyber-attacks on online media as well as the lack of transparency of media ownership. Many media in Kosovo are not financially stable, which makes them susceptible to political influence and often results in self-censorship. Many minority media are on the verge of extinction, surviving mostly on foreign donations. The fates of numerous journalists in Kosovo remain unknown to date, including those journalists who went missing or were abducted during the 1999 conflict.

84 Albania (-2)

Threatening defamation law

In 2019, the government stepped up attempts to take control over the media with the excuse of fighting fake news. In December, the governing majority voted in Parliament an “anti-defamatory” package tightening the regulation of online media. Limiting freedoms of expression, information and press and running against international best practice, the two laws risk increasing censorship and make journalists more vulnerable vis-à-vis government pressures. Vetoed by the Albanian president, the laws are again in the Parliament which can overrun the Head of State’s refusal. As of mid-March, they seem, however, to be put on hold following the criticism by seven press freedom organisations including RSF and the visit of the European Parliament President to Albania. The laws would further deteriorate the situation of press freedom in a country where government regularly restricts access of journalists to official information and controls the TV market via the attribution of broadcast licences. The year 2019 was also marked by the abuse of a crisis situation for the sake of curbing press freedom. In the context of the devastating earthquake, two journalists and an activist were arrested for spreading “fake news” and “causing panic”, while online media critical of government’s action were closed by government bodies. As the coronavirus crisis broke out in March 2020, Prime Minister Edi Rama called on citizens to protect themselves against, among other things, the media. Physicals attacks and defamation cases increasingly filed by officials against journalists continue to maintain the climate of insecurity and intimidation. This – in combination with the denigrating language of politicians – turns reporters into possible targets of aggression. Meanwhile, the authorities of the country, which aspires to enter the European Union, fail to resolve and sanction various cases of physical attacks and serious threats against journalists.

92 North Macedonia (+3)

Journalist organize

The current government cut the advertising in the media, that was a powerful tool of the previous one for control over media and abuse of state funds. However, the local municipalities are allowed to advertise in local media and it remains a tool for pressure. There was also a potentially risky move from the ruling party to pay advertisments in the media in order to advertise the achievements of the government. This practice was condemned by the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM).

In the field of enhancing self-regulation and working standards of the professional journalists, there are two ground-breaking achievements:

A Register of Professional Online Media which has about 70 members was created by the Council of Media Ethics (CMEM) and AJM. The initiative promotes self-regulation of online media by committing them to respect the Code of Journalists and publishing decisions by the CMEM.

The Charter on journalists’ working conditions and the draft Fair Working Contract for journalists and media workers in digital media was also signed by Trade Union of Macedonian Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM) in collaboration with AJM and the CMEM, committing to respect all journalists’ and media workers’ labor rights, their freedom of expression as well as ethical and professional standards. Regrettably, senior government officials have an engrained tendency to threaten and insult journalists. The culture of impunity is well-entrenched and still an obstacle for journalist’s safety. The number of the physical attacks on journalists declined, however there is a growing practice of cyber-bullying and verbal abuse.

93 Serbia (-3)

A worrying state

After six years under the leadership of Aleksandar Vucic, first as prime minister and then a president, Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate. While authorities have been successful in prosecuting those responsible for the murder of journalist Slavko Curuvija in 1999, most other investigations into attacks on media personnel have stalled or shelved, such as investigations into the attacks against journalist Milan Jovanovic, whose house was set on fire in december 2018 Milan Jovanovic, whose house was set on fire in December 2018 while he and his wife were asleep inside. The number of attacks on media has risen sharply, while officials increasingly use inflammatory rhetoric against journalists. Some courageous journalists continue to cover dangerous subjects such as crime and corruption. However, due to the high concentration of media ownership in the country, their stories are usually only available on the Internet. Collusion between politicians and media, widespread government-tolerated fake news, and mistreatment of a whistleblower, Aleksandar Obradović, also remain a great source of concern.

105 Montenegro (-1)

No improvement

Professional media and journalists continue to come under pressure from the authorities and key attacks on journalists are not resolved. In May 2018, an investigative journalist Olivera Lakić was shot in the leg. Like in many previous physical attacks on journalists, Lakić’s case is still unsolved. In 2019, officials have publicly acknowledged that, due to lack of evidence, the case of Editor-in-chief of daily Dan Duško Jovanović, who was killed in 2004, will most likely never be resolved.

The transformation of RTCG into a public service has been completely halted after the appointment of new management close to the rolling circles.Self-censorship continues to be a major challenge. Although defamation has been decriminalized since 2011, several lawsuits have been filed against independent journalists and media.

Jovo Martinovic, an investigative reporter accused of drug trafficking, received an eighteen-month sentence in January 2019. However, his appeal was sustained by the Appeal Court which ordered retrial which is ongoing. The international community has condemned the verdict.

Three journalists were arrested on suspicion of committing offenses causing panic and disorder by publishing fake news. Professional media outlets have had to cope with serious economic difficulties. The vast majority of state institutions support the pro-government media by placing advertisements in their publications.

111 Bulgaria (0)

Black sheep of the European Union

Despite increasing international pressure, media freedom in Bulgaria has not improved in 2019. The management at Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) tried to suspend the prominent journalist Silvia Velikova on september 2019. In 2019, Bulgaria’s two most popular media groups – NOVA Broadcasting Group and BTV Media Group changed ownership. Soon after the deal for Nova investigative reporters, Miroluba Benatova and Genka Shikerova were forced to leave. Editorial policy of the Bulgarian National Television changed from rather neutral to pro-governmental after the appointment of new director general. Corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs is widespread in Bulgaria. The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Delyan Peevski, who ostensibly owns two newspapers (Telegraph and Monitor) but also controls a TV channel (Kanal 3), news websites and a large portion of print media distribution.The government continues to allocate EU and public funding to media outlets with a complete lack of transparency, with the effect of encouraging recipients to go easy on the government in their reporting, or to refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether. At the same time judicial harassment of independent media, such as the Economedia group and Bivol continued to increase.

154 Turkey (+3)

Massive purge

The witch-hunt waged by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government against its media critics came to a head in the wake of an abortive coup in July 2016. After the elimination of dozens of media outlets and the acquisition of Turkey’s biggest media group by a pro-government conglomerate, the authorities are tightening their grip on what little is left of pluralism – a handful of media outlets that are being harassed and marginalized. Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists. Spending more than a year in prison before trial is the new norm, and long jail sentences are common, in some cases as long as life imprisonment with no possibility of a pardon. Detained journalists and closed media outlets are denied any effective legal recourse. The rule of law is a fading memory in the “New Turkey” of paramount presidential authority. Censorship of websites and online social media has reached unprecedented levels and the authorities are now trying to bring online video services under control. Turkey’s military involvement in Libya and in Syria (along the border and in Idlib), and the migrant issue have expanded the range of topics that are subject to censorship and self-censorship and have increased use of the judicial system for political ends./ibna