Home Business Media freedom in the Western Balkans is a geopolitical issue – Euractiv

Media freedom in the Western Balkans is a geopolitical issue – Euractiv

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The decline of media freedom in the Balkans is eroding European values ​​of democracy and the rule of law and creating a climate ripe for disinformation that cultivates anti-EU and anti-Western sentiment across the region, writes Peter Horrocks.

Peter Horrocks, one of the UK’s most prominent media figures and former BBC Director of World Service. He is also a member of the Content Board of N1 in the Balkans and the International Advisory Board of the new organization Balkan Free Media Initiative.

Although not intended to offend, the EU’s latest assessments of Western Balkan candidate countries are sobering on the topic of media freedom.

Albania and North Macedonia attract the least criticism, although they are both considered “moderately prepared” in this area. In contrast, Montenegro has seen no progress on freedom of expression, amid arrests of editors and citizens for publishing content online.

The report on Serbia welcomes the country’s adoption of a new media strategy but notes the absence of any improvement in the overall freedom of expression environment. She cautiously observes that threats, intimidation and violence against journalists “remain a source of serious concern”.

The BBC World Service largely withdrew its services from the Balkans and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, believing that the advance of media freedom was irreversible. Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case.

The problems described by the report’s authors extend across the region and into some EU member states. Shockingly, Bulgaria ranks 112thth out of 180 countries in the 2021 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Hungary is in 92th place while Serbia is ranked 93rd.

In Bulgaria, attacks against journalists have increased in an environment where voices critical of the government have difficulty being heard. The Hungarian regulator decided last year not to renew the license of the country’s first independent radio station.

A few months earlier, the government had forced the closure of Hungary’s largest independent news site. As Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán said last year when asked about his political success, it helps to have media support.

These are very discouraging developments which not only tarnish European values ​​of democracy and the rule of law. They also help create a climate ripe for disinformation that cultivates anti-EU and anti-Western sentiment across the region, with Russia and China clearly the beneficiaries.

Worse still, these practices encourage candidate countries for EU membership to believe that undermining freedom of expression and taming the media are not obstacles to membership of the European Club.

Serbia is a great example. The government equates critical journalism with an unconstitutional activity and does not hesitate to present independent media as purveyors of fake news engaged in a hybrid war against them.

Some ruling party politicians have linked independent media to organized crime, while others have suggested that independent media are involved in terrorist activities.

However, actions speak louder than words. Serbian police regularly fail to investigate complaints from independent journalists of physical attacks and other forms of harassment, while cases brought to court rarely result in convictions. This has created a climate of impunity.

It is scandalous that the authorities are sometimes the perpetrators themselves. In one notable incident in 2020, police arrested journalist Ana Lalić and detained her, accusing her of “upsetting the public and causing panic” after reporting on terrible conditions at a hospital from Belgrade at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These violations of journalists’ rights and the discouragement of society’s access to diversity of opinion occurred at the same time as the Serbian government was taking steps to take 100% control of national television channels.

State-owned Telekom Srbija is using anti-competitive practices to strengthen its position in the pay TV sector and expand its positions in Croatia and Slovenia.

The combination of a lack of transparency in the Serbian media market, reliance on state aid and a pro-government regulator gives Telekom Srbija unfair advantages and threatens to oust other operators not linked to the Serbian government. This is crony capitalism in practice.

European competition specialists know very well what is happening. A broader audience of policymakers must now connect the dots and consider the geopolitical consequences caused by a distorted media market, itself shaped by a one-party state like Serbia’s.

For the moment, European leaders do not consider the situation serious enough to act in Serbia or elsewhere. Yet they have many economic levers to encourage Western Balkan governments to behave differently.

In addition to the 9 billion euro economic and investment plan for the region announced last October, they may also reconsider concessions on access to the EU market. The EU is currently providing more than €3.5 billion in pandemic aid to Western Balkan countries, with no strings attached.

It is ironic that the EU is increasing its support for Serbia as the rule of law deteriorates and government-sponsored disinformation increases. Serbian leaders can only conclude that the EU is happy for them to eat cake, as public opinion towards European integration becomes increasingly skeptical.

It is time for European leaders to reconsider the message they are sending.

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