Several Central and Southeast European states are among those where journalists can no longer safely, according to the latest World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders.
Globally, press freedom is respected more in the European Union and Balkans region than in any other world region, yet a series of murders and physical attacks against journalists, on top of harassment and political pressure, have contributed to a deterioration in the region’s score on the annual index measuring press freedom.
“The decline in press freedom in Europe, as seen in RSF’s Press Freedom Index over the past few years, has gone hand in hand with an erosion of the region’s institutions by increasingly authoritarian governments,” says the report.
“What with murders, attempted murders, and physical and verbal attacks, Europe’s journalists are subjected to many forms of pressure and intimidation and increasingly to judicial harassment as well. Europe continues to be the continent that best guarantees press freedom, but the work of its investigative reporters is being obstructed more and more.”
The deterioration of the situation in Central and Southeast Europe comes in the context of a global deterioration of press freedom.
“The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media,” says RSF. It reports that an “intense climate of fear” that is "prejudicial to a safe reporting environment.”
“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire in a statement. “Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of good will who value the freedoms acquired in the course of history.”
Compared to other world regions, the decline in the European Union and the Balkans is second only to the Americas, resulting from sharp falls in the US, Brazil, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
While several West European countries are singled out in the report, overall it is some of the eastern EU members and Western Balkans states that have the worst record in press freedom.
Journalism “now dangerous in Bulgaria”
Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007, is the worst ranked country from the European Union and Balkans, remaining in 111th place on the index, which places it between Ethiopia (110th place) and Mali (112th place).
“One might have expected an improvement in press freedom in 2018 because Bulgaria held the European Council’s rotating presidency during the first half of the year but instead the opposite occurred,” RSF noted.
The country saw the brutal murder of TV journalist Viktoria Marinova in October and a “blatant attempt by the authorities to cover up the circumstances by botching the investigation”.
“The murders of three journalists in Malta, Slovakia and Bulgaria in the space of a few months has made the world realise that Europe is no longer a sanctuary for journalists,” says the report. “This is especially true for those who take an interest in corruption, tax evasion and misuse of European Union funds, often involving the mafia, who are among investigative journalists’ most dangerous predators.”
Another worrying incident was the arrest of two investigative journalists, one from Bulgaria and one from Romania, were arrested in Bulgaria in September while tracking down the destruction of documents allegedly proving top-level corruption related to the distribution of EU funds.
“In addition to lawsuits and prosecutions, investigative reporters are liable to be the targets of every other kind of harassment whenever they lift the veil on corrupt practices,” says the report, detailing incidents in Serbia, Malta, Slovakia, Mexico and Ghana as well.
Meanwhile, the RSF noted once again that 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 owns a TV channel (Kanal 3), news websites and a big chunk of print media distribution,” RSF noted.
Bulgaria’s government is allocating EU funding to media outlets without transparency and allegedly this has the effect of bribing recipients “to go easy on the government in their reporting, or to refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether”.
Meanwhile, RSF noted also that independent outlets have become subjects of increasing judicial harassment, giving as an example the Economedia group, has increased. “Threats against reporters have also increased in recent months, to the extent that journalism is now dangerous in Bulgaria,” the report concluded.
Media ownership consolidated in Hungary
Things are barely better in Hungary, which slipped 14 notches to 87th out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index.
The rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has seen independent media squeezed and critical outlets shut down over the years. The ownership of Hungary’s media has continued to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of oligarchs allied with Orban, with the result that the media landscape has been transformed in recent years.
The most important critical media outlets have had to close, while the editorial independence of others has been threatened by the presence of pro-government oligarchs on their boards, among their shareholders or within the financial institutions that fund them, according to the report.
Reporters Without Borders cites the creation of the central media holding, a consortium of some 500 pro-government newspapers, cable channels, radio stations, and websites.
The government blocked any potential antitrust investigation into the single largest media transaction by declaring the establishment of the media holding as an issue of national strategic importance.
Orban's efforts to control media paid off in the 2018 election. With the acquisition of all county newspapers, Fidesz managed to win the hearts and minds of rural voters by stoking fears from migration.
In rural areas, the majority consume only government-funded media, mainly public television, which has become a mouthpiece of the government with the focus on spreading the government's agenda on migration.
Government propaganda depicts Hungary, a country with practically zero immigration, as the last fortress standing in the way of "invasion" by migrant herds an allusion to Ottoman times, while being attacked for resisting migration by the decadent liberal elites of the EU, an allusion to the Habsburg era. There is no hourly news coverage without news on migration.
State interference in the Western Balkans
Serbia, too, has become dangerous place for practicing journalism, which the watchdog links to the five-year rule of President Aleksandar Vucic. The country lost 14 positions to rank 90th in the latest report.
“Within five years of President Aleksandar Vucic in effect governing the country, Serbia has become a place where practicing journalism is neither safe nor supported by the state,” RSF noted.
It added that government officials have used increasingly inflammatory rhetoric targeting journalists. Moreover, the number of attacks on media is on the rise, including death threats.
Many attacks against journalists have not been investigated, solved, or punished, and the “aggressive smear campaigns that pro-government media orchestrate against investigative reporters are in full swing”. This has contributed to the weekly mass protests in Belgrade and other cities that have persisted since December 2018.
Another Western Balkan state, Albania, fell seven positions to 82nd on the index. “Attacks on the media from both the government and organised crime reached an unprecedented level in 2018,” RSF concluded.
It was noted that Albanian journalists were subjected to insults, death threats and legal proceedings designed to intimidate and deter them from investigating corruption.
Politicians, led by Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama, branded journalists as "trash" and manufacturers of fake news.
It was noted in the report that Rama proposed a law to reinforce state control over electronic media, which restricts access to information.
The RSF said that the joint report published by RSF and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in March 2018 found that regulatory standards in Albania are being manipulated in favour of the government’s interests. At the same time ownership of broadcast media is concentrated in the hands of a few big businessmen, which created a situation in which self-censorship is widespread.
According to that report 80% of Albanian journalists have no confidence in their professional future.
Media freedom also continued deteriorating in Montenegro, which at 104th place is the worst ranked country in the Western Balkans.
State authorities were accused of placing advertisements in pro-government media in order to support them and, as a result, independent media outlets have faced serious financial difficulties.
Moreover, journalists were harassed and threatened by those in power, RSF noted. At the same time, the authorities are also putting pressure on public broadcaster RTCG to change its independent editorial policy, RSF said.
It also pointed out that an investigation of shooting against Olivera Lakic, a local investigative journalist, produced no result until now like many other similar cases. Another invstigative journalist, Jovo Martinovic, was sentenced to eight months in jail in January 2019 for alleged drug trafficking. This has provoked many objections from several international organisations.
Improvements in North Macedonia
One of the few bright spots in the region was North Macedonia, which jumped 14 places to 95th. Reporters without Borders noted some progress in journalism safety in the country as the number of attacks on journalists in 2018 was just one-third compared with the previous year.
However it said that impunity is a well-entrenched problem with only two of the 59 attacks reported in recent years being investigated and solved.
Although the situation stabilised in 2018, the government led by the Social Democrats has been advised to amend the public broadcast media law, which was an electoral promise when they come to power in 2017.
According to Reporters without Borders, the programme of the state broadcaster MTV continues to serve the interests of the former ruling party, conservative VMRO-DPMNE.