Press freedom in South-East Europe

Being a journalist in South-East Europe countries is not only about giving facts but also about ensuring their own safety. On 5 April speakers from the panel ‘Press freedom in South-East Europe’ reminded the audience that journalists are often threatened or attacked in the region, even if when a country is part of the European Union.

From the very beginning of the session, the speaker Oliver Vujovic, Secretary-general of South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), mentioned journalists being assassinated or imprisoned. SEEMO recently published more than 35 reactions and protest letters connected to press freedom violations in the region; Vujovic stated that the worst cases against freedom of the press are happening in Turkey or Belarus.

Journalists killed while investigating

Numerous examples of deadly attacks against journalists were given. One of the most striking one is reported by Anna Babinets, Editor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Last year, her colleague Pavel Sheremet was killed by a bomb deliberately put in his car. They started their own independent investigation but the murder stays unsolved.

Three years ago, Anna Babinets was more optimistic about the future of Ukraine. With the flight of the former President Yanukovich, she hoped that journalists would not be ignored anymore. “We could have started a new page of Ukrainian story” she says.

However, she explains that attacks and fights between journalists and authorities are escalating. Last year, they managed to reveal the involvement of the new President Poroshenko in the Panama Papers scandal. He created an offshore company during his presidency, “which is against the constitutional law” Anna says. After the report was released,  the President finally registered the company but at the cost of several attacks and threats against the investigative journalists.

In the end, it seems that we are not ignored by our politicians anymore, but we have learnt that anybody can be killed” she says.

Lack of monitoring

Being in the EU does not guarantee the journalists’ safety either. “Ironically, the situation is worst since Croatia entered the European Union in 2013,“ Zrinka Vrabec-Mojzes, a journalist and columnist of the Nacional Political newspaper, revealed. Since 1984, she worked for independent media, trying to bring a democratic spirit to a Croatian audience. According to her, from the moment Croatia became member of the EU, they lost monitoring of this democratization process and the freedom of press.

Zrinka Vrabec-Mozjes

Croatia is going backwards,” she added ”Hate speech is growing, attacks against journalists are increasing, but nothing is done to prevent them.”

She supported her arguments by quoting the last report of Amnesty International which has been ignored by the state officials. “Thanks to the media, our previous government resigned six months ago. Now, we have a new government, but who controls power can control National TV and main media”, she explains.

The issue doesn’t only concern Croatia. “Try to look at a wider picture: this is a problem that the EU as a whole is facing. Lack of human rights monitoring in new EU members leads to a disrespect of European values,” she added, giving the example of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

Financial threat

According to Zrinka Vrabec-Mojzes, one of the main threats is also economic. The 2008 recession destroyed the independent media scene in Croatia and several journalists lost their jobs. Independent media now hardly survives on the market and even when they are influential, they have no financial power.

We live with very low wages just because we love the truth,” she said.

The situation is not any better in other South Eastern European countries, where the media is also facing financial issues. Most of the main media are owned by advertisers or businessmen who have links with politicians.

The investigative journalist Besar Likmeta – who was brutally attacked by a member of the Albanian Parliament during an interview – also confirmed that journalists are rather more attracted by financial security than doing their job.

The reality in Albania is that there is a minority of independent journalists and the rest is just PR. It is very easy to be a bad journalist: we get promotions and we get assisted by those in power,” he explained.

Of course, he did not forget to mention that being an independent journalist in Albania means to be quite resilient.

As a matter of fact, Oliver Vujovic recalls that politicians are powerful and secure. In front of them, journalists are not strong enough to fight for their ideas, and they often put pressure on themselves sometimes leading to self-censorship: “Politicians know that and are using it to shut journalists’ voices [down]” he explained.

The new threat of conspiracy theories

More than self-censorship, a new threat has appeared in the last decade, putting more pressure on journalists: conspiracy theories. A trend that ‘threatens the future of journalism but also the future of democracy,’ Besar Likmeta said.

In Ukraine, Anna Babinets was accused of being pro-Russian by other journalists and state officials, an accusation that has affected her credibility.

In Albania and other Balkan countries, some politicians are accusing independent media of being in the hands of ‘Jewish billionaires such as Georges Soros. An alternative reality is created by politicians owning the media and brainwashing the people,” Besar Likmeta stated.

He added that there had been no funds coming from Soros over the past ten years: “We always focus on ‘Jewish conspiracies’ but our biggest funding comes from Sweden, and we don’t say that this is a Swedish conspiracy,” he revealed.

Oliver Vujovic added that even if Soros fundings happened to be important in some countries, “there is no pressure from Soros organizations. With this money, media and NGOs can actually do their job. People in power do not appreciate that.