By Alice Elizabeth Taylor
The Balkans and a Crisis of Freedom of Speech

Over the last two months, a number of reports have been published that rank the world’s countries in terms of freedom of speech, corruption, and democracy.

In almost all of them Albania and the Balkan area including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia have all ranked very poorly.

As democracy on a global scale is retreating at an alarming rate, leaving almost two thirds of the world’s population living in a not free country, what was once a right, is now becoming something of a rarity.

Albania is classed as partly free, a hybrid regime, and the state of the media is considered highly problematic by Reporters Sans Frontiers. A 2018 report by them found that censorship is rife, journalists work in fear and uncertainty, and the majority of the country’s media is captured by wealthy businessmen with political ties.

The Prime Minister and ‘socialist’ Edi Rama regularly refers to journalists as trash, poison, traitors, and public enemies. Those that stand up to him are silenced either with fear or through organised campaigns of hate instigated by government employees. Protestors and activists often find themselves discriminated against or intimidated because of their public demonstrations, and many are scared to take a public stand for fear of consequences for their family, jobs, businesses, or reputations.

Corruption is rampant with total impunity and the public, and the media are becoming slowly desensitised to the never ending stream of scandals. Stories that would make significant waves and result in resignations or prison sentences elsewhere are received like water off a ducks back in Albania and fade into the background in a matter of days.

But this is not just an Albanian problem. Across the border in Kosovo, many investigative or candid journalists feel threatened and are even physically attacked. Kosovan journalist Parim Olluri was attacked two years ago by his house and he received no help from the police. He knew his attackers and informed the authorities, yet nothing was done. Days later he received messages from politicians and those mentioned by Olluri, denying the attack therefore proving that information was being leaked from the police to the government.

In Montenegro, journalist Jovo Martinovic was arrested on bogus charges and sentenced to prison earlier this year in what many have described as a “warning” to other journalists in the country. Found guilty of charges of drug trafficking and criminal associations despite the overwhelming evidence to suggest that his contact with members of the underworld was purely for journalistic reasons.

“There was no evidence whatsoever against me and overwhelming evidence in my favour,” Martinović said in a telephone interview with The Guardian.

Meanwhile in Macedonia, the journalists regularly receive death threats and proposed amendments to the Electoral code will give the State Election Commission the power to issue fines to the media for “unbalanced reporting”. Currently Macedonia ranks as 109 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index following the 2018 shooting of Olivera Lakic who was attacked outside of her apartment.

Back in 2018, Bosnian journalist Vladimir Kovacevic and the owner of The Bosnian Times, Nedzad Latic were physically attacked yet their attackers remain at large due to lack of action by the authorities.

These Balkan countries, Albania included are all so desperate to join the EU but don’t seem to want to take note of any of the fundamental prerequisites to joining the union such as respecting freedom of expression.

The EU is crystal clear about the fact that it requires freedom of the press, democratic functions, good governance, and political accountability in order to consider ascension – something that many of the Balkan states have chosen to ignore. But the EU themselves can be equally criticised for their tolerance of the flouting of these rules. In Albania, the delegation spend the majority of their time at 3 hour lunches in Artigiano followed by boozy nights out on the streets of Blloku, rather than holding Albanian politicians accountable for their actions. Keeping schtum on a number of issues from corruption, to the sham of a vetting process – the EU delegation is systematically failing to adhere by its own rules and is instead presenting itself as a sycophantic echo chamber to the Rama regime.

Turkey and its increasingly authoritarian regime has also been found to be exerting undue influence over the region. In 2016, the Turkish embassy in Pristina, Kosovo requested the government to punish a Kosovan journalist for his comments against Erdogan on social media. The note stated that the government should take “necessary steps” against Berat Buzhala. Rama’s increasing friendship with Erdogan is now even more of a cause for concern with many wondering if he will be taking tips on media suppression from the Turkish dictator in all but name.

As it stands at the moment, things in Albania are set to go from bad to worse with the pending introduction of the “Anti-slander package” proposed by Edi Rama. The suggested legislation will require all media portals to register with the government and risk being shut down whilst facing charges before the case makes it to court. Those that are deemed as “fake news” or “offensive to public morals” can be shut down immediately with appeals from the owners only possible after lengthy court proceedings. The fate of ever blog, news site, media portal, or independent journalist will be in the hands of Edi Rama and his employees.

The proposed laws were met with outrage from local and international journalists and associations such as the European Federation of Journalists, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, PEN International, and Reporters Without Borders.

It is clear that throughout the Balkan region, if left to their own devices the governments will resort to stifling freedom of speech and suffocating the last remaining independent media portals. What these countries need is the EU to intervene and exert significant influence on these countries. They already have the rules in place and they need to ensure that adherence to them constitute a much bigger box to tick when it comes to meeting ascension criteria. It needs to be made crystal clear that the intimidation, harassment, and censorship of the media will significantly impact the chances of that state from joining the EU until significant changes have been observed on a consistent basis.

The citizens of the Balkans need to know that they can rely on the EU to protect them and advocate for them in a battle of freedom and human rights. But more than this, those that cling to power throughout the area need to understand that violating these rights will result in momentous consequences.