Western Balkan Countries Have a Problem With Media Freedom

Patrick Penninckx from the Council of Europe has spoken of the challenges and threats that persist to media freedom in Western Balkan states.

In an interview given ahead of the closing ceremony of the CoE media freedom JUFREX programme which will take place between 4-5 April in Sarajevo, Penninckx highlighted issues that affect journalism in the region.

Calling attention to the high rate of hate speech from politicians to the media, political influence over media and regulatory authorities, lack of transparency in media ownership, and a variety of weak support mechanisms, he added that guaranteeing the right to freedom expression is a major challenge.

Other concerns included the poor quality of investigative journalism and targeted attacks on online media, adding that many journalists face threats including political and economic pressure, intimidation, and censorship.

The Council of Europe runs a media alert platform which reports instances of harassment and threats towards journalists and media portals. Penninckx noted that most of the Western Balkan governments had failed to offer any reply to the reports made on the site.

Penninckx added:

“Misuse of power, corruption, discrimination, criminal activity or human rights violations have come to light as a direct result of the work of investigative journalists and other media actors. Making the facts known to the public is essential for redressing such situations and holding to account those responsible. The freedom of the media and the free and unhindered exercise of journalism are essential in a democratic society, in particular for informing the public, for the free formation and expression of opinions and ideas, and for scrutinizing the activities of public authorities.”

In the interview, the fact that the European Commission is aware of the issues regarding media freedom yet do not challenge governments on the issues, was raised.

Penninckx noted that whilst some preparation concerning bolstering freedom of expression had been prepared, there had been “very little progress in the last few years”.

He called for “urgent, resolute and systemic responses” that should encompass political commitment and significant steps towards not just the prevention, but investigation of cases of violation. He also said there needs to be mechanisms in place to eradicate impunity and to prevent “a chilling effect to freedom of expression”.

The situation in Albania is not good and the country currently ranks at number 75 globally in terms of its media freedom. Reporters Without Borders, highlighted a number of issues including the Prime Minister Edi Rama calling journalists “trash”, “poison”, and “public enemies”.

The report also found that regulatory standards are manipulated in favour of the government’s interest and that ownership of the media is controlled by a few big businesses.

In addition to this, journalists that dare to question or criticise are subjected to smear campaigns from government-linked tabloids, and many either lose their jobs or receive direct and indirect threats to their persons, lives, or economic status. Those journalists that are independent and do criticise the government, often publish reports under aliases due to fear of repercussions against them and their families.

Those that wish to take legal action against media portals or other that target, often find it hard to get a lawyer to represent them due to the climate of fear that prevails.

During recent anti-government protests, tear gas was used indiscriminately on the public, including journalists who were caught directly in the line of fire.

— Alice Elizabeth Taylor