Press freedom should be high on the EU-led Western Balkans summit agenda amid a declining environment for media workers, according to Reporters Without Borders.
A press release published ahead of the summit asked that respect for media freedom and journalist should be a key topic as it is a condition for access to the European Union.
This week, the summit will take place in Slovenia, bringing together key figures from the EU and representatives from the Western Balkan Six; Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
RSF notes that “none of these countries has made any significant progress regarding freedom of the media. All of them saw their scores worsen in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, except Bosnia and Herzegovina, which registered a very small improvement.”
It continued that crimes against journalists enjoy a disturbing level of impunity in the Western Balkans. There have been no convictions against people who have committed crimes against journalists in recent years in Albania. These include Klodiana Lala’s house being sprayed with machine-gun fire and a bomb that detonated outside the home of reporter Elidon Ndreka.
Additionally, Exit journalist Alice Taylor has received no information on the progress of the investigation into death threats she received in August 2020, despite providing police with information that could help identify the perpetrator.
Other instances in the region include the brutal attack on journalist Visar Duriqi outside his home in Kosovo earlier this year and cases of judicial harassment, arbitrary detention, and police harassment.
Meanwhile, RSF notes that disinformation is flourishing in the Balkans, and even mainstream media is pedaling it. They said this could potentially be linked to the low level of vaccine takeup compared to European neighbors.
Albania received another mention for the pending “anti-defamation” package, which is pending a final vote in parliament. Calling it ‘draconian”, RSF said governments target independent media, especially those that criticize them.
RSF said that the EU has so far failed to defend press freedom within its borders. Examples given include Slovenia, which is hosting the summit and its prime minister Janez Jansa who often attacks journalists. Most recently, funding for the national news agency STA was suspended, resulting in the resignation of its director.
“Press freedom should not be a taboo subject at the EU-Balkans summit,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s EU/Balkans desk.
“Support for investigative and professional journalism in the Balkans is an essential remedy to help the region combat two of its leading problems – corruption and the Covid-19 pandemic. The EU should undoubtedly be more ambitious in its use of the seduction it exerts over the Western Balkans to enable the region’s citizens to have access to more reliable news and information.”
A letter from a coalition of six Western Balkan media organizations, representing more than 8,200 journalists and under the SafeJournalists Network umbrella, was recently sent to the EU’s enlargement chief, Oliver Varhelyi.
It called for EU support to improve and enforce media freedom in Albania and ensure the government maintains European values.
The letter drew particular attention to creating a new Media and Information Agency to be headed by Rama’s head of communications, Endri Fuga. The agency, using taxpayers funds, will centralize all government communication, issue government information, and monitor media, mass media and public opinion.