The erosion of media freedom in the Balkans has gone too far

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The EU is supposed to embody the values of liberty, democracy and fundamental human rights. But when it comes to media freedom, it is a passive observer in the face of widespread abuses on its own turf and in its immediate neighbourhood, writes Antoinette Nikolova.

Antoinette Nikolova is the founder and Director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative established in April 2021.

Methodical attacks on independent media are becoming endemic across Eastern Europe, and especially in the Balkans.

EU member states such as Bulgaria are nestled among authoritarian states from the developing world in this year’s Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, in which Bulgaria ranked a shocking 112th out of 180 countries surveyed.

Other Balkan states eying accession to the EU, such as Serbia and North Macedonia, are characterised with domestic media markets where independent critical voices are forced to the fringes of public discourse.

Unfortunately, the EU appears to lack both the will and the tools to improve the situation.

This issue cannot be neglected any longer, especially since attacks on media in the Balkans are increasingly sophisticated and far-reaching.

A robust, independent media market relies on a complex interplay between many state and non-state actors. Lawmakers, media owners, suppliers, distributors, advertisers, regulators and outside observers all have a part to play.

However, while cases of attacks on journalists are well documented by several organisations, there is not enough attention paid to the insidious practices used by politicians and their allies to control the wider media environment.

The Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI) was created to help address this problem and to shed light on the shadowy commercial techniques strangling free media in the Balkan region.

This is the subject of the first BFMI report, which looks at media censorship in Bulgaria, Serbia and North Macedonia.

As the report notes, the main tools for manipulating the media markets identified include, but are not limited to:

  • Control of public broadcasters and regulatory authorities tasked with upholding media laws
  • Abuse of weak regulation on transparency of ownership to enable unlawful control of media outlets by governments or their proxies
  • Use of government subsidies to foster clientelism in weak, over-saturated media markets

As the EU prepares its much-advertised Media Freedom Act, BFMI calls on the European institutions to give these issues the attention they deserve.

Sadly, control of the media influences politics not just in authoritarian states but in democratic countries too. Silvio Berlusconi would hardly have been Italy’s three-time prime minister without his media empire. The influence of Rupert Murdoch in the UK and, later, in the rise of Trump, is similarly well documented.

However, in the cases listed above there were at least some checks and balances. When Berlusconi became actively involved in the political scene in Italy, for example, he had to give up ownership of his media assets.

But in less advanced democracies in the Balkans, where there are inadequate mechanisms to prevent the emergence of abusive systems, political control of the media risks incapacitating the democratic process.

In Bulgaria, it is legal for politicians to own media outlets and some political parties have their own television channels.

In Serbia, the country’s state-owned cable operator, Telekom Srbija, has entered lucrative partnerships with allies of President Aleksandar Vučić, who have gone on to purchase media outlets, which have in some cases become noticeably more pro-government in their reporting. In North Macedonia, prominent politicians can circumvent regulation by installing immediate family members as owners of their media assets.

Across the three states, the regulatory bodies designed to uphold the law and prevent abuse of the market are underfunded, while rules for appointing senior management leave them further vulnerable to political interference.

At the same time, saturated media markets mean large numbers of outlets compete for dwindling advertising revenues, leaving media outlets open to clientelism from state contracts as well as private investors. In the case of Bulgaria, non-transparent distribution of funds from the EU itself remains a serious issue.

In North Macedonia, the incoming SDSM government elected in 2017 pledged to stop government funding of the media or advertising apart from projects in the public interest of the former. The government’s pledge and other widespread media reforms remain unfulfilled.

Such broken promises are all too common. Leaders in the Balkans, most recently Serbia’s President Vučić, present themselves as reformists and enjoy photo opportunities with senior EU leaders. Meanwhile, at home, media freedoms are systematically being eroded.

The EU cannot allow this pretence to continue. It needs to use its leverage to hold these countries to account. The longer these anti-democratic tendencies are allowed to continue, the harder it will be to undo the damage they have caused.