Freedom of the press in the virus crisis Independent media in the Western Balkan

Analysis06.05.2020Thomas Roser
RSF Index 2020
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Freedom of the press is not at its best in South Eastern Europe. Whether through obstructions, arrests or aggravated existential needs: the virus crisis puts additional pressure on the hard-pressed media in the Western Balkans. 

tro BELGRADE. Southeast Europe has so far done better than feared in its efforts to contain the pandemic. However, the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western Balkans is not only coupled with very rigid curfews. Concerned international professional associations such as the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) have issued a joint report for the EU Commission, warning of further restrictions on press freedom in the virus crisis.

The free flow of information is more important than ever before, particularly at a time when basic civil rights are suspended: “Unfortunately, some governments in both EU member states and candidate countries have opportunistically taken advantage of emergency coronavirus legislation to push through restrictions which erode press freedom.”

The latest published ranking of press freedom by Reporters without Borders (RWB) also paints a bleak picture of the state of the media in the Western Balkans. Montenegro, for example, has been negotiating EU accession since 2012. But instead of coming closer to European values, the candidate for EU membership, which fell from 104th to 105th place, seems to be moving further away from them. RWB criticises the slow investigation into the shooting of the investigative journalist Olivera Lakic and the flimsy sentence of the reporter Jovo Martinovic to 18 months in prison.

The situation is not much better in Serbia, which once again slipped further: from 90th to 93rd place. As in other countries of the Western Balkans, violence against journalists remains “mostly unpunished” by the EU candidate, RWB states: since the current president Aleksandar Vucic has been in charge of the country’s politics, attacks and death threats against journalists have increased. Even in Croatia, which has moved up to 59th place, the environment for reporters is far from ideal: the politicians of the EU newcomer tend to overrun journalists with hundreds of lawsuits because of a controversial libel law.

The corona crisis puts additional pressure on the already hard-pressed media in the region. Whether through obstructions, threats, arrests or aggravated financial difficulties, it is above all independent media without direct or covert state support that are suffering from the state of emergency.

Attempted taming of the media

The free flow of information is a „critical factor“ for the ability of the media to report on the pandemic, warns Marija Pejcinovic Buric, Secretary General of the Council of Europe. Official announcements should not be the only channel of information: “this would lead to censorship and suppression of legitimate concerns”.

But even in Europe, authoritarian state prime ministers are trying to use the state of emergency to tame annoying media. The International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna speaks of an “alarmingly” high number of governments using the virus crisis as an excuse to restrict the flow of information. Indeed, Hungary’s controversial emergency laws are not an isolated case. In Bulgaria and Romania, too, the dissemination of “false information” can be sanctioned with heavy prison sentences or fines or even the closure of unpopular media. The problem is that it is usually left to governments to define “false“ or „true“.

Following fierce international criticism, the Serbian government did indeed withdraw the controversial regulation on the „centralisation“ of media information on the pandemic at the beginning of April. But the EU candidate continues to distinguish itself in the Western Balkans as a pioneer in keeping unpopular media in leading strings.

With their „hatred“ for President Vucic, the independent media would „destroy the state“, prime minister Ana Brnabic exclaimed in early April during a guest appearance on the TV station „Happy“, which is close to the government: „with your hatred for Vucic, you hate all citizens, the whole system.“

Brnabic was angry, for example, about the web portal „direktno.rs“, because it had reported on a local politician’s criticism of the presidential PR tour of provincial hospitals in the middle of the epidemic. The editor-in-chief of the site received a death threat after her outburst of rage.

Serbia’s officials should refrain from attacks on the media and „think well“ about the consequences of their messages, warns Zeljko Bodrozic, the head of the journalists‘ association NUNS: „Death threats after such appearances by dignitaries have unfortunately become the rule in our country.“

Serbia was also the first country in Europe to cause a sensation in the virus crisis, when a journalist was imprisoned for unpopular reporting. On April 1st, the journalist Ana Lalic was arrested for „spreading panic“ following a report on shortcomings and lack of protective clothing at the Novi Sad Clinical Centre for the “nova.rs” portal, and was only released after strong protests by professional associations.

Head of government Brnabic subsequently accused Lalic of spreading „lies“. Meanwhile, Predrag Kon, the chief epidemiologist of the crisis team, admitted in the TV magazine “Cirilica” that he “knew” that the hospitals had too little protective equipment at the beginning of the epidemic. But at that time he “did not consider it useful” to talk about it publicly.

The public prosecutor’s office has meanwhile withdrawn the charges against Lalic. But the witch-hunt of the government-affiliated press against Lalic has been followed by anonymous and paid web ads on Google Play: accusing the journalist of working against Serbia’s interests. 

State of emergency as a pretext for lawlessness

Since the beginning of the virus crisis, alleged violations of the provisions of the state of emergency have also been used to arrest unpopular journalists. In the Serb-populated and largely Belgrade-controlled North Kosovo, the editor-in-chief of the independent “KoSSev” portal Tatjana Lazarevic was arrested on April 11: the journalist, who was travelling for a feature at the Zvecan health centre, had violated the curfew, according to the police.

With the pandemic, the pressure on the web portal, which was founded in 2014 and has been under threat for years, has „intensified“, said the journalist after her release: „the intention is obviously to create an image of us as an enemy of the people“.

In Zrenjanin, Serbia, a journalist and a cameraman from the local TV station KTV were arrested on March 26 for allegedly refusing to disinfect when entering the town hall. It is true that the journalists wore protective masks and gloves, unlike most city hall employees. But the TV station suspects that the state of emergency was misused to take revenge on the station for a critical report about wheelings and dealings at the local waterworks.

In Tuzla in Bosnia on April 20 police confiscated the equipment of a recording team from the local TV station Slon on the pretext that the journalists were travelling illegally during the evening curfew. Although the reporters were able to present press cards and exit permits, their recordings were deleted by law enforcement officers.

The health risks of the pandemic have been used as a reason, not only in Serbia but also in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for temporarily banning journalists from attending press conferences of national or regional crisis teams. Instead of allowing reporters to logically join in by video conferencing, they were asked to submit their questions in advance in writing by e-mail. Bosnia’s journalists’ association “BH Novinari” assessed the disinvitation as an “attempt to introduce censorship”. 

The intensified harassment of public institutions was accompanied by an increase in the number of tangible attacks during the corona crisis. For example, Albanian journalists on the Kosovo website “gazetablic.com” were attacked and beaten by two men in late March while researching the supply situation in the virus crisis in the predominantly Serb-inhabited North Mitrovica.  

Also in North Mitrovica, Nenad Milenkovic, the director of the local TV station „Plus“, was intercepted in broad daylight on April 27 by four men wearing protective masks in front of the town hall – and beaten till he bled. His documents were taken from him by the unidentified hired thugs, and the windows of the company car were smashed. Milenkovic reported afterwards that he had wanted to hand in the documentation for an obviously faked tender of the municipality.

In Split, Croatia, a cameraman of the TV channel N1 was assaulted on April 12 when he tried to film the officially forbidden Easter mass in front of a Catholic church. Another journalist of the local website "dalmatinskiportal.hr" had her mobile phone destroyed by a churchgoer and her hand, which had been pinched off with the church gate, injured. 

Decline of advertisements increases existential worries

In addition to the pressure on press freedom, the virus crisis has intensified the financial difficulties and existential worries of the media and journalists. In contrast to other companies, independent media can only count on help from the state to a limited extent: for some dignitaries, the problems of their annoying critics seem to come just in time.

„Journalists as collateral damage in the Corona Age“, headlines the Bosnian newspaper „Euro Blic“ in Banja Luka. Besides doctors and nurses, the media have a key role to play in the fight against the spread of the epidemic: „but in return, many journalists have been dismissed.”

The paradoxical phenomenon of an increased demand for professional reporting combined with the growing financial needs of the media is causing journalists in the Western Balkans more and more trouble. Publishing houses, TV stations and web portals justify the cross-border wave of salary cuts and redundancies with drastic revenue losses of 70 to 90 percent in the advertising business.

The print media are also suffering from declining sales figures and more difficult distribution due to the restrictions imposed by the state of emergency. Kiosks and shops are open for shorter periods or closed completely due to curfews. Newspapers are no longer published daily, but four to five times a week.

Local media and freelance journalists are particularly hard hit by the slump in sales: hundreds of jobs and livelihoods are threatened. The state of emergency often seems to override labour law. In Kosovo, for example, the newspaper “Zeri”, published in Pristina, dismissed twenty employees from one day to the next on March 31 with effect from April 1: among them two pregnant journalists.    

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 17 employees of the Sarajevo-based newspaper “Oslobodjenje” and its TV channel “O Kanal” have already been dismissed. According to the journalists’ union “BH Novinari”, similar waves of dismissals are expected in at least ten media houses in all parts of the multi-ethnic state.

The newspaper „Dnevni List“ in Mostar already fears the final end. Some local dignitaries “seemed to wish for the decline” of the independent media, its editor-in-chief Dario Lukic complained to “Radio Free Europe”: “We have asked countless international and domestic institutions for help, but everywhere we have received a flat rejection.”

Things are not much better in neighbouring Croatia. According to a joint survey by the journalists’ unions HND and SNH, 85 percent of freelance journalists have lost all or part of their jobs.

The public HRT broadcaster has dismissed most of its permanent freelancers. The publishing house “Hanza Media”, which publishes the newspapers “Jutarnji List” and “Slobodna Dalmacija” as well as the magazines “Globus” and “Gloria”, has reduced the salaries of its editors by 30 percent for the time being – and has shown the door most of its freelancers. Drastic salary cuts of up to 50 percent are also reported at the regional newspapers “Glas Istre” (Pula) and “Novi List” (Rijeka).

In Serbia, too, the virus crisis threatens to bring many media to an end. According to a survey by the association of independent local media “Lokal Pres”, two thirds of its members describe their existence as “seriously threatened”. Local TV stations, newspapers and web portals are trying to compensate for the loss of income by reducing their programmes and volumes. 

The corona crisis threatens „the survival of local media in Serbia“ warns „Lokal Pres“. The pandemic will accelerate the decline of independent media and strengthen those media that receive „direct or covert“ state aid, the media portal „cenzolovka.rs“ suspects. 

„Erosion of the media means erosion of democracy“

The independent media in the Western Balkans can only count on state aid similar to that for other sectors to a limited extend or not at all. In Montenegro, the government has temporarily exempted the media from paying taxes and social security contributions. But the sector complains that it does not receive favourable government loans like companies in other sectors.

Without direct aid, many local media in Serbia are also unlikely to survive the virus crisis. But the experience with state-financed media projects is sobering for independent media: especially media close to the government have so far benefited from subsidies. 

The state should withdraw from the media and instead support them on a project-by-project basis, was the EU requirement for Serbia’s media strategy adopted in 2015. In fact, Brussels has thus set the fox to keep the geese – and has further strengthened the political grip on the media. It is true that in recent years most local radio stations that were in municipal ownership have been privatised: but almost exclusively investors associated with the ruling SNS were involved.

Actually, all media can apply for funding from the municipalities and the Ministry of Culture. But most of the funds are collected by mouthpieces of SNS such as the tabloids „Informer“, „Srpski Telegraf“ or „Kurir“, which are notorious for countless violations of the press code.

In view of the virus crisis, the Ministry of Culture has indeed pledged an accelerated disbursement of project funds. But many municipalities are taking their time with the processing of applications. Belgrade has not yet responded to the demand of the journalists’ associations UNS and NUNS for exemption from paying taxes and social security contributions. Independent media in Serbia are “treated like Covid-19, like an outgrowth on the body of the state society, which must be removed as soon as possible”, complains TV journalist Danica Vucenic in an interview with the newspaper “Danas”.

In Bosnia, the broadcasting authority RAK has halved the annual fees for broadcasting licences in order to support the financially unstable media. But coordinated assistance to the sector has failed to materialise in the complicated state maze. Concerned, the press council issued an urgent reminder to central and state leaders calling for immediate action to „save“ the media sector, which is struggling to survive because of the consequences of the pandemic: free and independent media are “a pillar of a democratic society”.

„The media sector is in danger of extinction“, the chairmen of the Croatian journalists‘ associations SNH and HND also warn in a letter to the government and call for „urgent measures to save journalism“ – such as the extension of economic aid measures to all media and freelance journalists and more resources for the journalistic aid fund.

According to the trade unionists, financial relief for the media must go hand in hand with their promise to preserve jobs. Unfortunately, journalism has been “completely ignored” in the government’s aid packages to date: “but the erosion of the media means the erosion of democracy”.