It’s not easy to be an investigative journalist in the Western Balkans. Besides the inherent challenges of the job, reporters can face physical attacks, intimidation, even death threats. Reporting an attack to the authorities rarely brings justice.
Journalists who offend powerful interests can face libel suits or smear campaigns, and be called “enemies of the state” or “foreign agents.”
State advertising and links between media owners and politicians put financial and political pressure on outlets to toe a particular editorial line.
While things have improved for independent journalism since the Yugoslav wars, when media were largely used as government propaganda tools, old government attitudes and habits die hard.
Left unchecked, these problems are shrinking media freedom in the Western Balkans. Free and independent media are crucial for democratic development as they facilitate the flow of ideas, opinions and information so people can make informed choices.
Investigative media and journalists have a key role to play as public watchdogs, acting as a check on the executive. Their work is vital to democratic progress in the region.
A Human Rights Watch report released on 15 July documents curbs on media freedom in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro – all aspiring for EU membership.
Eighty-six journalists and editors we interviewed described a hostile working environment in which crimes against journalists were rarely prosecuted and a weak government response sends a message that there won’t be any real consequences for those who may seek to stifle media freedom.
An investigative journalist in Serbia told me that after he was violently attacked, the investigation was obstructed by both police and prosecution. The attacker ultimately was sentenced to a year in prison, overturned as part of a general amnesty.
Another journalist in Bosnia said she had been beaten. The authorities downplayed the seriousness of the attack, though it was preceded by several death threats, all reported to the police. In the end, the court sentenced the attacker to three months and the equivalent of €300 in fines.
Other journalists described how police and prosecutors in the few instances in which cases reach courts dismissed threats as something “not to worry about.”
One journalist in Serbia described the response by police when he reported repeated death threats and destruction of his car: “What can you do, you have a difficult job.”
Outlets and journalists who report unfavourably on those in power find themselves the object of smear campaigns spearheaded by pro-government media outlets.
One woman media owner told us that pro-government media frequently referred to her as a “prostitute;” another journalist said she was called a “Serbian spy,” while a male journalist said he was called a “transgender fool.”
Ruling political and business elites use various insidious means to push journalists to quit reporting on sensitive issues. Punitive arbitrary financial inspections are one method to silence critical voices; keeping journalists in courts contesting civil suits is another tactic.
The Internet has provided yet another array of possibilities to interfere with independent media, either by issuing threats on websites and social media or through cyberattacks against critical websites.
The state response to these cyber-crimes has been weak at best, negligent at worst.
The governments in the Western Balkan are all aspiring to EU membership. Media freedom is a cornerstone of the Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership.
To achieve this will take more than simply transposing EU law into local legal systems. It requires a change in attitude by governments in the Western Balkans, and a commitment to ensuring that journalists can carry out their work without fear or favour.
The European Parliament has already flagged the issue as a concern, and it features in the Commission’s annual progress reports. But the EU needs to up the pressure, and demand concrete progress by the Western Balkan countries.
That should include making it a priority to promptly and thoroughly investigate crimes against journalists and to publicly condemn attacks on the media.
Journalists in the Western Balkans committed to speaking truth to power deserve nothing less.