Front pages of newspapers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia, June 11, 2015.

(Berlin) – Journalists across the Western Balkans face a hostile environment that impedes their ability to do critical reporting.

More than a year after Human Rights Watch documented impediments to media freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia, governments in the region and European Union institutions have failed to take concrete action to address the issue. Furthermore, troubling new cases have emerged.

“At a time when it has never been more important, independent journalism is up against the wall in the Western Balkans,” said Lydia Gall, Western Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “That won’t change unless the EU makes absolutely clear to Western Balkans governments that their European aspirations depend on a thriving and free media.”

The former Yugoslav republics of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia are candidates for membership of the EU, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates. Freedom of expression and the media are part of the Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership.

In one recent case, in October, the editor of Gazeta Express in Kosovo received death threats via social media following the broadcast of his documentary on war crimes by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The case is under investigation.

The European Commission includes expressions of concern about media freedom in Western Balkans countries in its annual assessments of their human rights records. The commissioner responsible for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, has made reference to media freedom in the region in general terms, but he has not detailed the lack of effective investigations by individual governments into attacks on journalists. A new Commission enlargement strategy, announced on November 9, does refer to media freedom in the region but is short on detailed recommendations.

The European Parliament has offered more specific recommendations. The Commission and EU member states should more consistently press the authorities in the Western Balkans to stop intimidating journalists and make media freedom a high priority during accession talks.

In its 2015 report, “Difficult Profession: Media Freedom Under Attack in the Western Balkans,” Human Rights Watch quoted a Serbian police chief, who dismissively told a journalist: “What can you do, you have a difficult profession.” 

Shrugging off responsibility in this way and reluctance to investigate and prosecute such attacks is all too common in the region. This lack of concern and response breaches countries’ obligations to prevent and prosecute such crimes and has created de facto impunity for most crimes against journalists.

Analysis of media and other reports and contact with journalists and NGOs in the region by Human Rights Watch since the publication of the report shows that there has been little or no improvement for media freedom in the Western Balkans. New threats and attacks on journalists that have come to light have gone unpunished.

There is little evidence of political will from governments to improve the climate for media freedom. Some journalists face prosecution on dubious criminal charges, and governments grant and withhold advertising revenues in an effort to dampen critical reporting and curb media independence.

“The list of pressures and violations on independent media in the Western Balkans makes for an unhappy catalogue,” Gall said. “Without a thriving independent media, it’s hard to see the countries in the Western Balkans region meeting the aspirations of their people or their European ambitions.”

For details of new developments in individual western Balkan countries, please see below.

Recent Attacks on Journalists, Media

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Between January and September 2016, the national journalists’ association registered 40 cases of assaults on media freedom and expression, including five physical attacks, two death threats, six cases of pressure, three cases of defamation, and three cases of verbal threats.

In October 2015, the car of Emil Karamatic, a correspondent for the Bosnian national public radio service BH Radio 1, was set on fire and destroyed, according to media reports. He had previously received threats. Karamatic said he believes the attack was connected to his journalism, but police have dismissed any link.

In July 2016, a parliament member who is a former culture minister accused Borka Rudic, general secretary of the Association of Journalists of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of being a “Gulenist” lobbyist – that is, associated with the group the Turkish government claims was responsible for the failed coup that month in Turkey. The accusation followed Rudic’s criticism of the crackdown in Turkey after the coup. The parliament member leveled the same criticism at the Association of Journalists.

Two men she did not know then confronted Rudic on the street, accusing her of defending Gulenists and Chetniks (right wing Serb nationalists). She filed a complaint with police and prosecutors.

In May, a Croatian television journalist, Petar Panjkota, was struck on the head an unknown perpetrator after reporting from a demonstration in Banja Luka. Two crew members of the Bosnian TV station BN TV covering the same demonstration were verbally abused and a third was threatened on social media.

In April, Dragan Mektic, the security minister in the country’s power sharing government threatened the editor-in-chief of the news agency SRNA, Milica Dzepina, over the phone and via text messages saying that, “When we come to power, you will vanish from the face of the earth,” according to media reports. The threats came after an article published by SRNA the day before questioned details of Mektic’s official biography.

Kosovo
In Kosovo, the Association of Journalists of Kosovo registered 14 cases of violence and threats against journalists in 2015, and eight cases in the first half of 2016.

In March 2016, Vehbi Kajtazi, a journalist, said in a Facebook post that he had received a phone call from Prime Minister Isa Mustafa threatening that the journalist would “pay heavily” for a story about Mustafa’s brother travelling abroad for medical treatment. Kajtazi said he had evidence that the calls came from the prime minister’s number. Mustafa denied making any threats. Kajtazi reported the incident to the police.

On August 22, a hand grenade exploded in the courtyard of the headquarters of public broadcaster Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) with no casualties. Then on August 28, an explosive device was thrown into the backyard of Mentor Shala, the station’s general director. Shala was at home with his family, but no-one was injured, according to media reports. Police said the explosion was most likely a hand grenade and opened an investigation.

A radical group, Rugovasit, claimed responsibility, saying that the attack was “a warning.” If Shala did not resign, a statement said, “his life is in danger.” The group complained about RTK’s coverage of a demarcation dispute between Kosovo and Montenegro, a high-profile political issue in both countries. The government said that the attacks were “a criminal act directed against media freedom in Kosovo.”

In October, Leonard Kerquki, editor-in-chief of Gazeta Express, a daily newspaper, received death threats via social media following the broadcast of his documentary on war crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The case is under investigation.

Macedonia
The Association of Journalists in Macedonia (ZNM) says that the government has not identified suspects in any of the 30 attacks on journalists the Association registered in the past four years.

However, the government has arrested several journalists, often in questionable circumstances. In 2013, the Macedonian authorities accused Zoran Bozinovski, author of a critical blog, Burevesnik, of being part of a spy ring on behalf of an unnamed foreign government. At Macedonia’s request, he was arrested in Serbia, held there for 10 months, and then released without charge. In May 2016, Bozinovski was re-arrested in Serbia and extradited to Skopje, Macedonia, where he is detained at this writing charged with alleged espionage, blackmail, and criminal activity. The Macedonian journalists’ association and the journalists’ union protested against what they described as a “politically motivated” arrest.

These developments come in the context of a significant political crisis in Macedonia, with huge anti-government rallies in 2015 and 2016. One trigger was a wiretapping scandal that broke in 2015, revealing that the authorities had targeted at least 100 journalists for illegal surveillance.

Police have beaten journalists on a number of occasions. In one example, in April 2016, the ZNM and the journalists’ union protested after the police beat a journalist and four photojournalists at an anti-government rally. The journalists were all carrying official media accreditation

In Macedonia and elsewhere in the region, the government used its advertising as a tool to exert pressure.

Montenegro
According to a November 2016 report by Human Rights Action, a nongovernmental group, there have been 25 threats and attacks against journalists since August 2015. Of these, 15 were physical attacks on journalists and their property, and two were threats. The remaining eight were cases of interference with the media during anti-government demonstrations in October 2015, including arbitrary arrests of journalists and seizure of equipment. All but three cases remained unresolved.

Journalists who have been attacked contend that officials did not investigate the attacks properly. Many key cases in recent years, including both murders and attempted murder remain unsolved, with a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

Journalists’ cars have repeatedly been vandalized. Police investigations are inconclusive, with no arrests made. In one example, in August 2015, a car owned by Slavica Jovanovic, co-owner of the opposition Dan newspaper, was vandalized and documents stolen, according to media reports.

Jovanovic’s husband and co-owner of Dan, Dusko Jovanovic, was murdered in 2004. A 27-page report on the Jovanovic killing published by Human Rights Action in May 2016, described the unsolved crime as “weighing down on the Montenegrin public” for the past 12 years.

Authorities detained Jovo Martinovic, a journalist known for hard hitting investigations of corruption and war crimes, including for international publications, on dubious drug-trafficking charges for 11 months. His trial finally began in October 2016. The European and International Federations of Journalists, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders have all spoken out on his case, calling for his release on bail and the presentation of any evidence against him.

Serbia
The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) registered 57 incidents against journalists in 2015, and 33 in the first seven months of 2016. That included 16 physical assaults, 41 verbal threats, 28 incidents involving pressure, and five attacks on property.

In September 2016, Nedim Sejdinovic, president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (IJAV),and Dinko Gruhonjic, IJAV’s Program Director, as well as the two men’s families, received death threats by anonymous letters and via social media. Sejdinovic said that he reported the threats, which included islamophobic language, to police and prosecutors. Sejdinovic said that these latest death threats and insults were “the culmination of a series of death threats” and other threats of violence against the management at IJAV.

The work of a commission established to investigate the murders of three prominent journalists, Slavko Curuvija in 1999, Dada Vujasinovic in 1994, and Milan Pantic in 2001, has progressed slowly. The ongoing trial against four state security officials suspected of alleged involvement in Curuvija’s murder was stalled during 2016 as a key witness failed to appear at the trial. The deaths of the remaining two journalists remained unsolved.

Government officials and pro-government media have repeatedly criticized independent news organizations. In November 2015, the pro-government tabloid Informer revived accusations that the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), the Serb Center for Investigative Journalism (CINS), and the Network for Investigating Crime and Corruption (KRIK), and had all taken foreign money “to bring down our government.”

In another smear campaign, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic criticized the independent online news site BIRN. Pro government media outlets TV Pink and Informer accused BIRN of being an enemy of the state and a foreign mercenary. The accusations were apparently in response to BIRN’s critical reporting of abuse of power and alleged government corruption.

In June, Vucic described unnamed media “that are receiving investigative journalism awards from the EU” as “scum.” In September, interior minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said he wanted to “hear answers” from Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner, about EU funding of media outlets and institutions that were “distributing lies.”

Dragan Vucicevic, Informer's editor-in-chief, accused journalists who receive EU funding of seeking to destabilize the country. “There are no plans, there are no real projects that aim to protect human rights, promote democracy … It is only about creating chaos in Serbia,” Vucicevic said.

Methodology
To update the findings of our 2015 report, Human Rights Watch conducted phone and email interviews with journalist associations and media workers in the Western Balkans and reviewed reports, news articles and other online sources, between August and November 2016.