Media freedom in the Western Balkans is a geopolitical issue

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

State-owned Telekom Srbija is using anti-competitive practices to strengthen its position in the pay-TV sector and expand its positions in Croatia and Slovenia. [Koca Sulejmanovic/EPA/EFE]

The decline in media freedom in the Balkans is eroding the European values of democracy and rule of law and creating a climate ripe for disinformation that is cultivating anti-EU and anti-western sentiment across the region, writes Peter Horrocks.

Peter Horrocks, one of the UK’s most senior media figures and the former director of BBC of World Service. He is also on the Content Board of N1 in the Balkans and the International Advisory Board of the newly formed Balkan Free Media Initiative.  

Even if their purpose is not to offend, the EU’s latest assessments of the candidate countries of the Western Balkans make sobering reading on the subject of media freedom.

Albania and North Macedonia qualify for the least criticism although they are both deemed only ‘moderately prepared’ in this area. By contrast, Montenegro registered no progress on freedom of expression against a background of arrests of editors and citizens for the posting of online content.

The report on Serbia takes comfort in the country’s adoption of a new media strategy but notes the absence of any improvement in the overall environment for freedom of expression. It observes cautiously that threats, intimidation and violence against journalists ‘remain a source of serious concern’.

The BBC World Service largely withdrew its services from the Balkans and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the belief that the advance of media freedom was irreversible. Sadly, that hasn’t proved to be the case.

The problems described by the reports’ authors extend across the region into some EU member states. Shockingly, Bulgaria ranks 112th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. Hungary is in 92th place while Serbia is ranked 93rd.

In Bulgaria, attacks on journalists have been on the rise in an environment where voices critical of the government struggle to be heard. The Hungarian regulator decided last year not to renew the licence of the country’s leading independent radio station.

A few months earlier, the government forced the closure of Hungary’s largest independent news website. As Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán, said last year when asked about his political success, it helps to have the support of the media.

These are highly discouraging developments that not only tarnish European values of democracy and rule of law. They also help create a climate ripe for disinformation that is cultivating anti-EU and anti-western sentiment across the region with Russia and China the clear beneficiaries.

Worse still, these practices encourage countries seeking accession to the EU to believe that infringing freedom of expression and taming the media are not obstacles to membership of the European Club.

Serbia is a prime example. The government equates critical journalism with anti-constitutional activity and does not hesitate to depict independent media outlets as purveyors of false news engaged in hybrid war against it.

Some politicians from the ruling party have linked independent media to organised crime while others have suggested that independent media are involved in terrorist activity.

However, actions speak louder than words. Serbian police regularly fail to investigate complaints by independent journalists of physical attacks and other forms of harassment while cases that do make it court rarely result in convictions. This has created a climate of impunity.

Scandalously, the authorities are sometimes themselves the perpetrators. In one notable incident in 2020, police arrested the journalist Ana Lalić and detained her in custody accusing her of “upsetting the public and spreading panic” after she reported on terrible conditions at a Belgrade hospital in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These violations of journalists’ rights and the discouragement of society’s access to diversity of views have occurred at the same time as Serbia’s government has taken steps to assume 100% control of national TV stations.

State-owned Telekom Srbija is using anti-competitive practices to strengthen its position in the pay-TV sector and expand its positions in Croatia and Slovenia.

A combination of a lack of transparency in Serbia’s media market, the use of state aid and a government-friendly regulator are giving Telekom Srbija unfair advantages and threatening to squeeze out other operators not connected with the Serbian government. This is crony capitalism in practice.

EU competition specialists know full well what is happening. A wider audience of decision-makers now needs to connect the dots and consider the geopolitical consequences caused by a warped media market that is in turn shaped by a one-party state such as Serbia’s.

For the moment, EU leaders do not regard the situation as sufficiently serious to take action in Serbia or elsewhere. Yet they have plenty of economic levers at their disposal to encourage governments in the Western Balkans to behave differently.

In addition to the EU’s €9 billion Economic and Investment Plan for the region announced last October, they can also re-consider concessions on access to the EU market. The EU is currently providing over €3.5 billion worth of pandemic relief to Western Balkans countries without strings attached.

It is ironic that the EU is increasing its support to Serbia when rule of law is deteriorating and government-sponsored disinformation is rising. Serbia’s leaders can only conclude that the EU is happy for them to have cake and watch them eat it while public attitudes to European integration grow increasingly sceptical.

It is time for EU leaders to re-consider the message they are sending.

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