Media freedom declining in enlargement countries

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Political pressure, threats and lawsuits against media and journalists are commonplace in EU candidate countries and other membership hopefuls, the European Commission's enlargement reports revealed on Tuesday (9 November).

"Freedom of expression and of the media, which is an integral part of any democratic system, remains a concern in most enlargement countries," Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle warned, unveiling the Commission's 'Enlargement Strategy' at a press conference.

Turkey bottom of the class

Only in Turkey does the existing legal framework "not yet sufficiently guarantee freedom of expression," the Commission's individual progress report on the country underlines.

Whilst the EU has this year been funding civil society dialogue on the media with Turkey, a "high number of violations of freedom of expression" still exist, the report states, including a "high number of cases initiated against journalists and frequent website bans".

Indeed, forty journalists are currently imprisoned in the country for "simply doing their job honestly and professionally," according to the European Federation of Journalists. Meanwhile, Internet video-sharing website YouTube was banned from Turkey for two years, a ban which only expired in October.

Turkish opposition leaders have expressed their belief that last September's referendum on constitutional reform was held amid an atmosphere of financial pressure on media and created an atmosphere of fear in Turkey.

Journalism standards were also subjected to Commission criticism.

Despite "limited progress," anti-Semitism "continued to be an issue in ultranationalist media," according to the EU executive.

Media 'violence' in the Balkans

Despite the fact that legislation is gradually being put in place to secure media freedom in Balkan candidate countries, in practice its application is still being hampered, the Commission's enlargement reports reveal, mirroring reports from media organisations.

"In several Western Balkan countries, threats and physical attacks against journalists continued," the Commission's strategy paper said, with media freedom in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo being rated particularly poorly compared to last year.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, "a growing number of journalists and editors are subject to [violence] including death threats," the report states, adding that implementation of the country's Freedom of Access to Information Act remained "insufficient".

Political pressure on the media was also noted to have increased in the country since last year, after the region had already seen the steepest drop in media freedom levels in the previous year, according to the Freedom House Index.

Indeed, the South East Europe Media Organisation reported that Alternativna Televizija, a Bosnian TV channel, had received a memo from the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, a political party, advising it not to report on last month's elections.

In late January this year, media mogul and aspiring politician Fahrudin Radoncic, who owns Bosnia Herzegovina's largest daily newspaper Dnevni Avaz and led a political party in the elections, reportedly launched a public verbal attack on Bosnian journalist Duska Jurisic, using ethnic and sexist slurs.

Transparency of media ownership was identified as an issue in Albania and Macedonia as well, where intimidation of journalists was also seen as being "of serious concern" and Roma were often represented "in a manner that reinforces negative stereotyping" following their very public expulsion from EU member France this year.

Whilst the media was said to "generally operate freely" in Serbia, cases of violence against journalists were said not to have been properly investigated. These include a murder attempt in April 2007 targeting Dejan Anastasijevic, a journalist who reported on Serbian war crimes during Slobodan Miloševi?'s presidency.

Concerns over media independence were also showcased in Kosovo, where the authorities were reported as being the largest advertisers. The media set-up there was described as being "conducive to strong political interference".

In fact, Kosovo's public broadcaster RTK is under political control and the country's deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuci, last year served in the committee responsible for selecting the company's board members. RTK's chairwoman claimed that the government was "blackmailing" them, "pressuring us to keep in line," The Economist reported.

The Commission's report on Montenegro was not as bad as its neighbours, although lawsuits were still cited as being "used to exert pressure on the media," including through the imposition of fines.

Despite Croatia having provisionally closed 25 chapters out of the 35 necessary to complete its enlargement negotiations to join the European Union, including one on 'Information Society and Media', journalists who report on corruption and organised crime were said to continue to receive threats.

Global context

Freedom House ranks all of the candidate countries' press freedom levels as "partly free," alongside Bhutan and Nigeria. EU members Bulgaria, Romania and Italy also share this sad ranking.

However, the situation can be seen as being somewhat different in Iceland. The accession candidate this week refused to accept the €30 million it was entitled to for "pre-accession projects" including informing citizens on what the EU does, for fear of it being accused of gaining undue influence in the media.

The Commission will organise a conference on freedom of expression and the media in enlargement countries in spring 2011 in order to take stock of the countries' progress in this field.

Dutch European People's Party MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, underlined the serious conclusions of the Commission's progress report regarding freedom of expression in the country.

"Pressure on newspapers, court cases against journalists and the disproportionate banning of numerous websites are unacceptable in a free pluralistic society. It is important to note that concerns have been fuelled about the effective judicial guarantees for all suspects in, for example, the Ergenekon case, and the length of pre-trial detention," she said.

Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu, leader of Turkey's main opposition party CHP, had earlier this year warned in a letter to the Brussels press that a "society of fear" was being created in Turkey due to pressure being exerted on the media from a "growingly authoritarianist" AKP government.

South East European Media Organisation (SEEMO) Secretary-General Oliver Vujovic described the pressure exerted by political parties on the Bosnian media as "a serious press freedom violation, as journalists have the right to work freely and enjoy unrestricted access to all information concerning matters of public interest".

In a statement, Vujovic said: "SEEMO calls on the local officials of the political parties in Banja Luka to express any dissatisfaction with journalists in other, democratic ways instead of blocking communication. All media should be treated equally."

"SEEMO urges the [Bosnian] prime minister to change his behaviour in communicating with the media, and to accept that diversity and critical reporting are a foundation of democratic development in any society," he added.

The European Commission's voluminous yearly reports look at the state of play of each country's relations with Brussels.

Croatia, Turkey, Macedonia and Iceland are labelled as "candidate countries", whereas Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are considered "potential candidates," according to EU jargon. 

Any European country which respects the principles of 'liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law' may apply to become a member of the Union.

Candidates must fulfil the 35 chapters of Copenhagen criteria, set out in 1993, in order to complete membership negotiations. Freedom of the media from political interference and the independence of regulatory bodies are criteria under the tenth chapter, entitled 'Information society and Media'.

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