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Balkan, Central European Journalists Highight Safety Concerns on Press Freedom Day

Marking World Press Freedom day through different activities, media organisations in Balkan and Central Europe countries called on authorities to address growing threats to journalists, treat such threats in courts with a higher priority, and provide a safer environment for the media’s daily work.

In Kosovo, the head of the Association of Journalists, AJK, Xhemajl Rexha, held a press conference in front of the justice system where he expressed concern about the treatment of cases of violence against journalists.

In the last five years, the AJK has recorded 120 cases of threats against journalists with 33 cases recorded only in the last few years.

“Attacks on journalists not only represent criminal charges as such, they also affect one of the basic freedoms – freedom of expression,” Rexha said.

In Serbia, media organisations invited journalists and media to turn off the sound, darken screens and silently join the international symbolic action of “Five Minutes of Thunderous Silence” in order to again warn the authorities and the public about the consequences of the threat to media freedom.

According to Serbia’s Journalists’ Association, 137 incidents against journalists were recorded in 2022 while in the first three months of this year there were 33 incidents: eight verbal attacks, three physical attacks and 22 acts of pressure on the media and journalists.

“A large number of these attacks were inspired by the performances of the highest state officials who, because of critical reporting, target journalists and certain media as traitors and foreign mercenaries,” a joint press release said.

During the presentation of a survey on media freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country’s Association of Journalists warned about poor levels of journalistic safety. According to the survey around 26 per cent of respondents to the survey in Bosnia approve of attacks on journalists, while half said that media are dependent on political parties.

“An environment has been created in which journalists literally fear for their lives. This is a red alert and alert sign,” said Sinisa Vukelic, from the BH Journalists Association.

The Bosniak member of Bosnia’s state presidency, Denis Becirovic, said the media must have a safe environment and work without any pressure or threats.

This year’s Reporters Without Borders index put Greece in 107th place, one place higher than in 2022. The report states that between 2021 and 2023, press freedom in Greece suffered severe setbacks, mentioning the Predator-gate scandal that revealed that secret services were spying on journalists, while SLAPPs against journalists that have become commonplace, and there is the unsolved case of the assassination in 2021 of the veteran crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz.

“In the last few years, several small online media have been very energetically trying to produce truly independent journalism. We like to refer to it as a new ‘ecosystem’ of public interest journalism, but the truth is we are fighting an uphill battle and we still have a long way to go in order to do our work in a way that is viable, stable and secure,” Augustine Zenakos, a journalist with the independent outlet Manifold, told BIRN.

Journalists protest ovr the death of Al-Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in front of Israel’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, 12 May 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE/SEDAT SUNA

In Albania, Blerjana Bino, from the organization “Safe Journalists”, told BIRN that there is no improvement in the environment for independent, qualitative and critical media or for the interest of public journalism in the country.

“There is concentration of media ownership in a few hands as well as the lack of transparency for audiovisual media financing sources and especially online ones, just as we continue to have a lack of proactive transparency regarding media ownership and the influence on editorial lines and reporting,” Bino told BIRN.

In Romania, which ranked 53rd in the World Press Freedom Index for 2023, journalists face increasing editorial control from the governing parties that massively finance Romanian publications and television.

This situation seriously affects editorial independence and critical spirit of the media against the politicians in power.

“Political pressures on the media and attacks on journalists have intensified, and public funds embezzled in the media by political parties remain obscure, which explains the drop in the political indicator,” Pavlo Szalai, head of the EU-Balkans office of Reporters Without Borders, told G4media.ro

In Turkey, several international media organisations and journalists’ unions marked World Press Freedom Day under repeated government attacks, pressures and censorship targeting independent media.

“Journalists in Turkey are not free on May 3, World Press Freedom Day; 32 more of our colleagues were arrested in the last year and five more in the last week; 47 journalists are in prison,” the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, TGS, said.

The International Press Institute, IPI, with contributions from six other international media and rights organisations published a report on their joint international press freedom mission to Turkey.

“As Turkey faces a critical election year, the country’s journalists are facing a perfect storm of physical, judicial and regulatory threats designed to silence independent reporting and muzzle public debate,” the report wrote.

The Centre for Independent Journalism in Moldova, CJI, along with eight other non-governmental media organisations from Moldova, signalled several problems affecting the mass media in the country on Wednesday.

Media organizations reminded the authorities that “the reduced resilience of the press to crises, the lack of financial sustainability, the obstruction of the right to access to information and the erosion of public trust in information persist and must be solved effectively and promptly”.

These problems were reported in a memorandum on press freedom in Moldova for May 3, 2022 – May 3, 2023, a document released on World Press Freedom Day, which was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly three decades ago.

Media organisations in Montenegro said media freedom in the country had improved, stressing that increased salaries in the media should now be the priority. The head of the Montenegrin Media Union, Radomir Krackovic, called on all employees in the media to start negotiations with employers.

“Journalists cannot allow themselves to remain behind in terms of wages if we bear in mind that salaries in the public sector and other professions have been significantly increased,” Krackovic told local television station Vijesti. “We hope that new media laws and the first media strategy will also be adopted this year,” he added.

Currently, 945 lawsuits against the media, editors and journalists are active in Croatia, of which 910 are for compensation for damage to honour and reputation, seeking a total amount of 5.4 million euros, it was said on Tuesday at the presentation of the annual survey of the Croatian Journalists’ Association, HND.

The 5.4 million euros in compensation is demanded from 22 media outlets, it was said in the debate at Journalists’ House on the day before World Press Freedom Day.

In the discussion, the pressures of SLAPPs (Strategic lawsuits against public participation) on media freedom and mechanisms of protection against the abuse of the judicial system to silence critical voices were problematized.

“Judicial repression in Croatia against journalists and the media is not decreasing. HND will continue to internationalize this problem and calls on the government to decriminalize acts against reputation and honour because everyone can find legal satisfaction in civil proceedings. Lawsuits are a way of attacking our colleagues, in addition to financial exhaustion, they also want to impose censorship in some way,” said HND’s president, Hrvoje Zovko.

Bulgaria recorded a significant improvement in its press freedom, rising by 20 positions since 2022 and is currently rated in 71st place in Reporters Without Borders’ recent report.

However, local media noted that the country is in a higher position although nothing visible has been improved in the wider picture for Bulgarian journalists, who are still experiencing various struggles, including recent cases of intimidation in Bulgaria’s seemingly never-ending election cycle.

The latest Reporters Without Borders annual index on media freedom in the world rated North Macedonia the regional champion, ranking highest, in 38th place.

“Politicians, government, opposition, civil sector – all of us should be united and loud to guarantee more rights, safety and working conditions to journalists and media workers in order for them to perform their duties in professional way and responsibly,” North Macadonia’s President, Stevo Pendarovski, said on Wednesday.

Source: Balkan Insight