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News 29 Apr 15

Press Freedom Declining in Balkans, Report Says

The situation for the press has worsened in the Balkans over the last few years with Macedonia, Serbia and Greece seeing the sharpest drops, the US watchdog's new report says.

Gjegj Erebara

The 2014 report from the US-based watchdog Freedom House has underlined a global decline in freedom of the press, blaming it on harsher laws and increased violence against journalists.

The report classified the Western Balkans as a region that saw a sharp deterioration in terms of freedom of the press.

Freedom House gives each of the 199 countries and territories a total press freedom score ranging from 0 (best) to 100 (worst) on the basis of 23 questions divided into three sub-categories.

“A number of countries in the Western Balkans continued to exhibit a worrying pattern of press freedom violations in 2014," the report says.

"These media environments feature several common problems: the use of defamation and insult laws by politicians and businesspeople to suppress critical reporting; pro-government bias at public broadcasters; editorial pressure from political leaders and private owners that leads to self-censorship; harassment, threats, and attacks on journalists that go unpunished; and opaque ownership structures,” the report added.

Macedonia’s score has declined 10 points in the past five years, making it the worst performer in the region, according to the Freedom House.

It expressed special concern about the issue of the journalist Tomislav Kezarovski who was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for having revealed the identity of a protected witness in a murder case. In 2014, Macedonia scored 58 points, the lowest in the Balkans.

“Several opposition-oriented outlets have been forced to close during this period,” Freedom House noted.

In Serbia during 2014, the government of Aleksandar Vučić sought to curb reporting on the floods that hit the country in May and directed increasingly hostile rhetoric and harassment at independent journalists; such pressure allegedly motivated broadcasters to cancel major political talk shows. Serbia scored 40 for last year, four points lower than in 2013.

Press freedom in Montenegro has also deteriorated since Milo Đukanović returned to the premiership in 2012, with independent outlets such as Vjesti, Dan, and Monitor suffering lawsuits and unprosecuted physical attacks as well as hostile government rhetoric. Montenegro scored 39 points in 2014.

Albania, Kosovo, Croatia and Romania did not improve or deteriorate during 2014, but Albania and Kosovo already have very low scores.

For Albania, the report underlines that media ownership is obscured by the use of proxies, which circumvents legal barriers erected against the over-concentration of ownership.

“Most media outlets rely on financial support from owners and a few major advertisers, and self-censorship to suit their business or political interests is common. Journalists, outlets, and advertisers can face repercussions for negative coverage about the authorities, including tax inspections and loss of state business,” it says.

All the Balkan countries except Greece are classified as partly free in the freedom of the media index.

Italy is also considered partly free, the only EU member state with such status. Italy owes its low ranking to the system of permits for work among journalists, licenses issued by the Order of the Journalists, a state-approved organization that was created during the Fascist era in the 1930s.

Although Greece still has the status of  a country with a free media, it has shown the biggest decline in the world in the index for 2014,

“Greece’s score declined from 46 to 51 because of further government and partisan interference in the media, as seen in restrictive legislative changes to the broadcast market, the creation of a monopoly on digital transmissions through a flawed tender, and politically biased news coverage surrounding elections.

"Greece has fallen by 21 points since 2010, as existing structural problems were exacerbated by the economic crisis and related political pressures,” the report says.

Bulgaria has the best score in the region for 2014 although freedom of the press has declined there in the past few years as well.

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