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Across the Balkans, media freedom still under constraint

If freedom of the media is a mirror of democratic processes, the region’s reflection in that mirror is not so good. Most monitoring organisations confirm this. Particular examples dramatize just how unsatisfactory the situation still remains.

Recently, journalists in Macedonia staged a simple but dramatic protest. In the middle of a press conference, they put down their cameras and left, leaving all the ministers of the Macedonian government standing on the stage.

The move was to protest incidents that happened a few days earlier in and around the parliament. A reporter was hit, a cameraman was beaten, tapes were seized and reporters were hindered from performing their jobs.

Libel laws are often used against journalists to discourage them from prying into areas authorities would prefer to leave covered. According to the Southeast Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), more than 450 criminal lawsuits involving insult and slander were filed in Macedonia between 2003 and 2005. Eighty-two pending charges were brought against one reporter alone. Most were initiated by public officials.

The situation in Kosovo is similar. Sami Kastrati, a member of the Association of Professional Journalists of Kosovo, says the authorities have often shown themselves eager to control freedom of expression. The worst examples, he says, concern discussions of Kosovo status and the Ahtisaari plan.

“There is legislative dualism in Kosovo; a law providing for access to official documents and, in parallel, a regulation stopping this,” Kastrati says. “Kosovo doesn’t expect at this moment to be ranked first concerning transparency like Iceland, but we don’t want to be in 158th place like the Republic of Chad, either.”

Seven years after the overthrow of former President Slobodan Milosevic, journalists in Serbia also face difficulties. In March 2006, supporters of the Socialist Party of Serbia attacked a crew from B92 Radio and TV. Later the same year, Religion Minister Milan Radulovic apologised to the Fonet news agency for an assault by Sava Centre authorities on journalists who came to report on interfaith dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

In Greece, a new media law contains provisions that could hamper the development of local media and exclude minority groups from access to information. Under the law, the owners of radio stations that broadcast news are required to have a minimum disbursed capital of 100,000 euros. According to a letter the International Press Institute (IPI) has sent to the president and prime minister of Greece, many prospective local radio stations will be unable to meet this requirement.

Another provision in the law states that the main transmission language must be Greek. “IPI believes that this flies in the face of the Greek government’s duty to uphold minority rights and breaches the country’s international duties in this area, particularly Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the organisation wrote.

In its 2006 report, the IPI listed ten cases in Greece involving trials or sentences against journalists. A typical case occurred on November 16th, 2006, when a TV crew from state television was attacked with Molotov cocktails by a group of persons wearing hoods and masks.

SEEMO recorded two cases in Croatia that are almost as odd as they are alarming. In March 2006, the head of religious programmes on the state-run HTV network fired a sign-language interpreter for getting divorced. It is not the first time that sign language interpreters have lost their jobs at HTV for unusual reasons. According to Novi List, one was fired in 2002 — again by the head of religious programmes — on the grounds that she was “too unattractive for television”.

Croatia has also seen more serious cases involving death threats. On July 12th, a Novi Listjournalist in Rijeka received a threatening letter from a group calling itself Mladi bojnici (Young Fighters). It came after two reports written by the journalist. “You won’t stay alive if you keep messing with us,” the letter said.

In Montenegro, the director of the daily Vijesti was attacked and beaten on September 1st. Three perpetrators carried out the assault on Zeljo Ivanovic, which occurred during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the paper’s establishment. Meanwhile, the murderers of Dusko Jovanovic, editor and publisher of the daily Dan, have yet to be found and brought to justice. Jovanovic was gunned down on May 27th, 2004 in front of his newspaper’s offices.

Journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), according to SEEMO, are often forced into self-censorship through economic pressure on the media and the threat of lawsuits. Participants at a seminar organised by the BH Novinari Association last May noted there were 49 libel cases filed at the Main Court of Republika Srpska, in Banja Luka. At the Federation of BiH’s Cantonal Court, 143 libel charges have been filed. In 2006 alone, courts across the Federation have heard around 200 different cases involving the media.

The cold-blooded murder of journalist and publisher Hrant Dink on January 19th in Turkey brought thousands into the streets of Istanbul to protest his assassination by an extreme nationalist. Before being gunned down, Dink had incurred the wrath of Turkish authorities, who prosecuted him for confronting the issue of whether the massacres of Armenians early in the 20th century constituted genocide. Current law allows people to be charged with “insulting Turkishness”, and Dink was among scores of writers, journalists and academics have been tried under this provision. Together, the threat of violence and the likelihood of legal harassment have placed serious constraints on freedom of thought. Not long after Dink’s murder, Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk left Turkey, saying he feared for his life.

Bulgaria and Romania are now EU members, but this does not mean that all media freedom issues have been resolved. Gangland violence remains a pervasive problem in Bulgaria, and mob violence has an impact on journalists as well — especially those attempting to cover crime. In April 2006, a bomb exploded in front of the house of an investigative reporter for the Nova TV channel. His apartment was destroyed, although no one was injured. According to SEEMO, the attack may have been connected to his investigative reporting.

In Romania, the Constitutional Court ruled that a decision to remove insult and libel from the country’s criminal code was unconsitutional. As in many other countries, the categories are broad enough to enable prosecution of journalists whose reporting runs afoul of officials.

Finally, Albania has made progress recently with the adoption of a new code of ethics for journalists. On the negative side, however, reporters continue to face intimidation. For example, a journalist with Gazeta Shqipitare was reportedly beaten by local police forces in Lushnja.

In September, the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors’ Forum called on countries in the region “to provide an environment in which journalists are able to carry out their professional duties without fear of intimidation. Such incidents foster a climate of fear that inhibits journalistic investigation and can promote self-censorship.”

Although the statement was addressed to Montenegrin leaders in particular, with reference to the assault on Ivanovic, the signatories made it clear that their demand applied to all governments in the Balkans.

“I have a message for the attackers,” said one editor. “They cannot stop or intimidate us. We will continue to inform the public in a professional manner.”

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