How free are journalists in South-East Europe?

In the Sala Raffaello at the Hotel Brufani in Perugia, Zrinka Vrabec-Mojzes, Besar Likmeta, and Anna Babinets discuss the freedom—or lack thereof—that journalists have in their respective home countries of Croatia, Albania and Ukraine. The discussion is led by Oliver Vujovic, secretary-general of the South-East European Media Organisation (SEEMO).

First, however, Barbara Fabro, senior executive officer of the Central European Initiative, calls for journalists to apply for the CEI Award for Outstanding Merits in Journalism. The award is promoted in cooperation with SEEMO. Together, CEI and SEEMO work to support young journalists and journalists who perform investigative journalism in Central and South-East Europe, especially those who work under pressure and risky conditions.

Many journalists living in the aforementioned regions face a great deal of difficulties when it comes to doing their job. First up, Zrinka Vrabec-Mojzes tells us about the situation in Croatia. Zrinka has been working as an independent journalist since 1984 when she founded Radio 101 Zagreb, one of the first independent media in former Yugoslavia. Now, she’s an editor at a leading weekly political magazine called Nacional. Zrinka states that becoming a member of the European Union has actually only sent Croatia backwards and has not brought the democracy she had hoped for. At first, the democratisation and integration process went quite well, but then the economic crisis hit in 2008 and all growth stagnated. Recession struck and destroyed independent media as well as mainstream media. Professional journalists quit their job because of the low wages and were replaced by younger, cheaper and more ignorant journalists.

Since Croatia became an EU member in 2013, there has been a surge in violence against journalists. Since 2008 there have been 78 attacks on journalists in Croatia that could be related directly to their work, but most of these attacks occurred in 2015. Hate speech towards journalists is actually encouraged by politicians in Croatia, who will usually tell journalists that they have asked for it whenever there has been an attack. However, the media still have power, seeing as how six months ago the entire Croatian government was forced to resign after an investigation by journalists revealed a conflict of interest of Deputy Prime Minister Karamarko.

Ten years ago, Besar Likmeta (editor of BIRN Albania) was interviewing a former bodyguard turned politician about his supposed university degree. A report had been published by the Ministry of Education which revealed that the man in question actually did not attend university. Like any good journalist, Besar went to give the other party the right to respond. However, the politician then became violent and physically attacked Besar. The attack was investigated but the politician was ultimately not prosecuted because there was not enough evidence due to a lack of witnesses. In fact, one of the people who did witness the attack but chose to stay silent is now the Deputy of Justice in Albania.

The Albanian authorities generally do not act when attacks like these occur. Moreover, the attacks on journalists are not only physical. Politicians try to get other media to discredit certain independent media in order to delegitimise them. In the past two years, independent voices have been accused of being part of an international conspiracy that is trying to undermine the powers in place. As opposed to hate speech in Croatia, journalists in Albania are treated to hate silence. They are being ignored by politicians, which prevents journalists from getting the information they need.

According to Besar, journalists have to produce facts and hold politicians accountable for their actions, so that the public can judge them as they see right. In order to defend themselves against the attacks by state-controlled media and hate silence, the only thing journalists can do is hold on to their integrity. Besar puts forward the example of the 2015 local elections in Albania, when journalists found out that a couple of people with a criminal background were running for office. This led to the Albanian parliament passing a law that required aspiring politicians to disclose their full background.

Lastly, Anna Babinets (editor at OCCRP Ukraine) speaks about how under former president Viktor Yanukovych all investigations done by journalists were ignored. The reason for this was that Yanukovych had strong ties with the Kremlin, which meant that Ukraine received quite a lot of funding from Russia. Yanukovych did not care about what was written about him, because he would receive the money anyway. When Yanukovych left, Anna was hopeful for the future of journalism because it seemed Ukraine would become more democratic. However, the country is currently in crisis because of the war, and the ties to Russia have been severed. Therefore, the current president cares a lot more about his image and reputation as he relies on funding from foreign countries other than Russia to save the Ukrainian economy. Because of this, he pays a great deal of attention to the media and what they write or say about him. A big part of the media is state-controlled and used as PR to protect the president’s interests and business.

When he ran for office, the current president promised the Ukrainian people to sell the chocolate factory that he owned in order to prevent a conflict of interest. When Anna was working on the Panama Papers, however, she found out that he was still the owner but hid it in offshore jurisdiction which made it harder to figure out the truth. Together with two other journalists, she filmed a documentary about the case. They were then accused of working with the Kremlin to take down the president. The government actually dug up the past of one of the lawyers who contributed to the documentary, and found out she had some ties to Russia which they used to discredit and delegitimise the investigation. This did not discourage Anna, however, as the investigation into the president’s offshore companies is still ongoing.

Like in Croatia and Albania, attacks on journalists are an everyday occurrence in Ukraine. Nine months ago, a colleague of Anna was killed in Kiev when his car exploded. Because they knew the authorities would not investigate or solve this murder, Anna and her colleagues started their own investigation. With lots of international help, they collected CCTV footage and found witnesses. The results of the investigation will be published in two weeks and Anna hopes it will push the police to investigate the murder themselves and ultimately find the perpetrator.

In conclusion, the major threats to journalists in South-East Europe are mainly of an economical and political nature. Because of economic crises, the wages for journalists are low which causes them to switch to, for instance, PR. Furthermore, politicians are so powerful that they control a big part of the media and use that to discredit and delegitimise the independent media. Journalists who dare to reveal political mishaps are often attacked. However, the independent media can still achieve great things, as is shown by the examples from Croatia, Albania and Ukraine given by the panel members. The members do recommend monitoring from the EU, however, because South-East Europe still has a long way to go with regards to press freedom.

Aster Dieleman