Amnesty International: Freedom of expression and freedom of media key issues in Balkans

Amnesty International logo; Photo: Amnesty International

Amnesty International (AI) released an annual report on the state of the world’s human rights. Organisation which is supported by more than 7 million people around the world aims to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.

In an annual report 2016/2017, AI presented a research on human rights which was conducted in 159 countries with five regional overviews. European Western Balkans presents short review of each country in the region.

ALBANIA

AI reports on several different issues in Albania – enforced disappearances, forced evictions, the justice system, refugees and asylum-seekers, torture and other ill-treatment.

AI claims that authorities made no progress in a cooperation with the International Commission on Missing Persons since an estimated 6,000 persons still remain disappeared. This cooperation was established to locate and identify the remains of Albanians forcibly disappeared under the communist governments between 1944 and 1991.

On the issue of asylum-seekers, an estimated 20,000 Albanians applied for asylum in EU countries, the majority of them in Germany, but most of them were rejected.

On the other hand, in July, a justice reform was passed in Parliament. The reform amended dozens of articles of the Constitution and introduced new legislation to ensure the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and to prevent political intervention and corruption.

BiH

In a report on BiH, AI registered few problems related to freedom of expression, crimes under international law and discrimination.

The Association of Journalists documented repeated attacks against journalists, attacks on freedom of expression and on the integrity of media outlets.

In the area of international law, in July, an independent analysis commissioned by the OSCE showed that the National War Crimes Strategy had failed to meet its targets, with a backlog of over 350 complex cases still pending before the State Court and Prosecutor’s Office. Moreover, no progress was made on the adoption of the Law on Protection of Victims of Torture and the harmonisation of entity laws regulating the rights of civilian victims of war to enable their effective access to services, free legal aid and effective reparation.

Highly criticised were the issues regarding social exclusion and discrimination, in particular of Roma and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. AI also noticed that the 2009 judgement on the Sejdić-Finci case remained unimplemented.

CROATIA

Reception conditions for asylum-seekers were adequate, and it was noted that there were services available to refugees and migrants, including psychosocial support and language education, but that these were mainly provided by NGOs.

Considering crimes against international law, the law regulating the status of civilian victims of war passed in 2015 helped ease access to reparations and made it easier for survivors to access crucial services. However, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia raised concerns about the pace and effectiveness of prosecutions by the national courts of crimes committed during the 1992-1995 war.

Civil society groups recorded increased instances of the media and public officials “evoking fascist ideology” from the past by promoting the use of inflammatory iconography and generally fuelling an anti-minority sentiment, targeting specific groups, in particular, ethnic Serbs, refugees and migrants.

In March, the government abruptly ended the contracts of nearly 70 editors and journalists at the public broadcaster Croatian Radio Television, in what was perceived as an attempt to influence its editorial policy, which led Croatia down from place 54 on to 63 in the World Press Freedom Index.

MACEDONIA

In 2016 Macedonia was faced with two main issues – political instability and refugees’ and migrants’ crisis.

The political crisis prompted by the publication in 2015 of audio recordings revealing government corruption and widespread illegal surveillance continued. In April the President announced a pardon for 56 high-level political figures under investigation for their involvement in the wiretapping scandal, which led to revoking pardons by the President in June following a wave of protests dubbed the “colourful revolution”.

In early March, the Ministry of Interior announced the closure of the country’s southern border with Greece, thereby preventing the arrival of refugees and migrants to the country, which left thousands stranded in the Idomeni makeshift camp on the Greek side of the border.

MONTENEGRO

In May, two LGBTI organisations brought a case before an administrative court against the Ministry of Interior for failing to guarantee the right to freedom of peaceful assembly by allowing the police authorities to ban an LGBTI Pride march in Nikšić. As the court rejected the applicants’ claims, organisations have turned to the Constitutional Court to request a constitutional review.

By the end of the year, the authorities had not acted on the recommendations of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances to include disappearance as a separate criminal offence in the Criminal Code. The authorities also failed to enable access to justice and reparation for victims.

Journalists continued to receive threats and media offices were occasionally vandalised. Although the Minister of Interior announced in June that amendments to the Criminal Code would be introduced to address the prevalent impunity for attacks on journalists, a draft had not been submitted by end of year.

SERBIA

Independent journalist associations registered dozens of incidents targeting journalists, including physical assaults and death threats.

In March, the Prosecutor’s Office confirmed the indictment of eight former members of the Special Brigade of the Ministry of the Interior of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb party to the war in Bosnia, for war crimes committed against civilians in Srebrenica in 1995.

A significant decrease in the number of refugees and migrants travelled through Serbia on their way to the EU compared to 2015 was in part due to the closure of borders to irregular migrants in the south and north.

Serbia was criticised for failing to provide access to a fair and individualised asylum process for the vast majority of registered asylum-seekers.

The major issue Serbia faced aside refugees’ and migrants’ rights, was in the field of housing rights.

As the AI reports, more than 200 families had been evicted in central Belgrade since the beginning of works in 2015 making way for the construction of the Belgrade Waterfront site. In April, a forced eviction was carried out at night by 30 masked men, who violently destroyed residents’ homes. Local police were alerted but refused to intervene.

KOSOVO

A Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Kosovo entered into force in April.

Progress in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo remained limited.

The EU Rule of Law Mission announced it would not launch new investigations into cases of crimes under international law, so hundreds of pending cases were due to be transferred to the Kosovo authorities despite the European Commission declaring the Kosovo judiciary “slow” and “vulnerable to undue political influence”.

In January, Oliver Ivanović, leader of a Kosovo Serb political party, was sentenced by a panel of international judges at the Basic Court of Mitrovicë/Mitrovica to nine years’ imprisonment for ordering the murder of ethnic Albanians in the town in April 1999. He remained under house arrest at the end of the year while his appeal against his conviction was pending before the Court of Appeals in Pristinë/Pristina.

E.M.