Freedom House: Widespread corruption, freedom of expression declining in the Western Balkans

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WASHINGTON – Antidemocratic leaders in Central Europe and the Balkans—including some who have brazenly consolidated power beyond constitutional limits—continued undermining institutions that protect freedoms of expression and association and the rule of law, writes Freedom House in its latest report “Freedom In The World 2019“.

This annual global report on political rights and civil liberties covers 195 countries, and each country is placed on a numerical scale from Least Free (0) to Most Free (100).

In the Western Balkans, it is noted that corruption is widespread and the media freedoms are declining. Although some countries of the region made modest progress, Serbia made a notable decline on the Freedom of the World scale.

The situation in Albania remained the same since the previous year and the numerical score remained the same – 68 out of 100, which placed Albania in a group of partly free countries. In the 2018 report, it is stated that corruption and organized crime remain serious problems despite government efforts to address them, and the intermingling of powerful business, political, and media interests inhibits the development of truly independent news outlets.

“Corruption is pervasive, and the EU has repeatedly called for rigorous implementation of anti-graft measures. While the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the intermingling of powerful business, political, and media intserests inhibits the development of independent news outlet,” reads the 2018 Report.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is also placed in a group of partly free countries, with ranking lower than Albania, 58 out of 100. In comparison to 2018 Report, when the country scored 55 points, this year the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is slightly worse, 53.

The last year’s report pointed out that corruption remains widespread and that the government does not operate with openness and transparency.

“Corruption remains widespread and systemic, and enforcement of legislation designed to combat corruption is weak. When corruption probes are actually opened, they rarely result in convictions. The government remains largely inaccessible to the public,” stated 2018 Report.

When it comes to Kosovo, the country is also said to be partly free with a score of 54, which represents an improvement of two points since the last year. While political rights in the country scored more than civil rights, corruption is most likely this years problem. The last year report pointed out that corruption remains a serious problem, and the institutional framework to combat it is weak, while political interference in the judiciary, particularly from the executive branch, remains a problem.

According to the Freedom House 2019 Report, North Macedonia scored 59 points, which is a small improvement since 2018 Report, when the status of the section of Press Freedom said “not free”.

On the other hand, Montenegro and Serbia scored better in comparison to other countries of the region on the numerical scale with, 65 and 67 points, respectively.

“In the Balkans, President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia and President Milo Đukanović of Montenegro continued to consolidate state power around themselves and their cliques, subverting basic standards of good governance and exceeding their assigned constitutional roles,” reads the 2019 Freedom House report.

When it comes to the functioning of the Government of Montenegro, it is noted that President Đukanović maintains extensive control over most public institutions.

“Đukanović has wielded vast personalized power for decades, through his tenure as both prime minister and president, as well as during his time outside of government as chair of the DPS,” the report reads.

It is also noted that corruption and cronyism remain widespread, though there have been modest efforts by authorities to address them, prompted in part by EU accession requirements.

On the situation of media freedoms, the report explains that a variety of independent media operate in Montenegro, and media coverage tends to be partisan and combative.

“The government frequently denies opposition media outlets advertising contracts from publicly owned or controlled entities. Journalists self-censor to avoid threats, political pressure, costly defamation suits, or job loss,” it is stated.

However, on a numerical scale, the country scored better in comparison to the 2018 report.

The situation in Serbia is worsened since the last year and it is the only Western Balkan country with changed status from free to partly free.

“Serbia’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to deterioration in the conduct of elections, continued attempts by the government and allied media outlets to undermine independent journalists through legal harassment and smear campaigns, and President Aleksandar Vučić’s de facto accumulation of executive powers that conflict with his constitutional role,” report reads.

In the Freedom in the World score, Serbia dropped from 73 points to 67, due to the state of the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, as well as of freedom of expression.

On the question were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections, the report explains why the score declined from 3 to 2.

“It is due to the reports of numerous irregularities during the 2018 local elections in Belgrade, including voters being pressured to vote for the SNS (Serbian Progressive Party) and provided with pre-marked ballots, misuse of administrative resources for campaigning, and intimidation of domestic observers,” says the report.

In addition to this, the 2019 report explains that the ruling party has used various tactics to unfairly reduce the opposition’s electoral prospects.

“These include manipulating the timing of snap elections, exerting pressure on independent state institutions, and mobilizing public resources to support the SNS’s campaigns,” it is stated.

On the freedom of expression, the report notes the decline in the score from 4 to 3 because the open debate has been discouraged by retaliatory measures, including media smears and official investigations, against high-profile critics of government policies.

“Private discussion is generally free and vibrant, but a pattern of retribution against high-profile critics of the government has contributed to an increasingly hostile environment for free expression and open debate. Throughout 2018, perceived government opponents including journalists, civil society leaders, and celebrities were targeted with sophisticated smear campaigns in pro-government media outlets as well as investigations and other retaliatory measures,” it is noted.