Media freedom shrinks in Southeast Europe due to COVID-19 crisis

Media, Newspapers; Photo: Pixabay

SOFIA – Excessive government control, democratic backsliding built on the pre-existing trend of media capture and shrinking of space for media freedoms are the striking similar consequences when it comes to the imposed COVID-19 measures across the Southeast Europe (SEE).

This was the conclusion of the panel discussion organized by Centre for Study of Democracy from Bulgaria and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, about the space for media freedom in SEE during the COVID -19 emergency.

Ruslan Stefanov, Program Director of Centre for Study of Democracy pointed out that during COVID-19 pandemic, worrying trends could be observed.

„First is the return of the global power politics and fight for hearts and minds, especially in SEE“, he said and added that we could observe also the internal authoritarian trends, alongside the deterioration of the economic condition of media.

In Albania media is faced with the challenges stemming from the COVID-19 information monopoly introduced by Government, low level of transparency, self-censorship and economic hardship, said Zef Preci, Executive Director, Albanian Center for Economic Research (ACER) from Tirana.

„The anti-defamation package was adopted by the Parliament, although all international bodies expressed concerns over it, as it gives Government the authority to regulate online media, for example by blocking a web-site“, he pointed out.

He said that in times of COVID-19, media does not have any means for monitoring and verification of the information issued by the Government, and the role of media has been mostly to clarify information and not to provide new ones.

Bulgaria ranks 111th in the 2020 Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, the last place among the EU member states, said Irina Nedeva, President of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) from Bulgaria and added that problems exist when it comes to the media ownership even though some legislative improvements had been made.

Speaking about the Government’s attitude towards media in COVID-19 crisis, she said that the overall message of politicians was that media has to „shut up“ and the Government was not consistent when it comes to providing information.

„The patterns of the Government in informing the public ranged from intensive live briefings to banning press conferences, and the Government also tried to introduce a measure that information is distributed only in written to the certain press agencies “, Nedeva said.

She also pointed out that there have been attempts to impose severe penalties for fake news, and on the numerous occasions the highest officials used derogatory language against the journalists.

„Our main concern is that even without the state of emergency, there will be attempts to use penal code to make information less accessible and to shut the media criticism up“, Nedeva concluded.

Elena Calistru, Director and Founder of Funky Citizens from Romania, has noticed that decision makers in the region are acting in similar pattern when it comes to information on COVID-19 and said that in Romania that there were problems with accountability and transparency of the Government, and that despite the hard times for investigative journalist they have managed to do their job, by exposing some of the abuse in the public procurement.

“The public procurement seems to be the major issue as media reported on contracts assigned to companies that were just established or purchase of sub-standardized masks”, Calistru explained.

Igor Novakovic, Research Director, International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC) from Serbia, explained that Serbia is a deeply politically divided society and that media landscape mirrors this fact.

“There are pro-government media which occupy the largest information space and independent media with much less space”, he explained.

During the COVID-19 emergency, the Government tried to centralize information distributed to the public and a journalist from NOVA S portal was arrested for reporting on the dire conditions in the hospital from Novi Sad. He also said that the Government attitude was very biased towards the assistance coming from China.

“In the beginning of the crisis there was this notorious criticism coming from the President who said that EU solidarity does not exist and that China is the only one who can help”, he pointed out and added that EU approach to communication in Serbia should be much more efficient, because the other actors are having many more results with much less funds.