Serbia is the only country in the Western Balkans whose position on the World Media Freedom Index deteriorated in 2023 and ranks 91st out of 180 countries, according to the latest Reporters Without Borders report. The report states that pro-government media in Serbia are spreading Russian propaganda, as well as that Serbia recorded the most significant drop in the region of the European Union (EU) and the Balkans by 12 points.
Albania is in 96th place, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina (64), Kosovo (56), Montenegro (39) and North Macedonia (38).
“BiH’s position on the list is better only because the ratings of the other countries are falling, but its index is also falling, as is the case with Serbia,” said Pavol Szalai, a representative of the Reporters Without Borders organization, for the Voice of America.
According to him, the differences between Western Balkan countries are increasing. “On the one hand, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo show real potential for change. They advanced by 19, 24 and five positions, respectively. But even in those countries, media freedom is threatened due to structural problems,” says Szalai. He said that all Western Balkan countries must introduce systemic changes, following known European practices.
Serbia: Journalists subjected to political attacks
With over 2500 media outlets registered in the country, the media market is highly fragmented. However, award-winning investigative pieces have a limited audience because they are only featured online and in a few independent media outlets.
“In a high polarised political climate, journalists are regularly subjected to political attacks investigated by members of the ruling elite that are amplified by certain national TV networks. Neither politicians nor institutions, including the Regulatory Authority of Electronc Media (REM), composed mostly of individuals appointed by the government, have been willing to remedy the situation. In addition, journalists critical of the ruling party have restricted access to interviews with government representatives and to public information”, report stated.
When it comes to safety, report stressed that despite efforts have been underway to imrove the security of journalists and fight impunity for crimes committed against them – in the form of two working groups and the introduction of an SOS line for media – Serbian journalists are still from feeling protected. It is noted that this reinforced by the fact that many serious attacks on journalists remain unresolved, such as the 1999 assassination of Slavko Ćuruvija.
Albania: Editorial independence is threatened by partisan regulation
In Albania, journalists are victims of organized crime, and at times, police violence, spurred on by the government’s failure to protect them.
„Journalists are under political pressure that was exacerbated in 2021 by attempts to control information during the parliamentary elections and the COVID-19 pandemic. Politicians limit editorial independence by means of heavily politicized media regulators and by appointing those in charge of the public media“, the report shows.
According to the report, journalists critical of the government are often subjected to political attacks designed to discredit them, and they have trouble accessing state-held information. „A recent centralization of government communication could result in further restrictions on access to state-held information“.
It is stated that the most influential Albanian private-sector media are owned by a handful of companies that have links to the political world while operating in highly regulated sectors such as construction. It is added that there are hundreds of online media outlets, while a small number have a sustainable business model with transparent funding.
When it comes to journalists’ safety, the report stressed that organized crime represents one of the biggest threats to journalists’ safety. „Although the police recently took steps to investigate attacks against journalists, the impunity for these crimes, combined with political attempts to discredit journalists, has created a climate likely to encourage further attacks“, the report said.
North Macedonia: Officials tend to have poor and demanding attitudes toward journalists
According to the report, although journalists do not work in a hostile environment, widespread misinformation and lack of professionalism contribute to society’s declining trust in media, which exposes independent outlets to threats and attacks.
„Although television is the dominant source of information, online media play an important role. Yet, a distinction must be made between professional online newsrooms that employ professional journalists and publish original content and individual portals that plagiarise and copy-paste such content. There is also a big gap between usage and trust: the most watched TV stations have low reliability“, RSF added.
Regarding safety, the report stated that journalists are regularly the targets of verbal attacks and may be exposed to legal pressure and abusive prosecution (gag proceedings of SLAPPs).
„However, the courts tend to uphold freedom of the press and protect journalists. In the capital city, a special prosecutor was appointed to handle cases of attacks against journalists, and the opening of similar offices across the country is under consideration“, the report concluded.
BiH: Journalists do not feel protected while doing their work
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the media operate in a “relatively favorable legal environment”, but in an “extremely unfavorable political and economic milieu”. According to the report, journalists do not feel protected while doing their job and there are large differences in media freedom and quality of journalism across the country.
“While the overall political environment is unfavorable to press freedom, there are significant differences across the country due to the different political structures of its entities. Media work is in better condition in the capital, Sarajevo, than it is in the majority-Serbian entity Republika Srpska, and in the western part of the entity Federation of BiH. Politicians in the country regularly attack journalists and exercise influence over the public media and regulatory bodies”, the report shows.
It is added that journalists are most often subject to verbal threats and attacks as well as occasional physical assault.
“Journalists generally do not feel sufficiently protected while doing their job and do not trust the police for their protection. There are various initiatives to improve the safety of journalists focused on improving legislation and the work of the prosecutor’s office”, the report said.
Kosovo: Media independence threatened by poor regulation
According to the report, while the Kosovo media market is diverse, its development is limited by the small size and strict separation along ethnic lines. Media independence is threatened by poor regulation and dependence on partisan distribution of public funds.
“Even the media succeed in holding politicians accountable, journalists remain the target of political attacks… Freedom of speech, protection of journalists’ sources, and right to information are legally guaranteed, whereas defamation and liberal are decriminalized. However, journalists have been increasingly targeted by SLAPPs initiated by business groups and politicians”, Reporters Without Borders stated.
It is added that overall, the media are dependent on advertising either from the government or political parties, both of which are distributed in a non-transparent and partisan manner.
The report stressed that murders and disappearances that took place before and during the war in Kosovo have gone unpunished.
“Although the attacks are investigated by the police and prosecutor’s office, they rarely lead to legal proceedings. Attacks against journalists in the north of Kosovo increased during a period of political tension between Pristina and Belgrade in late 2021”.
Montenegro: Press freedom continues to be threatened by political interference
After the initial defeat of the DPS in 2020, government pressure and attacks on journalists have somewhat diminished, but the new authorities are still trying to control certain media outlets and journalists.
“Moreover, there are concerns that foreign owners of some outlets will influence the editorial policies to serve the interests of other governments (Serbian, for example) or those of their local political favorites”, the report shows.
When it comes to attacks on journalists, almost all that took place over the last year have been resolved, but of those that took place further back, many remain unpunished, despite promises from the government that came to power in 2020 to take steps to resolve them.
“One such case is the assassination of editor-in-chief Duško Jovanović and the attempted murder of investigative journalist Olivera Lakić. In 2023, after seven years of proceedings, journalist Jovo Martinović was finally acquitted of unfounded charges of belonging to a criminal group”, Reporters Without Borders concluded.