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Media freedom in SEE - a critical look

SOFIA (Bulgaria), October 21 (SeeNews) - Concentration of media assets and fuzzy ownership structure, indirect government coddling of certain news outlets, trampling of laws that afford protection to journalists and fair competition or their absence altogether, restricted access to public information - these are just a few of the challenges facing news-makers in Southeast Europe (SEE) that have led to deteriorating media freedom in the region.

Journalists are regularly being intimidated or physically assaulted because of their work, if it happens to stand in the way of certain economic, political, and criminal interests, professional standards are being compromised, and the share of articles written up at party headquarters and PR agencies and masked as editorial content is rising.

A recent poll by the Bulgarian chapter of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) conducted among 169 local reporters found that nearly half of them had been pressured and some two-thirds had witnessed pressure being exerted on a colleague. Over 80% of the respondents said exerting pressure is a regular practice in Bulgarian media, with most media having set up channels via which external influence finds its way directly inside the newsrooms. Even more alarmingly, some 30% of the respondents said that the media do not have to be pressured because they self-censor their work.

Only a couple of weeks ago the car of a popular investigative reporter was set on fire outside her Sofia home. Earlier this month, two Bulgarian correspondents of Deutsche Welle were fired on what the radio said was ethical grounds but the move was largely seen as bowing to certain corporate and political interest.

In other countries in the region, the situation is not much different, prompting international organizations to raise the alarm.

The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute, has voiced its concern at the number of press freedom violations, and the pressure directed at the media throughout the region. The organisation has pointed to examples of journalists in Serbia and Bosnia receiving threats, including death threats, and to an incident in Kosovo where the building and studio of a radio station came under fire from an automatic weapon in the sping.

As recently as this Monday, a court in Skopje sentenced an investigative journalist to four and a half years in prison for an article in which he allegedly revealed the identity of a witness in a murder case.

"This excessive conviction is a worrying development and sends a clear message of censorship to other journalists in the country," Dunja Mijatovic, the representative on media freedom of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe,  said. Criminal prosecution of reporters for their journalistic activities violates the fundamental human right to free expression, she added.

Not surprisingly, in its 2013 Freedom of the Press report, U.S.-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House caregorizes all countries in the region - with the exception of Slovenia, as “partly free”. The countries in the region are Europe’s worst performers – not counting Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - in the annual press freedom ranking of another NGO, French-based Reporters without Borders. Slovenia, again, is an exception here. Referring to Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia in particular, the organization says their “sorry record” includes  “judicial harassment based on often inappropriate legislation, the lack of access to public data, physical and psychological violence against those who work in news and information, official and private advertising markets used as a tool, the grey economy’s hold over vital parts of the media.”

The economic crisis in the past few years has increased media’s vulnerability to pressure from political and business circles as well as from the government, which often control the flow of advertising money and EU funds. In Bulgaria, the bulk of majority state-owned companies keep their funds in a single bank, which is widely believed to be affiliated to News Bulgarian Media Group, a media conglomerate which directly or indirectly controls a number of news outlets. Due to the continuously shrinking private advertising market, the governments in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzogovina and Macedonia have turned into the most influential advertiser in the media, it emerged at a recent meeting of journalists from the three countries organised by AEJ-Bulgaria.

With media having retreated from their main function to provide the public with objective information about important developments and having largely turned into a tool of power for certain groups, the public too has lost confidence in the media. And this, we won’t be exaggerating to say, ultimately puts at stake freedom and democracy.

We, at SeeNews, believe that media independence in any given country is crucial for democracy and for society’s overall prosperity and that it has wide-ranging consequences for business and economic development. To help our readers get a better grasp of the media environment in the region, we have decided to run a series of articles by penned by experts and dealing the media freedom in the countries we cover.

 

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