Refugee crisis worsens press freedom conditions in Southeast Europe

Refugee crisis worsens press freedom conditions in Southeast Europe
Press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015.
By bne IntelliNews April 28, 2016

Violence and the refugee crisis dominated the news in Europe in 2015, but they also affected how news could be covered, Washington-based human rights and media watchdog Freedom House said in its "Freedom of the Press 2016" report.

The report assigns a score to each country that determines the level of restrictions to press freedom; higher scores indicate harsher conditions for the press.

While not as dramatic as the Charlie Hebdo murders, attacks against journalists by various perpetrators in the Western Balkans contributed to an overall decline in media freedom to “its lowest point in 12 years in 2015”, according to Freedom House. 

Serbia was the worst performer last year in press freedom and saw the biggest press freedom score decline in the Southeast Europe (SEE) region. The worsening was put down to the government of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s hostile rhetoric toward investigative journalists, reported censorship of journalists and media outlets, and a decrease in the availability of critical, independent reporting, said Freedom House. In Serbia, multiple journalists suffered physical assaults, contributing to heightened self-censorship across the media sector.

Serbia ranked in 87th place among 199 countries in the 2016 press freedom index, while Croatia was at 84th and Montenegro at 80th.

Attacks and death threats in Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina also raised concerns, with numerous violations committed against reporters who were investigating government corruption, said Freedom House, adding that serious questions remain about whether these countries’ governments are genuine in their stated commitments to European norms for media freedom and independence.

Macedonia, which was ranked at 136th among 199 countries, was the only “not free” country in the SEE region while the press was “partly free” in all other countries in the region. Albania had the worst press freedom conditions after Macedonia in the region and ranked at 106th, followed by Bosnia (104th) and Kosovo (96th).

The massive influx of migrants to Europe indirectly resulted in a variety of limitations on journalistic freedom, according to Freedom House. The most prominent case was in Hungary, where police attacked at least seven foreign journalists who were attempting to report on violent clashes between riot officers and migrants arriving at the country’s southern border. The authorities took other steps to limit journalists’ access to sites related to migrants and refugees, and the public media supported the government’s hostile stance toward them, said Freedom House.

Hungary and Bulgaria were ranked in 78th joint place, followed by Romania (74th). Slovenia had the best press freedom conditions and was ranked at 33rd place.

Earlier this month, Freedom House released its democracy index for 2016 in a report titled “Nations in Transit”. In line with the generally gloomy picture across the transition countries, most countries in SEE moved further away from democracy in the last year.

For the sixth year running, democracy in the Balkan region has declined, with almost all the EU candidate and potential candidate countries in the region backsliding during this period. Macedonia saw the worst regression in 2015.

The region’s average Democracy Score assigned by the influential NGO is now the same as it was in 2010, which is “a disturbing indicator of [the Balkan countries’] level of commitment to EU standards”, the April 12 report said. In both the Balkans and Central Europe, “illiberal leaders and strongmen challenged fundamental principles of democracy”.

The poor showing for the Balkan region comes amid a “grim portrait of decline” across transition countries, where no region has improved since 2011. However, while the average democracy score across the entire region has declined for 12 years in a row, this is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Balkans.

“The Balkans were once a bright spot for reform in Europe, but since 2010 the region has backslid, even as several countries have made progress in accession to the EU,” the report said.