Press freedom
Freedom of the Press Continues to be Problematic

How does press freedom look like in East and Southeast Europe?
Teo Georgiev for fine acts
© Teo Georgiev for Fine Acts

The organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has published its ranking of press freedom this year - unfortunately with not too many positive results, neither for the world in general, nor for the region of East and Southeast Europe (ESEE) in particular, where the Foundation is active with 18 projects. While Romania still ranks best in the region with 48th place out of a total of 180 countries examined, there are with Azerbaijan (168th), Turkey (154th), Belarus (153th), Russia (149th) and the EU member Bulgaria (111th) five countries whose situation is described as “very serious” or “difficult”.

Press freedom
Press freedom

Western Balkans

Three countries in the Western Balkans sub-region, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo, each made up five places compared to the previous year. However, the region's climber is Ukraine, which was ranked six places higher than last year. In contrast, places lost Serbia (three), Azerbaijan and Albania (two each). 

The corona crisis has further intensified the trend in the region to restrict press freedom. Governments that have been able to greatly expand their scope of action through emergency regulations hold back information about the extent of the epidemic, attempt to manipulate reporting, arrest media people and punish the spread of allegedly incorrect information about the corona crisis.

"Freedom of the press is essential, especially in a crisis like the corona pandemic," summarizes RSF Managing Director Christian Mihr. According to Mihr, there are currently 231 journalists and 115 so-called citizen journalists and bloggers in custody worldwide.

Azerbaijan

The front runner of the ESEE region is once again Azerbaijan, where the foundation has had no representative for several years due to the authoritarian measures prevailing there. The country, which is rich in gas and oil, has again deteriorated by two places (168) compared to 2019 and has come closer to the global bottom of North Korea.

The Aliyev regime, which has been brutal against any opposition since the country's independence in 1991, does not stop at its borders. In December of last year, it became known that the blogger Elvin Isajew, who was living in exile in Ukraine, was initially kidnapped and then deported to Baku. Isayev ran a YouTube channel criticizing the rampant corruption in his country. Two years earlier, opposition journalist Afgan Mukhtarli had been kidnapped in Tbilisi and taken to Azerbaijan.

Turkey

Turkey has improved by three places (154), but the poor situation of press freedom on the Bosphorus remains chronic. Similar to his buddy Aliyev, Erdogan cannot avoid using the corona pandemic to further curtail press freedom in his country, which is already severely affected. "Our country must not only be saved from the coronavirus, but also from all media and political viruses," said Erdogan. 

“Political and media viruses” are, of course, meant critics, opposition politicians and journalists who are mainly critical using the social media. Opposition media would “wage a war against their own country”. Local journalists are prohibited from commenting critically on the measures taken to combat the coronavirus in their region.

While Ankara decided to release almost 90,000 prisoners early as a protective measure against Covid-19, imprisoned opposition politicians, lawyers and journalists are not taken into account. Turkey continues to be one of the largest prisons for journalists.

Belarus

In Belarus, which remains in 153rd place, the situation of press freedom has not worsened further due to the corona crisis - there, according to President Lukashenko, there is no virus at all. The “last dictator in Europe” speaks of a “corona psychosis” and advises its citizens: drink vodka, drive a tractor and do sports.

Russia

Its big neighbor Russia is also stagnating in its place - 149. The appointment of Kremlin-friendly Andrej Schmarow as editor-in-chief of the well-known business paper Vedomosti shows how strongly the Kremlin intervenes in the reporting. Schmarow had applied for the post by prohibiting the publication of poor poll results for Putin.

In times of the corona crisis, an existing law is being tightened up to prevent critical publications. Officially, the distribution of alleged Fake News is to be punished. The case of journalist Jelena Milaschina, who had become the target of the chechen local ruler Ramzan Kadyrov through her critical report on the handling of the Chechen republic with Covid-19, also caused a sensation. Milaschina had previously been beaten up in a hotel room in Grozny by unknown persons after reporting about the LGBTI persecution in the southern Russian republic.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria, EU member since 2007 and seat of the Foundation's regional office ESEE, is in 111th place directly behind Kuwait and Guinea and is - as it has been for years - the bottom of the European Union. But while the country was still in 59th place in the 2009 press freedom ranking, the country was passed on in the table every year. With the accession to the EU, there was actually hope for more freedom of the press. But more than ten years later, it must be sobered that the concentration in the ownership and distribution channels structure of the media has increased. 

A few companies own a large part of the media, exploit them for their purposes and maintain close ties with those in power. Tangled business models and intermediaries prevent clarity about ownership. These days Deljan Peevski, oligarch, media mogul and MP, plays the patriotic citizen who cares for his country. It has been reported that he has donated at least 5 million leva (appr. 2,5 million euros) to the country’s health care. But where the money really comes from is more than questionable. Journalist Venelina Popova asked about the origin of this money and was promptly attacked by Peevski’s media empire. Her access to public information has been blocked, probably because she has asked uncomfortable questions.

Particularly noteworthy is the case of the TV broadcaster Nova TV, which was bought by the oligarch Domuschiew. The editorial line was changed from neutral to government-friendly overnight, and several journalists were forced to leave.

The government buys through state grants, financed mainly from EU funds, loyal reporting. An article in the publication “Black Book of Government Waste in Bulgaria”, supported by the foundation, reveals that the state has paid tens of millions to national and regional media to promote the achievements made with the support of EU funds. They have largely turned into a state subsidy for the media. “The fact that only every eighth citizen in Bulgaria believes in the independence of the media is an alarming signal,” says RSF Managing Director Mihr. Physical attacks on journalists are also on the agenda, e.g. against employees of the investigative website Bivol.

The problems of the free media were further exacerbated by the corona crisis. With the introduction of a state of emergency on March 13, these media lost their main source of money overnight - the advertisements. The Association of European Journalists, a foundation partner, has warned that under the guise of financial difficulties, uncomfortable journalists would be fired. This, in turn, ensures self-censorship among the remaining journalists.

Ukraine

There are also, albeit few, positive developments in the region. Ukraine was able to make up six places and finished 96th. However, the great expectations of the new President Selenski could only be partially met. Mass media are still primarily committed to the personal interests of their owners and serve as political and economic means of power. According to research by Media Ownership Monitor, the ownership structure of important media companies is obscured by tax havens. "Most of the major media in Ukraine are an integral part of the tight network between political and economic interests," said Mihr. Violence against journalists with subsequent impunity is unfortunately still not uncommon. The most recent case is local journalist Vadym Komarov from the provincial capital Cherkassy.

Komarov has been reporting grievances in construction and health care as well as corruption in local politics for years. Komarov was nearly beaten to death by strangers in the middle of the city last year. But the Komarov case is no exception in the country. In 2018, there were almost 90 attacks on media professionals. One of them was the investigative journalist Kateryna Handsjuk, who publicly denounced the entanglements between local politics and organized crime. She died in late 2018 after fighting for her life several months after an attack with sulfuric acid.

Ukraine is closely followed in the ranking by Serbia, which has slipped down three places compared to last year and is currently ranked 93rd. Working conditions for journalists have worsened since President Aleksander Vucic took office in 2014. Attacks on the media and death threats against journalists have increased. The media market is highly concentrated and the state, as the largest donor, exerts considerable influence on the editorial line. Conditions were very bad before the corona crisis, but restrictions have increased as a result of the pandemic.

Two weeks after the state of emergency was announced, there was a government decision stipulating that all information regarding the epidemic and how to combat it should be centralized and communicated by the crisis team. A few days later, the first result of this regulation became apparent: a journalist from the Internet portal NovaS was arrested for allegedly spreading false news and worrying the public. She had reported shortcomings in the medical equipment.

Republic of North Macedonia

Another example of positive development in the region, besides Ukraine, is the Republic of North Macedonia. The country, which is looking for ties to the West with many important reforms in all areas, has improved by three places in the press freedom ranking and is currently ranked 92nd. The country is certified that it "in the area of ​​improving self-regulation and labor standards give professional journalists two groundbreaking successes”. A register of professional online media was created by the Media Ethics Council and the Association of Journalists.

 The initiative promotes self-regulation of online media by undertaking to respect the journalists' code and to publish Council decisions. The report also said the number of physical attacks on journalists has decreased, but the number of cyber-attacks has increased. But there are still threats and insults from high-level government officials to journalists. Even though the assaults have become less common, there is still a longstanding culture of impunity. Only a fraction of the attacks in recent years has been launched.

Greece

Greece, on the other hand, presents a rather ambivalent picture. After the start of the sovereign state debt crisis in 2008, the country slipped in the rankings year after year. Many media houses had to close, hundreds of editors and journalists were fired as a result of the austerity measures. The situation has improved again in recent years, even if the problem persists that a majority of the mainstream media are owned by large companies that also have the largest shipping companies and major football clubs. 

The state broadcaster ERT, which was closed in 2013, was reopened, however, after the election victory of the conservative Nea Dimokratia, it was reported directly to the Prime Minister. Since then, the ERT has censored the reporting of regional correspondents. With the new regulation, the reports must be approved by the management beforehand. Mitsotakis is said to have asked companies in person to stop placing advertisements in the weekly Documento. Documento had previously published critical reports of possible offshore businesses by the Prime Minister's wife, whose name can also be found in the Panama Papers. For years, the newspaper has been a thorn in the side with its investigative articles, especially on topics such as corruption and tax wasting. Verbal and physical attacks on journalists are still common. At the end of January, the journalist for Deutsche Welle Thomas Jacobi was beaten up by a far-right mob. Jacobi had made a critical documentary about the neo-Nazi party “Golden Dawn” in 2016. Nationalist right-wing extremists have also attacked journalists on the island of Lesbos who wanted to report on the refugee crisis.

Romania

Even if Romania is best in the region with 48th place, a deterioration from last year can be seen. In the corona crisis, the government wants to retain the power to interpret its crisis management and is increasingly taking action against alleged fake news. The Presidential Decree granted the Ministry of the Interior permission to delete and block online articles and websites without the authors being able to take action.

Indeed, very imaginative stories about the corona crisis are circulating on Romanian websites - a website had reported that pensioners were being sent to concentration camps to be murdered there - but journalist organizations are concerned about how rigorously the authorities are currently managing their information policy. Similar to other countries, the most important source of finance for independent media has collapsed in Romania - the advertising market. The Bucharest government offered a few days ago to step in as an advertising partner at short notice. Around 40 million euros are to be spent on a state information campaign on the pandemic by the end of August.

The government has been running advertisements for years, rewarding editors who have reported in compliance with the government. Given the difficult financial situation, this offer from the government is very attractive for many media houses, but sooner or later the pandemic will be over. It is feared that the government will seek compensation at the latest in the upcoming local or parliamentary elections.