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'Enemies of the state'

Benjamin Pargan
December 2, 2016

NGO Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized the numerous attacks on independent journalists and press freedom across the Western Balkans.

Symbolbild Serbien Presse
Image: DW/I. Petrovic

Death threats, coercion, intimidation, verbal and physical attacks are part of everyday life for many journalists in the Western Balkans. Even representatives of state institutions react to critical and independent reports with lawsuits based on dubious accusations and flanked with smear campaigns. Governments in the Balkans are using state budgets and subsidies to limit critical reporting and thus hollow out media independence.

… and Europe looks on

The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has confirmed this dark vision of press freedom in the Western Balkans in its latest annual report. It bemoans the fact that a hostile atmosphere threatens the work of journalists throughout the Balkans.

Human Rights Watch experts warned of serious violations of freedom of the press in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo a year ago. Yet, as HRW's West Balkan expert Lydia Gall criticizes, neither the governments of those countries, nor representatives from the European Union have undertaken concrete steps to improve the situation. "In a period in which independent journalism is desperately needed in the Western Balkans, journalists' backs are against the wall."

Serbien Journalistin Gordana Igric
Gordana Igric: Journalists are often the target of smear campaignsImage: Human Rights Watch

She has little hope that the situation will improve "as long as the EU fails to make it unmistakably clear to governments in the Balkans that free and robust media outlets are a prerequisite for EU accession." Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro are already official candidates for EU membership; and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are being courted as potential members.

The 'darling of the West' and an enemy of press freedom

However, it seems that in the everyday pragmatism of "realpolitik" many EU representatives are simply closing their eyes. Serbia, says Gordana Igric, a Belgrade journalist and founder of the journalists' network BIRN, is a perfect example. Real press freedom ceased to exist in Serbia long ago, and those journalists who dare to criticize the government of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic regularly become the target of smear campaigns. Human Rights Watch backed Igric's claims with official statistics from the Independent Journalist Association of Serbia (NUNS). Figures show that, in the first seven month of this year alone, there were 33 attacks on journalists in Serbia, including physical attacks, threats and intimidation.

Even Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, seen in the West as a reliable partner, is not averse to wild attacks on independent media outlets. He has, for instance, called some online platforms, a number of which received EU prizes for journalistic excellence, "scum." Investigative journalist networks such as BIRN, CINS and KRIKS have been vehemently attacked by government officials and other media outlets with close government ties. Labels like "enemies of the state" and "foreign henchmen" were almost always part of these defamation campaigns.

Serbien Premierminister Aleksandar Vucic
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has referred to journalists as 'scum'Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/D. Vojinovic

Vaguely worded criticism

Therefore, it is no surprise that the European Commission regularly expresses its concerns about the state of press freedoms in the Western Balkans in its annual human rights reports. Nevertheless, the Commission's vaguely worded criticisms have long been a thorn in the side of Human Rights Watch representatives. They call for EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn to demand explanations from individual governments in specific cases.  

Yet these demands give little hope to Serbian journalists. Gordana Igric looks at the threat to press freedom within a complex overall geopolitical and diplomatic context, one in which the Serbian prime minister plays an important role. The EU views Aleksandar Vucic as a stabilizing factor in the Western Balkans. Igric says that is the reason for Brussels' and Berlin's "tepid message about the importance of democratic values in Serbia."