At a conference on November 4th and 5th in Kilkenny, Ireland, held by the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), a lobby group, much of the talk was about things getting worse in the continent’s once-violent and still troubled backyard. Journalists in and around former Yugoslavia once again face threats and ethnic antagonism. And there is scant support for anyone brave enough to uncover awkward truths.
Life for a journalist in post-Yugoslav places is not quite as hazardous as it is in Turkey, where more than 100 media folk have been arrested since the coup attempt in July, including a dozen staffers at the daily Cumhuriyet; nor is it as bad as Russia. But the backsliding in the Balkans is especially sad considering the vast amount of Western aid that was supposed to foster press freedom and good reporting there.
In post-war Bosnia, for example, foreign advisers tried to create a neutral public broadcaster modelled on the BBC. At the same time, NATO troops seized transmitters used by extremist Serbs to stir up violence. But today public programming has nearly reverted to type. Bosnia’s carefully incubated national broadcaster barely survives (partly because of competition from commercial channels) while regional ones are beholden to ethnic and political causes, in one case that of hard-line Serb nationalism. The other main state broadcaster is close to the biggest Bosniak (Muslim) party. War criminals have access to the airwaves and are given free rein to propagate their distorted versions of the Bosnian war. Bosnian Serb television has made itself a platform for Momcilo Krajisnik, a former political leader convicted in The Hague of murder and persecution, who claims the massacres and genocides committed by his side’s forces never took place. Bosnian Muslims find this outrageous. Ranko Mavrak, a Bosnian Croat journalist working in Sarajevo, told the conference that the polarised mood was disturbingly similar to the early 1990s.
As for the physical safety of journalists, some recent stories are worrying. In Kosovo, the editor of a tabloid, Gazeta Express, faced a storm of death threats after broadcasting a documentary that showed crimes by Albanians against ethnic Serbs. In Croatia (an EU member which is post-Yugoslav but hates to be called Balkan), the head of the journalists’ association, Sasa Lekovic, has said that he feels lucky to be alive after an ill-wisher tinkered with a wheel of his car, presumably trying to cause a crash. His association has been reporting multiple death threats to news gatherers, especially from Croat factions who glorify the pro-Nazi Ustasha regime of the 1940s.
Freedom House, A New York-based watchdog, reports that press freedom deteriorated across the region in 2015, and especially in Macedonia, where the government has been wiretapping journalists. Human Rights Watch, another watchdog, interviewed 86 journalists in the Western Balkans and found ample evidence of violence and intimidation, especially against those who report on war crimes, high-level corruption or religious extremism.
Several international press-freedom lobbies, including HRW, have also protested over the year-long imprisonment of Jovo Martinovic, a journalist in Montenegro who has helped many media organisations over the past 15 years (including The Economist). Mr Martinovic was arrested in October 2015 along with 17 others on suspicion of belonging to a drug-smuggling ring. He insists that any contacts he had with his fellow accused were part of his work. At the time of his arrest he was helping a French film company make a documentary about weapons trafficking. HRW argues that the opening of the trial on October 27th revealed how flimsy the prosecution’s case was: during the brief initial hearing a co-defendant testified that he had come under pressure from prosecutors to incriminate the journalist, but had refused to do so because, he said, the reporter was innocent.
In the Balkans the media act as “mouthpieces of factions and oligarchs”, says William Horsley of the AEJ. “Western Europe declared itself a champion of press freedom in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and the region. Instead it has let corruption fester,” he adds. Still, there may be a glimmer of hope: a Croatian film company has won international acclaim for “The Paper”, a 12-part drama, partly produced by journalists, set in a newspaper taken over by a dodgy businessman who wants to shield people close to him from scrutiny. In this part of the world, art imitates life, and vice versa.
Source: The Economist