Truthful reporting in The Balkans is life-threatening

alon ben meirColumn by Alon Ben-Meir and Arbana Xharra

Kosovo investigative journalist Parim Olluri knew the assailants who physically attacked him two years ago in front of his house, while the police and other security institutions remained silent. “I sent names to the Kosovo Police as well as to the Prosecutor’s Office, but none of them took any action”, says Olluri. Instead, the politicians, who were identified by the journalist to the police, sent messages to Olluri denying that they were involved in the attack.

“How did they find out whose names I mentioned? This proves that police work in tandem with politicians and they used my testimony to inform them”, says Olluri, adding that the security institutions in Kosovo do not investigate cases promptly and thoroughly, because they are under the control of the political echelon.

As a result, many journalists who are committed to candid reporting in Kosovo and other Balkan countries feel unsafe as it has become normal to be threatened and even physically attacked. The growing intimidation of independent media outlets in Balkan countries clearly points to the pervasive corruption and organized crime in this part of Europe.

Ironically, the Balkan countries who wish to join the EU seem to ignore that freedom of expression is one of the fundamental prerequisites to EU accession. They flout the fact that freedom of the press is one of the main pillars of a democracy, good governance, and political accountability. According to the EU charter, no country can join the EU without guaranteeing freedom of expression as a basic human right (Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty).

International organizations devoted to the protection of journalists expressed their deep concern over the hostile environments under which Balkan journalists are working. Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) annual World Report documented the attacks and threats against journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia. The HRW report was based on interviews with 86 journalists, most of whom write on sensitive issues such as war crimes and corruption.

Just a few days ago, thousands took to the streets in Serbia, demanding fair elections, free press, and the resignation of President Aleksandar Vucic. Serbian citizens have come to realize that their president is certainly exploiting his position for financial gains while tightening his grip on power and control over the media to prevent damaging reporting.

Sead Numanovic, a journalist from Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that the environment for media in his country is becoming increasingly unsafe. “Physical assaults on journalists have become common and is affecting their everyday life. When a journalist is beaten no longer makes the news”, says Numanovic.

In 2018, the owner of The Bosnian Times, Nedžad Latić, and BN Television journalist Vladimir Kovačević were physically attacked, and the perpetrators of both attacks have not been arrested nor faced justice. “It is not hard to conclude that this year will be much worse for journalists than the past year. It is most disconcerting to do our job in such a threatening environment”, says Numanovic.

Even though it is a member of the European Union, Croatia too is not safe for journalists. Hrvoje Bajlo, the owner of Zadar News and correspondent for national website Index.hr, was attacked last year and suffered from severe physical injuries. This happened three weeks after Tomo Medved, Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, allegedly threatened another journalist, Vojislav Mazzocco.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Montenegrin authorities last year to guarantee the safety of Olivera Lakić, an investigative journalist with the local daily Vijesti, who was shot outside her apartment building in May 2018.

Lakić, who has reported extensively on crime and corruption in Montenegro, was the second journalist from Vijesti who was attacked last year. A bomb exploded near the house of Lakić’s Vijesti colleague Saed Sadikovic on April 1, 2018, CPJ reported at the time.

According to Freedom House’s latest “Nations in Transit” report, corruption and organized crime in Albania remain a serious problem despite the government’s recent efforts to quell such contraventions. That said, the intermingling of powerful business, politics, and ownership of certain media by corrupt powerful bosses inhibits the development of independent news outlets.

Albanian Union of Journalists chief Aleksander Cipa said that most of the threats journalists receive are coming from criminal groups that operate and have a monopoly over important sectors of the economy. “Journalists and editors in Albania exercise self-censorship due to the economic interests of business groups and media owners who have created partnerships.”

It’s not only corruption and organized crime that is inhibiting credible voices; criticizing a dogmatic ideology, especially when related to Islam, is very dangerous for reporters.

Journalists across the Balkans face similar pressure from the Turkish government, which targets anyone who dares to criticize Turkey’s President Erdogan in particular. On July 20, 2016, the Turkish embassy in Pristina sent a note to Kosovo’s foreign ministry, urging them to investigate and punish journalist Berat Buzhala after he posted public comments critical of Erdogan on social media.

The Turkish embassy’s note stated that “(The ministry should) ensure that necessary steps will be taken about this person in accordance with the law.” A screen shot of Buzhala’s Facebook comments against Erdogan was attached.

The embassy’s note—a copy of which was seen by Reuters—also quoted a 2016 Kosovo law prohibiting citizens from joining armed conflicts outside the country. It also stated that the law stipulates that people such as Buzhala making these comments “shall be sentenced to jail terms from six months to five years.”

Xhelal Neziri, a prominent journalist from Macedonia, says that over the last five years, two journalists ended up in jail. “Journalists face threats not only from corrupted politicians, but also from the political figures that use religion for a cover to serve their interests. If you criticize their religious-based ideology, a whole machinery will lynch you”, said Neziri.

Although the constitutions of most of the Balkan states guarantee freedom of the press, anyone who dares to criticize the abuse of religion are declared enemies of Islam and face the harshest rebuke and often an explicit call for ‘annihilation.’ The religious apparatus that supports the Turkish president is particularly active, along with those who are linked to centers of financial power in the Balkans, which spread the most fundamental doctrine of Islam.

While the Balkan countries claim to be democratic states, they seem to ignore the fact that freedom of the press is central to a functioning democracy. The Balkan states who aspire to join the EU should have no illusion that their aspirations can be realized unless they live up to the requirements of the European Union charter.

As such, the EU is in a position to exert significant influence on these countries. They must make it abundantly clear that continued intimidation, harassment, and persecution of journalists will foreclose any prospective EU membership.

The Balkan public needs to know that they can rely on the EU’s backing in their battle for human rights and freedom of the press, and their leaders will have to realize that their continued violation of these rights carries a heavy price tag.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Arbana Xharra authored a series of investigative reports on religious extremists and Turkey’s Islamic agenda operating in the Balkans. She has won numerous awards for her reporting, and was a 2015 recipient of the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department.

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