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Press Freedom

Journalists under pressure in Southeastern Europe

Officially, freedom of the press has existed in Southeastern Europe for 20 years. But in reality, politics and business often exert undue influence on the media. The economic crisis has made the situation even worse.

Woman gagged with a red piece of cloth over her mouth

Woman gagged with a red piece of cloth over her mouth

Elvira Jukic-Mujkic knows what it's like to be a journalist in Southeastern Europe. More than anything, it's a job that demands the ability to work under pressure. Not just deadlines and the rush for a good scoop make the job stressful - it's also the political pressure, the kind that wields influence over what stories are published and who makes the decisions.

Jukic-Mujkic is part of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Political parties put pressure on journalists," she asserted. Politicians in power decide who is to head up the public television networks, which garner the biggest audiences throughout the country. They appoint editors-in-chief who follow the party line, Jukic-Mujkic said.

Jukic-Mujkic explained that politicians rarely communicate directly with reporters, but rather, call the editors-in-chief or the heads of media - sometimes up to 20 times per day - to decree what should or should not be published. They often don't ban a story outright, but exert a more subtle influence, instead - criticizing topics for not being good or interesting enough to be investigated.

Jukic-Mujkic's description of practicing journalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina repeats a pattern present throughout Southeastern Europe. While Bosnia and Herzegovina rank 68th on the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, Serbia is only nominally better at 63rd on the list.

Barbed wire over a satellite dish

Censorship can take be direct or subtle, media experts say

In Macedonia, political influence in the media is even more visible. Some politicians owned nearly every media outlet in the country until the European Union applied pressure on the government to implement changes. Maria Sevrieva, a freelance journalist from Skopje, says that even though ownership of some media has changed hands, pressure is still apparent.

"The government spends a great deal of money on advertising, so one can easily say that the biggest share of the media's income comes from [that source]," says Sevrieva.

Money determines content

This form of direct pressure, though, is not the only way the political elite influence media. In Albania, which ranks at 102 on the Press Freedom Index, the same owners run construction companies, and newspaper and television stations. According to Fatjon Kodra, a journalist working in Albania, the owners ally themselves with certain politicians and media in the hopes of gaining business advantages.

"They finance media so they can get a construction permit or win tenders or gain favors," Kodra explains. "On the other hand, there are media, newspapers or television stations that support opposition parties. They hope these parties will come into power so they will be rewarded in return."

Even when businesspeople themselves do not own media outlets, they have a significant sway over what will be published. Richard Meares, a freelance journalist and trainer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, often meets with Balkan journalists reporting about corruption. He recounted the story of a Balkan journalist who published an article about dubious circumstances in a public procurement process that led to a specific company winning a tender. After publication of that article, the company in question pulled advertising from the paper.

"Journalists I meet say their bosses stop them in advance from writing stories that might influence who advertises in the newspaper," Meares says.

Man wearing a suit holding and writing on a pad of paper

Politics and money often dictate what gets written - and published

During the communist regime, journalists in all countries of Southeastern Europe were used to working under pressure from the state, Meares said. He suggested that after the transition to democracy and capitalism, influence from private businesses increased. The source of pressure became business instead of politics.

"I think it's really hard to say which is worse," Meares says. "In many countries, the problem is merged because the politicians and the powerful businessmen are often one and the same. So it can be a false distinction."

Self-censorship

Goran Milic was a journalist and an editor under the communist government of the former Yugoslavia, and has worked in the media for the past 43 years. He is currently the news and program head at Al Jazeera Balkans. He described the Balkans as being at the same stage of the United States during the 1930s - but he rejected the notion of any kind of particular influence on journalists.

"Journalists put pressure on themselves because they know what the public does and doesn't not read," he said. He's also convinced that families influence journalists. "Mom and Dad come along and say to their journalist son or daughter: 'I can't even walk down the street without fear due to your writing. Why are you doing this to me?'" That kind of pressure leads to a form of self-censorship, Milic implied.

Influence of crisis

Many journalists from Southeastern Europe are hoping that the media situation will improve with accession of their country to the European Union. Roxana Pricop, a journalist with "Ziarul Financiar," the leading business daily in Romania, says that happened in her country when it joined in 2007, but it lasted only a short while. Romania is ranked 42nd on the Press Freedom Index.

"The situation for journalists is worse now than before entry to the EU," Pricop said. "That's not because of the politicians, but because of the financial crisis."

Since journalists are afraid of losing their jobs, they're extremely careful about what they choose to report on, and may avoid controversial topics, she said.

Macedonia, for its part, faces an additional problem. "Our defamation and insult laws are too strict," said Macedonian journalist Maria Sevrieva. "Media owners will sometimes say openly to their employees: 'We don't have the money for legal battles. We have to cool it. We know it's not professional, but we can't survive on the market if we publish stories about corruption," Sevrieva noted.

Macedonia is ranked at 116 on the Press Freedom Index, 22 places worse than its previous ranking. It is now the worst-ranked country in Southeastern Europe.

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