The media across the Balkans and in former Yugoslavia are doing badly, commercially and politically. Every year Reporters without Borders, a journalists’ lobby, ranks some 180 countries for media freedom. The highest spot in the region this year goes to Slovenia, but only at 34th. Of the others, Serbia is 54th and Croatia 65th, with Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro coming lower still and Macedonia way down at 123rd. For countries that are either in the European Union already (Slovenia and Croatia) or aspire to join, these lowly rankings ought to dismay.
The underlying problems for the media are similar, but each country has its own worries. Serbia’s government has direct or indirect control of as much as 40% of advertising, much of it by state-owned companies. Few media are ready to risk this. After the election most media, including the public broadcasters, shifted shamelessly in favour of the new most powerful figure, Aleksandar Vucic. Editors know that Mr Vucic may sometimes call personally to upbraid them. He did not want his wedding reported, so it was not. When he was filmed rescuing a child stuck in snow he was incensed by videos mocking it as a pre-election stunt; officials tried to block them online.
In Croatia political pressure is lower but big business is a concern. “I can report on anything related to politics,” says one Croatian journalist, but she cannot touch anything to do with a big firm in business with her proprietor. Last year the government agreed to cut value-added tax on newspapers. In return, says the journalist, “court reporters” file enthusiastic stories about the government, “doing the dirty work so the rest of us can do what we want.” A similar story plays out in Bosnia. The country’s biggest construction magnate, Fahrudin Radoncic, owns a media group, has a political party and was the security minister.
Montenegrin journalists working for media critical of the government risk being beaten up. Five vehicles belonging to the newspaper Vijesti have been set on fire in the past three years and a small bomb went off at its building last December. The threat of being murdered for investigating organised crime is also a big disincentive.
In Macedonia one media firm was shut after a raid by tax inspectors who, it is believed, do not look so closely at the books of pro-government companies. Unfavourable stories invite libel suits. “There is clear pressure on journalists from many sides,” says Dunja Mijatovic at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The conviction last October of Tomislav Kezarovski for revealing the name of a protected witness in a murder case, who later admitted to giving false testimony, “sends a chilling message” to the media in Macedonia, says Ms Mijatovic.
Even in Slovenia journalists have problems. Anuska Delic, who works for the daily Delo, has been indicted for revealing state secrets. She may just be collateral damage in a dirty game where those in power use the intelligence services to leak stories to harm enemies. In this grey zone apparently independent websites are often no such thing. In Kosovo they are “popping up like mushrooms”, says Agron Bajrami, editor of the daily Koha Ditore. Many seem to rely on political-party funding. Blatant corruption is also a problem. The Serbian-language public broadcaster, which backs the Serbian party in Kosovo’s government, has been mired in allegations of nepotism and misuse of public money.
In Albania, says Remzi Lani, an analyst, the media are still “sandwiched between business and politics”. He adds that the biggest problems Albanian journalists face, including low pay and morale, are shared across the Balkans. “We have moved from an era of repression to one of pressure,” he laments.