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Media freedom in the Western Balkans: The EU must move from words to deeds

Despite the progress made within the EU accession process and the gradual harmonization of the institutional framework with the acquis and European standards in this field, media freedom remains at an unsatisfactory level in all states in the region. While in some of them there is a slow process of improvement towards the desired standards, in others media freedom seems to be deteriorating in parallel with the EU accession process. This is a significant paradox, especially taking into account the importance the EU gives to the issue of media freedom, at least on the rhetorical level.

According to the Freedom House Freedom of the Press 2017 report, the 6 Western Balkans states are among the 7 lowest-ranked states in Europe, only ahead of Turkey, which finds itself at the bottom of the list. Only Kosovo showed minimal progress in the period under observation, while media freedom in all other countries deteriorated, especially in Serbia and Macedonia.

The European Commission’s country reports on the Western Balkan states have adequately addressed this topic. In each of the 2016 country reports for the six candidate or potential candidate states, it is stated that no progress has been made in freedom of expression. Also, four of the reports also state that no progress has been made in addressing European Commission recommendations.

However, the message from the EU was still far from clear. Even though all the European Commission country reports and European Parliament resolutions contained heavy criticism of the state of affairs in this area, and many EU officials expressed their concern about media freedom in the region, there has been a lack of clear action by the EU to address this problem. It is especially notable that the two countries which have advanced the most in their EU accession process – Serbia and Montenegro –  are also those in which media freedom has deteriorated the most in recent years.

For this reason, civil society in these countries frequently criticized the EU for its ambivalent stance towards this problem. A notable example of this could be seen at the EU-Western Balkans Media Days, organized by the European Commission in Tirana in early November 2017, where the Serbian informal “Group for Media Freedom” protested during the conference, wearing black shirts with the slogan #EUdoMore. This can be understood as a part of a broader criticism that the EU is promoting “stabilitocracy” in the Western Balkans, as argued by civil society organizations in the region and beyond, as well as by BiEPAG.

What about the European Commission’s Western Balkans Strategy?

The eagerly anticipated strategy for “a credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans” – more commonly known as the “Western Balkans Strategy” –  was presented by the European Commission on 6 February 2018. The document represents a roadmap for the Western Balkan countries’ EU accession process and contains assessments of the key issues that the countries have to deal with, as well as specific measures and programmes the EU will implement in order to support the process.

The issue of media freedom was expected to be properly addressed within the Strategy, but it is questionable whether this has been the case. The Strategy does contain the assessment that there is “extensive political interference in and control of the media” in Western Balkan countries, and that when it comes to fundamental rights, “particular focus is needed to safeguard the freedom of expression and independence of media as a pillar of democracy”. However, these are the only two mentions of the media within the entire 20-page document, which makes this issue poorly visible and hardly recognized as a key issue for the EU accession of Western Balkan states. According to the Strategy, media freedom should be covered by the Commission’s new flagship initiative to strengthen the rule of law in the Western Balkans. While this initiative looks promising, as the Commission proposes both close monitoring and EU assistance, it is still unclear in which way the issue of media freedom will be addressed by this programme.

What should be done?

Media freedom is crucial for establishing fully democratic societies in the Western Balkans. The recently published European Commission Strategy does not shy away from recognizing this problem, but it also fails to address it in more detail.

EU officials need to be very clear about the importance of media freedom and should be vocal about government actions and policies that diminish it. This must not be confined to European Commission or European Parliaments reports and resolutions. The citizens of Western Balkan states need to see clear criticism coming from the EU in this matter instead of the usual pats on the back. It has to be clear that without media freedom there can be no EU accession.

Second, media freedom needs to be given more importance within the EU accession process. Currently, issues related to media freedom are scattered throughout the negotiating chapters and there is therefore no clear overview of progress in this area. One solution could be that countries should present special action plans on media freedom, and the failure to fulfil obligations within the action plans could then have the possibility of blocking EU accession negotiations in similar ways to how a lack of progress in Chapters 23 or 24 can do now.

Also, it is frequently not the lack of proper media-related legislation that jeopardizes media freedom in the Western Balkans, but rather its insufficient implementation. The EU institutions need to focus on the implementation of legislation and the fulfilment of certain clear benchmarks, similarly to how progress is currently monitored in Chapters 23 and 24. This would prevent media-related issues from hiding beneath a façade of well-designed legislation whose effects are abysmal in practice. 

 

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