Transmission of FRIDAY, 31 October 21H30 CET Europe by Satellite

Dangerous liaisons: Media and politics in the Balkans

Three years ago, on the 5th of October 2000, these pictures were hitting TV screens everywhere. In a spectacular move, the people of Serbia brought down the Milosevic regime, and opened up a new era.

On that day, it was not only the Parliament that was set on fire. It was also the State television. One of the key demands on the street was media freedom. Today, the Serbian press can breathe more freely. But many media are not happy with the pace of progress.

During the Milosevic era, the independent media were the main pillars of the struggle for democracy, fighting the political control on information and the isolation of the country. Media and journalists taking an alternative approach were under constant pressure from the regime. The B92 radio station was closed down as many as four times during the nineties, but every time, it managed to rise up again. At the height of the dictatorship and isolation, B92 was awarded MTV’s Free Your Mind prize, propulsing in the international orbit the story about the struggle for changes in the then isolated Serbia. But that’s history now and today’s B92 television faces different problems. Veran Matic, the brain behind B92’s resistance to the Milosevic regime, thinks that the changes achieved in the past three years are disappointing.

Veran Matic, Editor in Chief B92:

“As far as the media sector is concerned, we are practically on the brink of a tragedy, and not only in Serbia but in the whole of Southeastern Europe. That is particularly visible in Serbia because, of all of the countries in Eastern Europe that have been ruled by authoritarian regimes, it had probably the most dynamic alternative media scene.”

Although the situation improved much since Milosevic times, Serbia’s former alternative media like B92 have problems to develop in the new media scene. There is still no legal framework to guarantee their independence. Matic says only media who have links with political and financial circles can thrive. This is a major concern of the Stability Pact, which coordinates media assistance in the Balkans.

Yasha Lange, Stability Pact Media Task Force

“I think the main problem at the moment is money. The advertising market is limited, people don’t have the purchasing power to buy newspapers. Sometimes newspapers are dependent on sponsors which have political links. That’s the big problem”.

Even if the government is by now democratic, large media, especially state broadcasters, are still not free from political influence. And the process of granting broadcast licenses has not yet become fair and transparent here.

Yasha Lange, Stability Pact Media Task Force:
“This is a difficult area related to the transformation of broadcasters into genuinely independent broadcasters. The composition of the broadcasting councils, which are the bodies supposed to regulate the electronic media independently, is difficult.”

One of the key priorities of the Stability Pact’s Media Task Force is to help all the countries of Southeastern Europe develop media laws according to EU standards. Serbia is not the only country in the region where legal flaws hinder the development of independent journalism.

Here in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, media face similar problems. This large building has been erected in communist times for the purpose of keeping all the media under one roof – easy to control. The building is still home to several newspapers today. Svetlana Batalova is a reporter of the high-circulation magazine “168 Hours”. She has been sued for defamation for the second time. In an article she exposed corruption in the Ministry of Justice. The corrupt official has been sacked, but he has been suing both Batalova and her magazine for more than a year. Draconian fines going up to 15,000 euro for slander are an effective tool at the hands of those who want to prevent the media from shedding light on shady subjects.

Svetlana Batalova, journalist “168 hours” magazine, Sofia :

“This is my profession, I have chosen it myself. I mean, it’s not like journalists are some kind of heroes. When a person does its job honestly, he or she has nothing to fear. I take care like everyone else, of course. But thank God, they didn’t start yet to shoot at journalists in Bulgaria.”

Svetlana is not an isolated case. In Bulgaria today, no less than 240 journalists have been sued for defamation.

Nikolai Kolev: Editor in chief of the Magazine “Most”, Svilengrad (Bulgaria)

“This tortuous journey has been going on for a year now. Lawyers, hearings, adjournments… it’s tiring and it costs money too. Nobody can say for sure when it is going to end and everyone in the magazine is depressed because of this. “

Yasha Lange, Stability Pact Media Task Force
“Defamation laws are quite strict. They are often still in the criminal codes. This means that defamation is a criminal offence. We think that’s not right. We think it would be better to have it in the civil code. Most importantly there are so much cases pending against journalists. And the fines are so high. For newspapers and magazines which are not making a lot of money, a fine of 20.000 euro is enormous, it can even put them out of business.”

The Stability Pact is giving strong support to local specialised organisations in Bulgaria, but also in Romania and Montenegro to address the abuse of defamation laws and lobby for legal changes.

Kiril Miltchev, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament, Committee on media

“The change is necessary because we think that the decriminalization of slander is inevitable, we think it is a matter of freedom of speech. It is necessary because journalists cannot be treated as criminals, according to criminal laws, but they should be treated according to civil legislation.”

Good laws are the first precondition for professional media work. The second is their application in practice. Two vital steps to ensure that journalists can fully play their role as essential watchdogs of the young democracies in South Eastern Europe.