In an article for Euractive, the Brussels-based website, Peter Horrocks, one of the UK’s most senior media figures and the former director of BBC of World Service, now on the Content Board of N1 in the Balkans and the International Advisory Board of the newly formed Balkan Free Media Initiative, wrote that "the decline in media freedom in the Balkans is eroding the European values of democracy and rule of law and creating a climate ripe for disinformation that is cultivating anti-EU and anti-western sentiment across the region."
He added that “even if their purpose is not to offend, the EU’s latest assessments of the candidate countries of the Western Balkans make sobering reading on the subject of media freedom.”
Horrocks said that the report on Serbia “takes comfort in the country’s adoption of a new media strategy but notes the absence of any improvement in the overall environment for freedom of expression. It observes cautiously that threats, intimidation and violence against journalists ‘remain a source of serious concern’.”
The problems described by the reports’ authors extended across the region into some EU member states. Shockingly, Bulgaria ranks 112th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. Hungary is in 92nd place while Serbia is ranked 93rd, Horrocks recalled the latest ratings of the regional countries.
According to him, the cases of oppression of media in some Western Balkans states “encourage countries seeking accession to the EU to believe that infringing freedom of expression and taming the media are not obstacles to membership of the European Club.”
“Serbia is a prime example. The government equates critical journalism with anti-constitutional activity and does not hesitate to depict independent media outlets as purveyors of false news engaged in hybrid war against it,” Horrocks wrote.
He added that “some politicians from the ruling party have linked independent media to organised crime while others have suggested that independent media are involved in terrorist activity.”
“However, actions speak louder than words. Serbian police regularly fail to investigate complaints by independent journalists of physical attacks and other forms of harassment while cases that do make it court rarely result in convictions. This has created a climate of impunity,” he added.
Horrocks recalled the case of “state-owned Telekom Srbija using anti-competitive practices to strengthen its position in the pay-TV sector and expand its positions in Croatia and Slovenia.”
“A combination of a lack of transparency in Serbia’s media market, the use of state aid and a government-friendly regulator are giving Telekom Srbija unfair advantages and threatening to squeeze out other operators not connected with the Serbian government. This is crony capitalism in practice,” Horrocks wrote.
He added that “EU competition specialists know full well what is happening. A wider audience of decision-makers now needs to connect the dots and consider the geopolitical consequences caused by a warped media market that is in turn shaped by a one-party state such as Serbia’s.”
“For the moment, EU leaders do not regard the situation as sufficiently serious to take action in Serbia or elsewhere,” Horrocks wrote, adding “it is ironic that the EU is increasing its support to Serbia when rule of law is deteriorating and government-sponsored disinformation is rising. Serbia’s leaders can only conclude that the EU is happy for them to have cake and watch them eat it while public attitudes to European integration grow increasingly sceptical.”
“It is time for EU leaders to re-consider the message they are sending,” Horrocks wrote for Euractive.