Journalists covering the EU-Western Balkans summit in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia, October 6, 2021. Photo by Meta.mk.

In times of war and global polarization the Western Balkans region is divided along the lines of current polarizing forces. Disinformation campaigns, hate speech, physical attacks, threats, low income, poor economic status, divisions, self-censorship and job insecurity are the main challenges that the regional independent media are facing. The World Press Freedom Day is the perfect opportunity to emphasize the importance of unity and cooperation, not just among media organizations in the region but all sectors of society, in order to overcome these challenges that significantly affect the democratic processes.

According to the results of the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index for 2022, several Balkan countries showed improvement, such as North Macedonia, which jumped 33 places to rank 57, and Montenegro gaining 41 places to be ranked 63 out of 180. Croatia (48), Bulgaria (91), Kosovo (61) and Serbia (79) also got improved ratings, while Bosnia and Herzegovina (67), Greece (108), Albania (103) and Slovenia (54) showed decline. RSF report specifically warned on spread of disinformation as increasing threat to freedom of expression.

Bardhyl Jashari, Executive Director of Metamorphosis Foundation. Photo by Meta.mk, used with permission.

“The harmful effects of misinformation are obvious and tangible and specifically affect the quality of our life and the development of society and well-being,” says Bardhyl Jashari, executive director of Metamorphosis Foundation, based in Skopje, North Macedonia, the publisher of Truthmeter.mk fact-checking service.

Therefore, Jashari believes, all sectors of society, government, NGOs, media, academia, must cooperate and create short-term and long-term strategies with effective mechanisms to counter this harmful phenomenon aimed at encouraging divisions.

“First, the media should increase the professionalism and relevance of the content they publish, NGOs and educational institutions should work to increase the level of media literacy and critical thinking skills of the population, government institutions should be more transparent, and create a legal framework that will provide an environment for the safe operation of journalists and the punishment of hate speech,” Jashari says.

He further adds that in the Western Balkans region, the disinformation influence aims to disrupt the ongoing processes of consolidation of democratic institutions by misusing and deepening the existing ethnic, religious, economic and ideological or party divisions. For that reason Metamorphosis has started a regional initiative, Western Balkans Anti Disinformation Hub, supported by the Kingdom of Netherlands, enabling joining forces of different stakeholders from all countries in the region.

Safety of journalists in North Macedonia, which is related to impunity enabled by unreformed judiciary, are issues raised in reports by domestic civil society organizations and noted in the European Union annual progress report for 2021, alongside “working conditions, especially their labour and social rights.” This situation is similar in the other countries across the region.

Nikola Petrovic, Director of ISAC. Courtesy photo used with permission.

Nikola Petrović, director of the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC), а think-tank based in Belgrade, Serbia explains that besides political and violent threats that many journalists and media workers receive daily in Western Balkans region, the low economic status of professional journalists and media outlets is among the biggest threats to the freedom of the press.

“Investigating and working on articles important for the whole society is often long and tedious process, which is impossible to accomplish without both financial and safety support to the journalist”, says Petrović.

“Fighting disinformation in this age of surreal number of news sources, has become one of the most important issues and obligations of any serious media”, he adds.

Petrović points out that the media in Serbia, especially local media should receive better funding that would allow them to remain independent.

“The media control bodies must be removed from the influence of the government and parliament and judiciary process against threats to journalist accelerated significantly”, Petrović claims.

Klodiana Kapo, Managing Director of Faktoje.al. Courtesy photo used with permission.

Klodiana Kapo, managing director of Tirana-based fact-checking media service that promotes accountability based on the right to information and transparency Faktoje.al, stresses out that in Albania there are more than 950 online news portals whose owners, financing sources and staff are not known, yet they are the biggest sources of disinformation in the country.

“Traditional media and television are captured by business interests, politics, and, in some cases, even by the Mafia”, says Kapo adding that as a result “many journalists apply self-censorship as a form of protection as well as lack of freedom to exercise their profession”.

She believes that independent media providing transparent, independent and depoliticized service should be engaged to provide employment and service opportunities to local journalists in different cities of Albania, as well as to students or young journalists.

“Journalists in Albania must have employment contracts, be well informed and provided with access to free legal protection in case of threats, intimidation or blackmail. Media literacy must be enhanced not only in journalism universities, but must be spread in as many communities as possible”, says Kapo.

Ismar Milak, project coordinator from Bosnian citizen organization “Why Not?” which operates the fact-checking service Raskrinkavanje.ba, says that in societies of never-ending transition, fragile democracies and impeded rule of law, media freedom is always at stake.

“In times of war and the global polarization like the one we are experiencing now, it is suffering additional strains as our region is unfortunately divided along the lines of current polarizing forces”, Milak adds.

As he further explains, this situation multiplies the damage that malign influences and disinformation can exert to media and individual freedoms, making it necessary to multiply combatting disinformation efforts by connecting regionally.

“And we are doing exactly that in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region, all together”, Milak says.

He emphasizes again that fact-checking, media literacy and credible media reporting are all required to improve the current situation, while at the same time different parts of the society need to play their role as well.

“The public institutions and media in particular need to improve their work in order to be able to even start winning this fight”, Milak concludes.