On the 7th of November, the Croatian journalist Boris Dežulović published an article called “Fuck Vukovar”, in which he criticizes the way the Vukovar has been turned into a dead town used only for nationalistic celebration and remembrance. He argues all cultural and social life has been erased from the village on the pretext of respecting the fallen during the Vukovar massacre. Moreover, Dežulović had been commenting on this reality for many years and had won the European Press Prize in 2014 for the article “Vukovar: a life-size monument to the death city”.

View of the town of Vukovar. Image by The Dubrovnik Times

Hate, insults and threats were the responses that Dežulović got. Most notably, the Ministry of Veteran Affairs and the mayor of Vukovar, among other authorities, endorsed the public lynching, the criticism and the threats aimed at the journalist. Among the criticism, there were many accusations of him being unpatriotic, ungrateful to those who fought and died and, furthermore, an apologist of the Great Serbia cause. Nothing negative could be said about Vukovar, according to the online mob and the governmental authorities. The journalist aired all these reactions in another article and the Ministry of the Interior is currently investigating the issue.

This sad episode reflects one of the biggest threats to media freedom in Eastern Europe. Through intimidation the government is trying to determine the borders of freedom of expression and impose a narrative of the past and the present for their own benefits, as the Croatian Writers Society remarked in a statement supporting Dežulović. Governments have been pressuring the media ecosystem, targeting independent voices that speak against the government. Powerful actors try to silence the voices in media which highlight injustices or defy the established truths.

The right to free speech and the media freedom is an indispensable human right under threat in the Europe. The example we have given, Dežulović’s article, is just one specially alarming one, but definitively not the only one. The dangers to media freedom can take many different forms: censorship, de-platforming, selective defunding, concentration, coercion and, in the worst cases, violence. In Bulgaria, we had two extremely worrying cases just the last year. In March of 2020, Slavi Angelov, chief editor of 168 editors, was brutally beaten by three armed men and left unconscious. This assassination attempt was related to the independent investigative journalism he conducted in his media outlet. Later that year, in September, journalist Dimitar Kenarov was detained and brutally beaten by law enforcement officers during an anti-government protest. In both cases, no one has been convicted so far, giving a feeling of general immunity.

Dimitar Kenarov on TV a few days after being beaten. Image from Newsbeezer

The 2021 World Press Freedom Index provides us with some alarming data. Bulgaria ranks as the 4th lowest performer when it comes to media freedom in Europe, bettering only Turkey, Russia and Belarus. Worldwide, it ranks 112 out of 180 nations, behind Lebanon, Mozambique and Guinea.  In the words of the organization, the situation can be described as “Press Freedom Trapped”.

As we have seen, the situation is dire, but many have started fighting to strengthen media freedom in the region. The work of the NGO Reporters without borders in the last few years has focused on talking to governments in the region to persuade them to adopt the necessary measures to protect journalists from harassment and violence and to protect investigative journalism.  In the recent weeks, there were some encouraging news from Montenegro. A new law has been proposed in which journalism would become a profession of public importance. This entails special protections, at the level of the police. Moreover, harassment and threats to journalists would be punished by three to five months of jail time. These changes, which have a good chance of becoming law, will protect the necessary work of journalists in the country. Other nations should drive inspiration from this law proposal to strengthen their normative framework.

Let us finish with the history of a great victory for free speech in Eastern Europe. In October, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of an independent outlet in Moldova that unveiled illegal financing of political campaigns and high-level corruption of the ruling party. The online newspaper was sued for defamation, as what was seen as an attempt to silence information negative towards the government. This decision will be key, as it sets a precedent for the region: governments can’t silence freedom of expression and media freedom at their will. The international courts, civil society and many engaged citizens throughout Europe are not going to let it happen.

Article by Gerard Izquierdo i Toda


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