Antoinette Nikolova: ‘It is a scary time for us journalists.’
You’ve spent the last two decades working as a journalist in Europe, beginning with reporting on the Yugoslav wars and later in Brussels focusing on the European Union. What was it that led you to create the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI)?
Media freedom is being systematically attacked by governments across the Balkans and we need urgent action to protect journalism and democracy in the region. Despite these problems coverage from the Western media is limited. Reporters might cover two days of protests in Bulgaria, for example, but without addressing the issues that are creating the need to demonstrate – much to the frustration of local journalists.
BFMI was founded in Brussels by a group of journalists, and policy and media experts, with the aim of constantly monitoring developments in the Balkans and bringing them to the attention of wider audiences.
How is BFMI different from other journalist associations and NGOs that promote media freedoms in the region?
Many excellent organizations report on the harsh reality for journalists in the Balkans who face constant threats and attacks. However, we felt that the more insidious, invisible assaults on media freedom do not receive the same attention. For example, the laws that allow political ownership of media assets, or the tactics used by governments to manoeuvre allies into key positions at supposedly independent regulators. This kind of commercial manipulation destroys pluralism and is just as dangerous to freedom of information [as attacks] … but can be harder to measure.
What are some of the main tactics you uncovered for undermining media freedoms?
Our first report, The Invisible Hand of Media Censorship, looked at case studies in Bulgaria, Serbia and North Macedonia. The main practices identified were control of public broadcasters and regulatory authorities, abuse of weak regulation on transparency of ownership and abuse of government subsidies to foster clientelism in weak, over-saturated media markets.
In some cases, there is outright political ownership. For example, in Bulgaria it is still legal for politicians to own media outlets. Another powerful example is the behaviour of Serbia’s state-owned telecoms company Telekom Srbija, which is known to have close ties to the political leadership of President Aleksandar Vučić. The report looks at two examples of where Telekom Srbija entered lucrative partnerships with close political allies of Vučić who then purchased private media outlets for very similar amounts.
More recently, a Telekom Srbija subsidiary made headlines for reportedly paying an eye-watering $6.8 million for rights to broadcast English Premier League football matches. This is more than China pays, and 10 times more than the current deal held by United Group, a rival which broadcasts one of the few remaining critical channels in Serbia called N1. This has led to speculation that the deal is designed to force United Group out of the market and weaken N1, one of the last independent news channels.
What made you choose to focus on those three countries for the first report?
We chose them because they are at three different stages of integration with the European Union. Bulgaria is already a member, Serbia has been in accession negotiations for some time and North Macedonia has started the accession process. Looking at the three countries revealed that across the board the EU is failing to hold countries to account. Bulgaria, an EU member, is misusing EU funds. Vučić presents himself as a democratic modernizer to the EU while criticizing them constantly when addressing his domestic audience. North Macedonia’s government promised widespread media reform, but progress has been slow. A free media is essential to protect democratic freedoms, and the EU and wider international community has to do more.
What kind of things should they be doing?
The EU needs to use its leverage to hold these countries to account. It has to put direct pressure on the leadership and make future EU financial transfers to Balkan states conditional upon progress on reforms with regard to media and rule of law. EU funds to states should be redirected to professional media outlets with strong editorial standards.
Another potential avenue is US sanctions, which have proven effective in Bulgaria. In April 2021, three Bulgarians were sanctioned for corruption, including the most dominant media mogul in the country Deylan Peevski, who at one time controlled up to 80 per cent of the media market in Bulgaria. It’s no coincidence that after Peevski sold his media assets the Boyko Borissov government fell in the next elections.
Members of US congress called on President Joe Biden not to hesitate to impose asset freezes against certain Serbian individuals, too. Vučić is an incredibly sophisticated and experienced manipulator of the media. Many people forget that he was the propaganda minister for Slobodan Milošević. Given the presidential and parliamentary elections in Serbia are due to take place next year, further US intervention to stop corruption and the strangling of independent media could support genuine democratic change. It’s important for stability in the region, but also for broader geopolitical stability.
What do you mean by that?
The Balkan countries are at a turning point. There is a growing tension between adherence to democratic standards represented by the EU and the West and courting the more authoritarian influences of Russia and China.
Take the recent problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example. Hate speech and genocide denial coming from state-owned media has been allowed to thrive and Bosnian Serbs are now threatening secession. All the while, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, dismisses the threat of European sanctions and intervention by suggesting he could turn to China and Russia for support.
There is a real risk of conflict returning to Bosnia and it is starting from disinformation and hatred in the mainstream media. This is symptomatic of the wider situation for media in the region. It is a scary time for us journalists. We have to act.