Freedom of expression and freedom of the media are cornerstones of liberal democracies and they are crucial for the functioning of our societies. Yet, all over South East Europe the media and individual journalists are facing difficult professional and economic conditions.

First and foremost they have to overcome the deficits originating from the political transformation. These are, amongst others, editorial interference by politicians and media owners, high concentration and a small media market. At the same time, the media have to find an answer to globalisation and digitalisation which is even more difficult under the mentioned circumstances.

It is an important task of the media to communicate fundamental political decisions, e.g. on EU integration, to the public. However, because of financial and political pressure media often have to compromise on professional standards. Due to inadequate working conditions, job insecurity, editorial pressure, self-censorship as well as verbal and physical attacks, many journalists in the region feel powerless.

Finding legal support is not always easy for journalists who feel threatened. Many attacks against journalists have never been brought to justice. This sends out a dangerous message which encourages crimes and pressure against journalists. Self-censorship is often the consequence. Thus, the insecurity and fear of journalists are becoming the biggest threat against freedom of speech.

The changing media environment and the digital revolution are additional challenges. Media have to find new business models in order to survive. Especially investigative journalism is expensive. Although media freedom is mainly a political responsibility, its funding has to be independent from political elites who have the power to misuse it. Therefore, finding new economic concepts for journalism is one of the biggest tasks in South East Europe.

Problem-solving approaches

One possible strategy for strengthening economically independent journalism is the creation of media cooperatives with an active participation of the civil society. In the decision-making of a cooperative, every member has the same rights and the members are working for a common goal and common benefit. This and similar concepts can prevent a too high individual influence and concentration of power. It is desirable to foster the exchange between different successful investigative projects in South East Europe and compare their experiences with approaches from Germany and Western Europe.

The increasing number of threats and attacks against journalists has motivated the Council of Europe to create a website on media freedom topics. It offers recommendations, reports and tools in various areas. One of these tools is an online platform which provides the opportunity to report threats against journalists. The purpose of the platform is to improve the protection of journalists, to address threats and violence against media professionals in a better way and to foster early warning mechanisms and response capacity within the Council of Europe. In doing so, it aims to enable the Council’s bodies and institutions to be alerted and take timely and coordinated action when necessary.

Furthermore, to support legal advisors in the field of media freedom, the Council of Europe has published a handbook on protecting the right of freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It helps legal professionals to strengthen their skills in applying the ECHR case law on freedom of expression on national levels. This is also an opportunity for legal advisors in civil society organisations to strengthen their legal support for journalists.

Ways forward

Solving the current challenges regarding media freedom in South East Europe is a long-term and ongoing process. There is not just one solution for the issues ahead. Instead, a combination of activities is needed to overcome the most pressing obstacles: financing independent media; ensuring the security of journalists; countering fake news and disinformation.

The creators of fake news want the public to distrust media in general and to believe in nothing. Media have to fight for public confidence and re-establish trust. Therefore, a holistic approach is needed to counter disinformation and fake news combining awareness, education, dialogue and regulations. A good education in media literacy is especially crucial in this context. Individual European countries have already started pilot projects in primary schools to introduce media literacy in the curricula. Media professionals have to intensify their efforts in this regard and cooperate with schools, universities and media enterprises in order to offer media literacy training for children as well as for adults.

It is time for the media to step up and demand changes instead of waiting for them. The low detection rate when it comes to crimes against journalists is one of the reasons why media professionals should speak up with a united voice, whether it is through unions, international organisations or nationwide campaigns. Europe needs an appropriate legal framework on international level that guarantees better safety for journalists. Gaining the public’s support and engagement can promote these efforts and support freedom of speech in every area of life.

Hotel Hilton, Sofia, 27-28 November 2017