A significant reduction in press freedom occurred in the Central and Eastern Europe/Eurasia region during 2011, the US-based watchdog Freedom House said in a report released on Tuesday (May 1st).
The area includes all 15 former Soviet republics, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, plus nine Balkan states -- Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia.
The watchdog's annual Freedom of the Press survey covers a total of 197 countries and territories in the world. It assesses the level of media freedom in each on the basis of 23 methodology questions and 109 indicators divided into three broad categories: the legal environment, the political environment, and the economic environment. Based on their scores -- from 0 (best) to 100 (worst) -- countries are then rated as "free" (1-30 points), "partly free" (31-60), or "not free" (61-100).
Of all 197 surveyed countries, 66 (33.5%) were classified as "free," 72 (36.5%) as "partly free" and the remaining 59 (30%) as "not free".
In the CEE/Eurasia region, the biggest group was that of the "partly free," including the nine Balkan countries plus four others, or 45% of all. Of the other 16, only seven, or 24% of all, were rated "free" and the other nine, or 31%, fell into the "not free" group.
Only 15% of the people living in that area had access to free media, "the smallest share since 2003," Freedom House said, noting that the decline was largely due to the worsened media situation in "the typically better-performing" CEE sub-region.
"Hungary and Macedonia both underwent large score declines, and Ukraine's score also dropped," Freedom House said.
Macedonia, which lost two points of its rating in the group's 2011 report, experienced a further six-point drop this year. On the basis of its new score of 54, it was ranked 115th on press freedom in the world, along with Moldova.
Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, director of Freedom House's Nations in Transit project, said that the Balkan country's further fall was due to the fact that the negative developments observed ahead of last year's survey "continued and grew more severe" in 2011.
"The government increased its control of the Broadcasting Council," she told SETimes. "The state moved forward with a politically-motivated tax case, including the lengthy, pre-trial detention of Velija Ramkovski, the owner of four, opposition-oriented outlets. The closure of Ramkovski's media group gives pro-government media a dominant position in the market."
Given that the state is also the single largest advertiser in Macedonia, those events drew "serious concerns" about the level of editorial independence of media in the country, "particularly those in dire financial straits," Habdank-Kolaczkowska said.
"The large number of libel cases against journalists … continues to hinder freedom of expression and encourage self-censorship," she said.
Aside from the large fines imposed on journalists in many such cases, "there is often a high cost to be paid -- even in terms of stress -- for offending any well-connected public figures, however legitimately," Habdank-Kolaczkowska stressed. "Macedonia's rating of 54 puts it seven points away from moving from 'partly free' to 'unfree' in the Press Freedom survey."
While Moldova's equal score puts it in the same position with Macedonia, its rating this year is one point better than in 2011.
The "only notable improvements" in the CEE/Eurasia region came in Georgia, which scored 52 this year, up from 55 in 2011, as well as Kosovo and Montenegro, whose grades of 49 and 35, respectively, were two points better than the ones they received in the previous survey period.
The only other Balkan countries in that wider region that also improved their ratings were Croatia and Romania, which both moved up one point to 40 and 41, respectively. Romania's score was the lowest given to any EU member state, however.
Neighbouring Bulgaria, which was listed among the "free" countries in Freedom House's 2003 survey for the last time, lost a point of its rating for the third consecutive year, to end up with 36 this year.
Citing other international surveys of media freedom, in which Bulgaria also fared worse than in previous years, Antoaneta Tzoneva, head of the Sofia-based Institute for Public Environment Development, said the country's new score was not surprising. It only confirmed an obvious negative trend.
"The media market is over-concentrated into the hands of just a few warring groups, each of them fighting to get into the government's good books," she told SETimes. "They are not driven by long-term interests and their main line of business is not in the media sector. Therefore, the powerful corporations in this area use the media as a tool for exercising influence."
Tzoneva also noted that the coverage of certain topics was simply taboo; there was censorship and self-censorship.
"At the end of the day, instead of acting as watchdogs, some media have turned into little poodles sitting at the government's feet, waiting for a steak," she said.
Albania's new mark of 51 was also one-point worse than last year, while Serbia skidded two points to 35. For the third year in a row, BiH was given 48 points.
Cyprus and Greece, which were placed in the Western Europe group, along with Turkey and 22 other states, also retained their scores of 22 and 30, respectively. The two are the only Southeast European nations among the 66 "free" countries in the world. Turkey's score of 55 is one point lower than the one it was given in 2011.
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