How should the EU deal with the issue of media freedom in candidate states? Discussing former Yugoslav states, Beáta Huszka highlights that the EU enlargement conditions concerned with sensitive issues of national identity are often those perceived as the most challenging to meet. However, recent developments in countries like Serbia suggest this may no longer be the case. Serbia has shown greater willingness to compromise on its perceived national interests concerning international war crimes prosecution and Kosovo than it has on media freedom, given the latter could potentially pose a direct problem for the current government’s ability to stay in power.

During the last decade, democracy in the current EU enlargement countries has been steadily deteriorating, and there is little reason to doubt that the same bleak picture will emerge again when the European Commission publishes its next annual progress reports, assessing how enlargement states fare in different areas including human rights and democracy (which have been postponed until next spring).

At the same time, the EU finds itself in a schizophrenic position: it has been allowing countries backsliding on democratic principles and human rights to make headway on their EU accession path, which contradicts the fundamental idea underlying the whole integration process. The sufficient fulfilment of the Copenhagen criteria is necessary in principle for the opening of accession negotiations, thus as accession candidates make progress on EU accession one should expect improving records.

However, at the moment the opposite seems to be happening, which has been made all the more clear by recent tendencies related to the freedom of the media in the current EU candidate states and prospective candidates in the Balkans. Every EU candidate country in the region – Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – has shown a decline in the area of media freedom since they were awarded candidate status. This downward trend has been particularly visible in Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia during the last 5-6 years, while Albania has been mostly stagnating at low levels.

In the meantime, some of these countries, such as Montenegro and Serbia, have made great progress on their EU integration path: they began membership talks in 2012 and 2014 respectively, followed by the EU subsequently opening the rule of law chapters with both countries. This obvious inconsistency undermines the EU’s credibility, which would assume that the benefits promised by the EU should be apparent once candidates meet the EU’s conditions, while non-compliance should result in significant sanctions, such as cutting assistance funds or holding back the target state from moving into the next accession stage.

Considering that the issue of media freedom has recently been the focus of the EU’s attention also because of developments in Hungary and Poland, effectively becoming one of the most contested human rights issues in the EU, it is all the more remarkable that the EU has failed to pressure the Balkan candidates more seriously to improve their record in this area, especially as the EU enjoys considerable leverage over accession candidates in contrast to Member States.

I want to disentangle some of the implications of this policy failure by looking at the case of freedom of expression and media freedom in Serbia, one of the two frontrunners among the Balkan candidates. Media freedom could serve as a good litmus test for the effectiveness of the EU’s political conditionality on human rights and democracy, as freedom of expression and media freedom are usually seen as central to creating, maintaining and strengthening democracy, while this area also plays a key role in the EU’s scrutiny of the Balkan candidates’ human rights performance.

Critical media have the important function of holding power-holders accountable, serving as one of the checks and balances on government power, while freedom of expression and media freedom are often preconditions of the practice of other human rights. Since 2010, media freedom has been among the highest priorities on the EU’s agenda, every enlargement strategy and progress report highlighting this topic. Freedom of expression and media freedom was the most extensively discussed human rights condition of the Copenhagen political criteria in the 2015 and 2016 EU Commission reports on Serbia, indicating the salience of this issue and thus its importance to the EU.

It would be unjust to claim that Serbia did nothing to fulfil its obligations concerning media freedom, yet essentially it has pursued the strategy of introducing some reforms that fall short of implementation. As part of its EU integration agenda, the government adopted a media strategy which set the foundations for legislative changes prohibiting state ownership of the media and moving towards the financing of media content through public competition. Four laws were adopted based on this strategy with the purported aim of increasing the transparency of ownership and the funding of media outlets, to reduce room for political and economic influence and pressure over journalists, and strengthening editorial independence, thus protecting the pluralism of the media.

However, implementation was a different story, leading to results that contradicted the strategy’s declared goals. Although privatisation of publicly owned media was officially finalised by October 2015, the state continued to own media outlets, such as the leading political dailies Politika and Vecernje Novosti. There is now ample evidence suggesting that state and local authorities have been abusing the system of project co-funding in order to support politically friendly media. The ensuing privatisation of media outlets led to businessmen close to the government buying up media companies. Political pressure and threats against journalists are prevalent despite the recently adopted media laws that aimed to protect media pluralism. Altogether, the situation has got worse, even though in principle, Serbia was meeting the EU’s formal conditions.

These developments did not escape the EU’s attention. On the contrary, for many years now the EU has been highlighting these problems, raising the tone of its criticisms since 2014. Yet, in lieu of more tangible consequences, the EU’s rebuke has had hardly any effect on the Serbian government. When the current president, Aleksandar Vučić was still prime minister, he clashed several times with the EU and OSCE over media freedom. He and other government representatives suggested that the EU was waging a campaign against the Serbian government and was funding media outlets that publish anti-government lies and falsehoods.

At first glance it might seem paradoxical that while pursuing EU integration for his country, Vučić accused the EU of supporting the publication of alleged falsehoods against him. Yet, it fits into the current political agenda of seeking EU accession for Serbia, demonstrated primarily by the government’s readiness to enter into compromises concerning Kosovo for the sake of EU integration, while also striving to concentrate power at the political centre by weakening checks and balances. After the 2014 general election, when the Serbian Progressive Party won an absolute majority in parliament, the government began to show increasing intolerance towards any kind of criticism from the media, civil society, or independent institutions, effectively limiting freedom of expression.

Government efforts to contain freedom of expression were also manifested in attempts to generally silence opposing opinions, demonstrated for instance by attacks on the ombudsman by government ministers and tabloid media. As a result, ‘civil society organisations and human rights defenders… continued to operate in a public and media environment often hostile to criticism’. The wave of protests that followed the April 2017 presidential election won by Prime Minister Vučić were triggered among other issues by public anger against the tight government control over the media during the election campaign and the government’s disregard for the principle of election silence, tilting the playing field in favour of the ruling parties.

Thus, worsening tendencies of media freedom have not been isolated from the broader political context in Serbia where general conditions of freedom of expression have been on the decline owing to the authoritarian tendencies of the government. Serbian authorities have failed to meet EU conditions on freedom of speech and media freedom because they have lacked the domestic incentives to do so, and the EU so far has not sanctioned Serbia for this lack of compliance.

By contrast, concerning cooperation with the Hague Tribunal and the normalisation process with Kosovo, the EU was willing to apply an incremental feed-back mechanism on Serbia’s actions, which also included sanctions. Coincidentally, these are the two areas where Serbia was ready to make concessions in line with the EU’s demands. Thus, if the EU set the red lines more clearly, the government’s strong resistance to improving media freedom could probably be weakened as well through more credible EU pressure.

The EU has a record of prioritising security interests in the Balkans over other conditions such as human rights, a policy recently labelled as ‘stabilitocracy’ by Srđa Pavlović here at EUROPP and later by a BIEPAG policy brief, which partially explains why essentially the normalisation process with Kosovo has determined Serbia’s pace of EU integration since 2011. The EU’s position to resist these negative developments concerning human rights was also weakened by the evolving refugee crisis, which provided the backdrop against which confrontations between Serbian authorities and the EU occurred.

EU policy has not been the only, and probably not the main cause of the failure of the media reforms. Political actors lacked the incentives to comply with the EU’s conditions, which ran against the government’s agenda, as free and pluralistic media would make it much harder for the authorities to continue their power concentration efforts. This suggests that the dominant notion, according to which the most challenging EU conditions for the post-Yugoslav states have been those that were primarily concerned with issues requiring concessions on sensitive aspects of national identity, might be outdated.

While Serbia was willing to compromise on its perceived national interests concerning international war crimes prosecution and Kosovo, both of high significance from the point of view of national identity, currently the real threat to the authorities is well functioning independent institutions and a free media that can put constraints on their power. The lack of EU response to breaches of human rights implementation has enabled political leaders in Serbia, and also elsewhere in the region, to capture the state, and currently the EU seems to lack the tools and the willingness to engage and counter this.

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Note: For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper in the Journal of Common Market Studies. This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Beáta Huszka – ELTE University
Beáta Huszka is an Assistant Professor at the Department of European Studies in ELTE University, Budapest. She completed her PhD in International Relations at the Central European University in 2010.

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