The lack of media freedom and the pressures and threats have made it more and more difficult for journalists in the Western Balkans to work. The fall of communist Yugoslavia and the end of the one-party system was followed by a brief period of increasing freedom and the development of the media system. However, the last decade have seen democratic institutions weakening and media freedom backsliding. According to Human Rights Watch, journalists in the Balkans are facing “a hostile environment”. Montenegro and Macedonia are ranking extremely low on Reporters without borders’ index for European countries with hopes of becoming EU members.
Tomislav Kezarovski, an independent journalist from Macedonia, Tufik Softić, a freelancer from Montenegro and Marina Fratucan, a teacher at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia tell their stories.
Balkanoscope: How did you become a journalist?
TomislavKezarovski: I studied law but, fortunately, or not, I did not work in that field. I went to journalism with that knowledge of what is justice, and with that taste for discovery. I started to work for Utrinski vesnik and to investigate stories about Justice affairs. At some point, I was working for a daily newspaper, a weekly and a monthly magazine at the same time… I gave everything to this profession, from the beginning.
Tufik Softić: Journalism has been my life commitment since my early youth. I studied journalism at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo, then achieved graduate studies in the sociology of culture at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade. At that time, young people were looking at the profession as very prestigious. And it was. But I could not know what would happen to me and my family because of this profession, and how it would determine the course of my life.
Marina Fratucan: I was still in high-school. My mother saw an ad from TV Novi Sad for a youth show and I was hired. My first motivation was to work for musical and youth shows… But after two years I started to work for a news program. In 1990 I went to work in YUTEL, which was the only TV fighting nationalism and warmongering at that time. I went there with that clear purpose: to inform the citizens about what is happening, the rush to war, the nationalistic leaders… However, the war in Bosnia started; YUTEL closed. After that, I worked for foreign media and then started my own production company, before going back to TV Vojvodina.
Balkanoscope: In 2015, Dunja Mijatović, OSCE representative on freedom of the media declared that the current situation regarding the state of the media in the region is worse than after the 1990’s wars. What was the situation regarding media freedom in your country when you started to work? How did it evolve?
TK: My case is an example of how and when things started to go wrong. In 2005, I started to investigate a scandal about national payment cards. At that time, the VMRO was anonymous, only Nikola Gruevski and his father were known. Still, after this investigation, I became the enemy. The period from 2010 to 2016 is a key period for media freedom in Macedonia. The ruling party was having every one arrested, but not me so they could say nothing was wrong. But then I started to ask questions about the suspicious death of the editor of Fokus. That is when the legal pressures started.
TS: Back in the day in Montenegro, there were very few media and it was hard to find a job. Then there were much more but on a small market and most of them were just bulletin of the regime. What is very important is that the government has not changed in three decades so the development of independent media in that atmosphere is very difficult. While independent media became more open and freer, the institutions in this authoritarian regime became less accessible. Independent media and journalists became the target of the regime and of those who support it. In this unfinished democracy, journalists are fighters for democracy instead of its guardians.
MF: Between the one-party system in the 80’s followed by Milosevic’s nationalism, and now, there was only a brief period of media freedom that ended with the murder of Prime minister Zoran Đinđić in 2003. Media freedom started to shrink and since Aleksandar Vucic came to power in 2012, everything is under his control to the point of today’s complete censorship.
Balkanoscope: Various threats are posed on journalists and media. Investigative journalism and reporting on government activities in opposition media can lead to being labelled a “traitor” and a “national enemy” by pro-government media. The murders of several prominent journalists in the last decades have not been solved and governments have shown little interest in pushing investigations and protecting journalists when they have not simply been accused of threatening and pressuring media themselves. How were you personally affected by this situation?
TK: When the government changed in 2006 and the VMRO-DPMNE took power, I was an editor at Vecer. At the end of the year, my wife was fired from her job in the Ministry of Defence without reason. I am the most rewarded in journalist in Macedonia. Interestingly, I was awarded for the same stories that put me in jail in 2013. I spent two years in prison, sharing an 8 square-meter cell with three other people. I have health issues… Now I have to get up early every morning so I can check the door and see if there are any messages of a threat, so my daughter does not see them.
TS: I investigate organized crime and that is how I became the target of those criminal groups and of the regime that is associated with them. In 2007, two men attacked me outside of my house with baseball bats. They knocked me down and hit only my head. I was hospitalized. Only seven years later it was qualified as attempted murder. That night completely changed my life. The public investigation was faked and none of the people and criminals that I immediately said had threatened me were heard. In 2013 an explosive was planted into my car. Only after that, the National security agency decided that I was in danger and I was granted police protection. But last year, after I filed a lawsuit against the state for its ineffective investigation of the attempted murders on me, the state refused me protection.
MF: In 2016, right after the parliamentary elections and the win of the Progressive Party (SNS, the party of Aleksandar Vučić, Ed.), the leadership of TV Vojvodina changed. Overnight, all the house people and 35 anchors, editors, journalists, were dismissed on the grounds that their programs were not objective because it showed the ugly reality of our everyday life. I had my show Radar since 2011 and it won several awards – the last in 2016 as the best show in a public service television. With the new TV management, there was no space for it and it was cancelled.
Balkanoscope: Internet appears now as a free space for media and a number of online news portals have opened as well as investigative journalism websites. Is it possible today to work freely as a journalist in your country? How do you do it?
TK: I have my own news portal now but it is all for free because nobody wants to pay for advertisement. Companies and institutions are afraid of the VMRO-DPMNE. I cannot work as a journalist here, it is hard to have my stories published. The country is like Congo when it comes to media freedom. I might have to leave and go abroad.
(Ed: Since the interview with Tomislav Kezarovski, VMRO-DPMNE lost power and a coalition led by the main opposition party, SDSM, is now in charge. It is the first democratic change in power in more than ten years)
TS: Despite everything that has happened to me and my family, I never stopped working. I could have left Montenegro but I stayed to fight for democracy with my colleagues and independent media. I believed – still do, maybe idealistically – that we should not give up. Journalism, in a strange and sometimes cruel way, provides the opportunity to realize himself or herself in an authoritarian regime, such as in Montenegro.
MF: Today it is not possible to work freely in Serbia. There is no space for me in TV Vojvodina where I started 33 years ago. After three decades in this job, I can say that today we are witnessing the worst media blackout, despite the existence of the Internet. However, the protests happening now in Serbia, which my sons and all of my students (from university in Novi Sad, Ed.) are taking part in, give me a spark of hope that it will get better in this country where, despite all of that, I wish to stay with my children.