Hahn Presses Balkan Govts on Media Freedom

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EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn told a BIRN conference that media freedom in the Balkans has become a major concern that must be addressed urgently.

Hahn said on Friday that media freedom in the Balkans “remains of particular concern” to the European Commission – particularly the issues of government meddling and threats to the independence of public broadcasters. 

“We face important challenges that need to be addressed urgently,” Hahn said in a video address to BIRN’s regional media conference in Sarajevo.

“Apart from government interference more efforts are needed to ensure the political and financial independence of public service broadcasters,strength and independence of regulatory agencies and faster functional self-regulation,” he said.

The EU commissioner said that he would keep pushing governments in the region to make progress.

There is also need to tackle informal economic pressure on the media. This includes transparency of media ownership and preventing of its excessive concentration. Last but not least, transparent roles on the procurement of government advertising have to be in place,” he said.

Hahn said that freedom of expression and the media are at the core of the EU integration process.

“Free speech and an informed, professional press are essential for democratic society, they are fundamental to the choices that citizens make about the future of the country,” he said.

“Without them, the public cannot weigh up options or judge the leaders; without them, dangerous prejudices and misperceptions grow, which undermine chances of peace and stability,” he added.

The regional media conference, entitled ‘Media Freedom Challenges’, is being held as part of the celebrations of BIRN’s 10th anniversary.

“I’m personally committed to congratulate and thank BIRN for its precious contribution and efforts in terms of freedom of expression and media in the Balkans,” Hahn said.

“You know far better than I the power of freedom of expression and media and the complex threats it faces in your countries. In this respect, supporting professional journalism and journalist training is of key importance. With its aim to build and strengthen a dedicated, close-knit team of journalists across the Balkans, BIRN acts as strong partner in the region offering an impressive variety of services,” he added.

BIRN’s directors and media experts gathered in the Bosnian capital to discuss crucial issues affecting the sector.

The conference also came up with a list of recommendations to the governments in the Balkans to improve the media situation in the region.

The recommendations are a joint effort by more than 30 media professionals and experts who gathered in Sarajevo the day beforehand at a regional freedom of expression workshop to discuss labour rights, state funding of media and public broadcasters, the media market, transparency of media ownership and the representation of vulnerable and marginalised groups.

The experts gathered in Sarajevo as a part of the Western Balkan Civil Society Forum, a joint project of the ERSTE Foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Karl Renner Institute, in close cooperation with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.

The Western Balkan Civil Society Forum offers a unique opportunity to civil society representatives from south-eastern Europe to voice their opinions and formulate concrete demands for high representatives of the European Union, its member states and the governments of the countries of the Western Balkans.

The suggestions that will be presented in Sarajevo will become part of a broader package of recommendations from civil society at the Vienna Western Balkans Summit, which will be held in August.

The summit is a continuation of the so-called ‘Berlin Process’ which was initiated in August 2014 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to show further political commitment to the future enlargement of the European Union into the Western Balkans.