Freedom of Expression in the Balkans: Conclusions

At Lib.Lab 18.5 we discussed about Freedom of Expression in the Balkans. Here are the conclusions by Eleni Siapikoudi.

16-18 of December 2018:

In this seminar participants for different countries had the opportunity to discuss about freedom of expression not only in Balkans, but also in other geographic regions. First of all, to have a better understanding of what we were going to discuss participants try to define what we called as «Balkans». Is this only a geographic dimension or something more? The definition that we agreed to focus on was the geographic and political definition. Balkans consists of Greece, Croatia, FYROM, Slovenia, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania, Kosovo and Turkey. The fact that Balkan countries have a lot in common but also a lot of differences makes Balkan politics very interesting.

On the one hand, to start with the similarities, first of all there is a historical Ottoman influence in almost all of them due to common Ottoman legacy. Common historic and cultural background affect in an extremely way habits, traditions and everyday life in these countries. Additionally, we can state that there is a strong influence of religion on politics. They all have a history of wars and internal conflicts which affected their contemporary politics immensely. Balkan countries also have in common inefficient bureaucracies. By this, is identified the malfunctioning of public services. As an extent there is a lack in strong democratic institutions such as a well-functioning checks and balance system.

On the other hand, most of the Balkan countries were in a transition from their communist past to modern democracies except Greece and Turkey. Moreover Greece, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Slovenia are part of the European Union, but other countries are still only negotiating accession. Different religions affect politics differently and while most Balkan countries are Christian some of them are Muslim. However, in their external relations they are all influenced by Great Powers, especially USA and Russia. While some of them are influenced by Turkey in political and economic aspects.

Therefore, at this point we came to a common agreement that, regardless of their differences, Balkan countries have more similarities and same values than differences and they have to take advantage of this opportunity will bring more positive changes in the future for the region.

The second thing that we discussed was about the levels of freedom of expression, taking into account different and variant countries as a case from all over the world and but especially the Balkan countries. In this phase, participants chose as case studies countries of their origin and tried to identify in which level people are free to express their opinions and their feelings. With the interest of knowing the different obstacles to the freedom of expression in each of the following countries, there was attempt to illustrate each countries core problems in the following aspects: culture, media, interest groups, economy.

First country was Serbia. One of the issues that is observed in Serbia is the impossibility of the Serbian individual to question her own history, legends and myths.  Alongside these lines, it is very difficult to be an objective historian without offending segments of the population.  Media is highly controlled by the government, in which it also plays an owner role.  There are statutes to not use the media to criticize the government. With regards to the economy, and probably due to a recent communist past, several segments and industries of the economy are under state ownership.

Second country was Bulgaria. In Bulgaria, ethnic diversity causes one group to not entirely voice out and promote its interest, without of course coming into conflict with other groups.  Media is selective in how they decide to support certain politicians over others.  This means that not all interests from the population will be represented.  Ownership of state industries and resources is still prevalent, or in the hands of a few economic elites.

As we followed to the next country which is Turkey we came to the conclusion that people have an overreliance to the government and the state. This means that grass-roots movements are difficult to happen due to people’s expectations that government is going to solve the problems.  Media are still extensive, but some of them are under the control of the president’s party and others works under pressure and fear for their future. Last but not least, the economic elite rests on the practice of nepotism.

Another country that participants had the opportunity to share and exchange their ideas about was Greece. Firstly, there was a reference in the way that people in general react in different situations. In many cases, we can observe that the traditional and cultural background of the country criticizes modern ideas and new ways of thinking. As far as media concerned, there are many examples that an attempt to control and manipulate Media is a sad reality in Greece.  For example, Law on the limitation of television channels is a decision that does not promote and support the representation of different aspects and opinions about things that happened in everyday life. Moreover, Media are highly privatized.  People might temporarily endorse an idea/stance in order to get immediate benefits, but then it is discarded. The country’s economic crisis has necessitated the need of Greece to seek the assistance of other EU members.  As a result, last year’s crisis is not only an economic crisis, but also a crisis in important values. For instance, there is a backslide in vital and crucial freedoms like freedom of expression.

The last country that helped us to understand better the framework and to have a comparison look was USA. Initially, we have to point that the positives of the 1960’s civil right movement have also created in the 2000s the problem of political correctness.  In essence this is positive ideology, nonetheless nowadays societal ostracism, loss of employment have occurred due to incidences when groups in the US demand retribution against people who have committed such “crimes”. The power of interest groups and lobby have caused the misinformation to occur, this in turns means that people do not have access to the proper information. Due to the ardent capitalistic outlook of the US, any other expression of economic ideas would easily make a person liable for societal ostracism.

Taking all these into account, it is common that there are commonalities that were grouped together due to the similarities in each of these countries, among which we can find the following. State ownership is prevalent in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.  Interest groups are forbidden by law in all countries, except the US. Our countries display an array of ideologies, stances, and cultural behaviors that contribute to the restriction of the freedom of expression. The causes vary from culture to economic practices and beliefs about how a society should be formed.

In aftermath we tried to allocate which are the main causes and reasons for this situation and as a result there had been located a wide range of reasons for the previously named problems. First of all, a majority of the Balkan countries are considered transitional economies, as they are still in the process of forming liberal democracies after being governed by communistic rulers. This process of reform affects all aspects of these societies.

After the fall of communism and the end of the Yugoslav wars that cause many problems in the region, the newly formed nation states faced great economic crisis. Struggling to overcome the crisis led to measures, which did not help to achieve a free economy as much as needed. Until today, the markets are not fully reformed and free and of course this is an important prerequisite for an open society which allows free flow of opinions and ideas.

Furthermore, many countries lack stable and respected democratic institutions. The rule of law is not always equally applied to citizens. Also, not all parts of society are or feel represented by the political representatives. An important role in these societies is played by the culture. Countries with deep rooted cultural customs adapt to societal changes more slowly since these customs are part of everyday life. Considering the fact that culture is a strong unofficial institution, it can lead to slowing down the process of democratization and liberalization. Because the population of these countries have stuck to traditions and they are sometimes incapable of overcoming habits from the past.

Religious institutions play an important role, as well. Religious representatives are part of the everyday life for many citizens. Their opinion has special importance in political viewpoints and in the definition of which opinions may me expressed.

Therefore key factors for this situation are the ruling governments. This happens because of their unwillingness to allow the free expression of opposite opinions. In this way, they are more interested in manipulating the media and use them for their advantage in order to progress their cause. For instance, government-sponsored advertisement and media subsidies are not paid to government-critical media outlets and in this way their economic survival and competition are at jeopardy. This is a consequence of a new wave of populism and populist politics that we can observe nowadays not only in Balkans but in Europe in general. In this concept, it was observed that Media outlets do not have international connections to achieve a better and concrete point of view for every situation.

As a conclusion, we pointed some ways to improve the situation and to promote freedom of expression in Balkans. The main question that we focused on was why Europe has to act quickly if it wants to avoid a new, upcoming crisis in all levels.
European Union is still unprepared to live in a world where geopolitics has returned. In a world where both governments and public opinion are once more obsessed with borders, and they set success not on economic growth but on national pride and on populism. This new populist nationalism centered around “the people” and have an application in every Balkan country tests EU’s ability to think and act as a geopolitical player. What EU has to do is to encourage reforms to be introduced in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo, FYROM and Albania, rewarding them membership.

However, it is obvious that the linear and normative democratization assumption- do your homework and reform and you will join the club of European democracies- hardly seems valid anymore. Particularly when the homework as not focused on consolidating democracy beyond the creation of formal institutions which must be at the heard of EU strategies towards the Balkans, by ensuring that democratic institutions function in practice and that societies are fully able and free to participate in democratic process. As a consequence, this way of thinking will promote and support the democratic and liberal function of Media in practice.

In addition to, a «Balkan Union», something like an exchange program where representatives from different countries or towns will meet and discuss their mutual issues and they will try to find appropriate solutions to solve these problems. We thought that the participants have to be young people in order to exchange their ideas, their experience and their way of thinking. In this way, they can easier create different networks to communicate and interact with people that share same way of thinking. Also, it is obvious that in this way we can eliminate the fear of the unknown and as a consequence political extremism and radicalization in the Balkan region. So, the important thing that we all have to focus on is to support and promote liberal values and ideas to achieve a democratic environment where the freedom of expression will be a reality and every individual will be freely express his believes.

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