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No EU membership without free media

As the EU plans for enlargement, it will be imperative that the European Commission remains ruthless in ensuring that candidate countries abide to the newly enshrined European Media Freedom Act. Otherwise, there is a real risk of bringing in countries that will defy the integrity of the European Union. Alignment with the Act must become a vital pre-condition for membership negotiations, writes Antoinette Nikolova, Director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative, a Brussels-based organisation that monitors, campaigns and advocates for free and independent media in the Balkan region.

Last month, the EU announced it would initiate talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of its latest resolve to prepare for the “future of tomorrow” and “use enlargement as a catalyst for progress”. 

To many Balkan states hoping to progress on their path to EU status this will have been welcome news. But if the Commission is to allow countries like Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to advance on their membership journey (and receive financial benefits in return), it must be firmer on its criteria for free, independent media and have the same expectations for candidate countries as it now does for member states under the newly enshrined European Media Freedom Act (EMFA). 

In Bosnia and Herzegovina for example, despite progress in other aspects of their membership criteria, the country is undergoing a worrying decline in media freedom. The International Press Institute found that a string of new restrictive legislation – including re-criminalising defamation and barring media from registering as NGOs – is steadily shrinking the space for independent, free media. This, coupled with an increasingly hostile rhetoric from the government towards media that goes against the will of the state and attacks on journalists by public officials, stands to undermine any progress made around the rule of law and alignment with other EU values. 


Unfortunately, Bosnia is not an isolated case. For the past three years, the Balkan Free Media Initiative has been reporting rampant abuse and attacks on free, independent press across the region. The result has been a weakening of the information environment allowing autocrats like President Vucic in Serbia and Russian-backed troublemakers like Milorad Dodik in the Bosnian region of Republika Srpska to take almost total control of the media.

Just before its December elections last year, Serbia passed its own media laws that allowed the government to formally own media outlets and push out independent operators, despite vocal protests from NGOs and civil society groups. For years, the Serbian state owed telecoms company, Telekom Srbija, has been used by the government as a tool to buy up independent operators and drive out incumbents through anti-competitive practices, allowing the state to increase their control to the access of information through cable TV channels. 

The vacuum left by a lack of free press has led to the spread of anti-Western and anti-EU disinformation, which sawa drastic increase ever since Russia invaded Ukraine. No wonder then, Serbia, once considered a promising EU candidate, is now backsliding on its democratic path as its population becomes ever more sympathetic towards Russia and against the EU. It is no coincidence that this has come when the media has slipped further into state control.

As the EU begins its membership negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovinian and progresses talks with other Balkan states including Serbia, it must ensure that strict laws to protect media freedom are an essential condition for any pre-enlargement talks. If they do not, they risk bringing in a wave of countries who want to enjoy the benefits of membership without adhering to its values, jeopardising the future integration of the union. One only needs to look at Hungary to see the difficulties that can result when member states are allowed to be taken over by autocratic leaders intent on controlling information. 

The good news is that strong legislation has already been passed for EU members. Earlier this month, the EU cast its final vote on the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), a landmark legislation meant to protect media independence and curb external attempts to influence editorial decisions.Under this new law, the EU has an opportunity to not only set the standards on how media freedom should be upheld and enforced across the union but also signal any prospective candidate that abiding by the EMFA must be a key requisite for any meaningful membership talks.

If the EU is preparing for the future of tomorrow, alignment with the EMFA must become a vital pre-condition for membership negotiations. Candidates who undermine media freedom as a crucial pre-condition for accession talks, should not be sitting at the negotiating table.



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