Macedonian Human Rights Movement International
International Press Institute - 2001 World Press Freedom Review

The following are IPI's reports on Greece, Bulgaria and Albania. For their complete report please visit:

Report on Greece

Greece continues to be one of the few countries within the European Union (EU) that has consistently brought criminal defamation suits against journalists. IPI and other press freedom organisations have long campaigned for the repeal of such repressive laws, pointing out that handing down prison sentences in defamation cases impedes the free flow of information and ideas and the threat of imprisonment deters free and critical reporting. In addition, criminal defamation is in contradiction to Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, to which all EU members, including Greece are bound by law.

However, representatives of the Greek government deny that criminal defamation, as applied in Greece, constitutes a threat to freedom of expression. At a meeting on Freedom of Expression in Europe, organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe on 12-13 March and attended by IPI, a Greek government representative said that Greek journalists prefer the current system since it is cheaper for them. The Greek delegate said that it in common practice, if an individual is found guilty of defamation, prison sentences are bought off for a small amount of money. As such, it is cheaper for the convicted than if a verdict were reached in civil court.

After being presented with an IPI paper at the conference listing a number of press freedom violations in Greece, the Greek representative said that press freedom organisations have a biased picture of the situation for Greek journalists and that many of the reported incidents are not press freedom violations at all. IPI pointed out that, in practice, criminal defamation criminalizes free speech which goes against a number of international declarations and that the use of it in Greece reveals a deep-seated suspicion on part of the Greek authorities against a free and unfettered media. The attitude of the Greek representative was also evident in a protracted court case which dragged on last year.

On 2 February, Sotiris Bletsas, a member of the Society for Aromanian (Vlach) Culture, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and fined the equivalent of US $1,400 by an Athens court for disseminating false information under Article 191 of the penal code. Bletsas appealed the sentence and was set free pending the appeal. The charges were brought by a deputy with the conservative party New Democracy, Eugene Haitidis, and concern leaflets distributed by Bletsas in 1995 which he deemed defamatory to the Vlachs, since they referred to the Vlach language as a "minority language". In addition, the court said the leaflet, published by the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, could cause "fear and anxiety among citizens." The case has been appealed.

The trial has been criticised by several human rights organisations and critics maintain that Greek authorities are particularly reluctant to acknowledge the existence of a number of minority languages in Greece and that the sentence provides further evidence for this. Greece has been criticised for failing to provide minorities with sufficient rights, which are considered to be of extra importance since Greece is a centre for immigrants from the Balkan region.

Elsewhere, the American embassy in Athens refused to grant a left-wing journalist a visa at the beginning of the year. Christos Papoutsakis, editor of political weekly Anti, was denied the visa needed to go to an event organised on 1 February by the Columbia School of Journalism on dissenting journalism. The Greek Helsinki Monitor, a human rights organisation, protested the decision. It is believed a possible reason for the denial is that Papoutsakis's name remains on security lists dating from the Cold War. Papoutsakis has long been a critic of U.S. foreign policy.

On 9 April, Greek journalists went on strike demanding a pay-rise and better pension plans. The journalists' union released a statement saying the journalists in print and electronic media want "decent wages" and that they would strike for one day to achieve this aim.

On 8 June, a group of Greek students forcefully entered a public television station in the city of Thessaloniki. The students, all with Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, demanded they be allowed to state their views on education reform, a demand which was granted by the manager of ET3 television.

In Greece, pirated entertainment products remains a problem. On 22 March, U.S Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the U.S. has resolved a three-year long trade dispute with Greece over illegal broadcasting of movies and television shows made in the U.S. The two countries reached an agreement after Greek officials said they would crack down on individuals dealing in pirated goods and that the necessary legislation to deal with the problem would be passed. Much like in neighbouring Albania, many smaller TV stations air copyrighted material without the necessary permission to do so.


Report on Bulgaria

Bulgaria may be the first country to see a dethroned monarch returning to power through the ballot box. In general elections held in June, a former king, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, swept to power on a platform consisting of the promise to make the situation for people better within 800 days.

Even though the return of a former monarch was indeed an unusual event, the political jostling that tainted the election was far from extraordinary by Central and Eastern European standards. Indeed, it closely resembled this year's events in Hungary and the Czech Republic. In Bulgaria, much like in the Czech Republic and Hungary, journalists accused the government of trying to extend its control over the media prior to elections. At the centre of the accusations was Bulgarian National Radio (BNR).

Like many other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, Bulgaria has encountered its fair share of problems in its effort to transform the former state-controlled media into a proper public service device. The incident that fuelled accusations the government was applying its political hand in the running of BNR was a 6 February decision by a media control panel, the National Radio and TV Council, to appoint Ivan Borislavov to the post of Director General of BNR.

In response to this decision, over 500 journalists went on strike, saying their new director, who previously worked in the radio's cultural section as a translator and poet, lacked the necessary experience to manage such a big organisation. Audience ratings plummeted after Borislavov's appointment, and many commentators said the quality of programming deteriorated. Reportedly as a result of tensions created by his appointment, Borislavov suffered a heart attack and was replaced by Aleksandar Brzicov, who set out to deal with the protesting journalists.

After having been on the receiving end of the protest for over a month, the new management under Brzicov announced it would dismiss Lili Marinkova and Peter Volgin, two journalists leading the strike. A few days later, several other journalists were told to go as well. On 19 March, the Board of Managers suspended broadcasting of the "Horizont" programme and employed police to block journalists of that programme from entering their studio. It was also reported that dismissed journalists were being replaced by reporters from a newspaper controlled by then-ruling party, the Union of Democratic Forces. The Board of Managers said it had taken the decisions in response to the journalists self-proclaimed civil disobedience.

Eventually, the affair went all the way to the Bulgarian Supreme Court which overturned the decision to appoint Borislavov. The court said Borislavov's appointment was not legitimate because he had not been nominated properly. In May, the National Radio and TV Council announced it has selected a previous programme director, Polya Stancheva, to take over the position of director general.

After receiving news of her appointment, Stancheva told the media she would work to constructively solve the crisis. According to Stancheva, 44 persons were fired and 57 were recruited during the protests. She promised that all the dismissed journalist would be allowed to come back should they wish to do so. "It will be difficult to have all fired staffers come back to work at once," she said but added all of them would be allowed to return.

There were also allegations that the authorities tried to exert influence over the print media prior to elections. A few weeks before the ballot, a group of independent publishers, representing Bulgaria's most widely read newspapers, said that the government had stepped up its efforts to interfere with the media before elections. The statement read: "We, publishers of newspapers in Bulgaria, express our grave concern and categorically denounce increasing instances, in which levers of power are used to exert pressure on daily newspapers and interfere with the editorial policy of many publications. We will not yield to manipulation, pressure and threats regardless of where or whom they come from."


Report on Albania

While Albania's politicians continue to face a barrage of problems left by the old communist regime and years of chaos that followed its demise, the media reporting on these developments have achieved a certain amount of maturity and professionalism.

Even though problems with the standards of journalism remain, the past few years have seen a progression towards a climate in which seasoned and sophisticated reporting has become more prominent. There are, of course, exceptions to this. In 2001, two main events, and the media's coverage of them, showed both the progress achieved in this field but also highlighted problems that still exist.

The first was the outbreak of fighting in neighbouring Macedonia between an armed group of ethnic Albanians calling themselves the National Liberation Army and Macedonian armed forces. The second was the media's coverage of general elections held on 24 June. In both these instances, there was plenty of room for political use of the mass media and the possibility that media outlets would be mere conveyors of pre-packaged political and nationalistic rhetoric. In the case of the media's coverage of fighting in Macedonia, this was generally not the case.

The conflict in Macedonia could have a direct effect on Albania in a number of ways. In addition to the proximity and the possible refugee onslaught, the conflict has its roots in the perceived mistreatment of the minority Albanian population in Macedonia, making it a sensitive topic to report on in Albania. It goes without saying that the conflict was widely covered in Albania. This was done, however, with a promising level of objectivity when compared to the biased journalism prevalent in the region's past.

As a result of the economic hardship faced by many Albanian media outlets, there was little on-the-spot reporting, which resulted in a reliance on international news agencies for updated coverage. Otherwise, the news carried was generally void of political polemic and there was little distortion of actual events as they unfolded. There were, of course, exceptions, but not on the scale that marked the reporting which helped to incite hatred in Bosnia during that war. In Albania, criticism was generally confined to opinion pages, which carried a lively debate between media commentators throughout the conflict.

According to some commentators, the war was the result of the Macedonian government's inability to effectively deal with complaints made by its Albanian population, and some suggested that violence was the last resort of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. In all, even though much of the coverage was critical of the Skopje government, there appeared to be an effort on part of the Albanian media to restrain itself from the kind of partial reporting that could have had a debilitating effect on the precarious developments.

The other main political development within Albania was the general election, which gave the ruling Socialists 70 out of 140 seats in parliament. The elections, according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE), "marked progress over past elections in terms of the conduct of the campaign, media and election administration."

The performance of some of the media, however, shows there is still some way to go before Albanian journalism can be considered truly independent and professional. Many statements by candidates were carried with little criticism or analysis, and several key issues were underreported. At times this resulted in a blurred line between political advertising and news reporting. In addition, some print media engaged in polemical attacks on the government and several carried biased reports on the Socialist party.

Coverage of the elections in the broadcast media was generally more balanced. The main exception was public television TVSH, which according to the OSCE failed to meet its responsibility as a public broadcaster. It devoted 40 per cent of its political coverage to the ruling Socialists, and only 11 per cent to the opposition Union for Victory party. Eventually, on 16 July, monitoring body the National Council for Radio and Television fined TVSH for bias in favour of the Socialist party in the period leading up to the second round.

Last year also saw developments with regard to media law. In March, Article 19 provided a commentary on a proposed Freedom of the Press law. The law had been drafted to introduce regulation in a highly unregulated media sector. However, according to Article 19, the draft law contained a number of provisions that could constitute threats to press freedom.

For example, several provisions would make the journalist responsible for what is printed, even though this decision is taken by the editor or owner of the media outlet. Moreover, and perhaps more worrying, is the provision which states that all journalists must be registered with a Journalists' Registry and become members of a "Journalists' Order" which requires a number of years of experience and other obstacles. This provision would make it illegal for a publisher to employ journalists that are not registered or members of the order.

Even though the draft law was designed to rectify low standards of journalism, international standards and practice in democracies make it clear that any regulation of the journalistic profession is a matter best left to the media itself. Other troubling provisions included articles making it an obligation to print only truthful and accurately checked stories, and which would criminalise the distribution of false information, placing a heavy onus on journalists which could hamper the free flow of information.

There was also an attack on a journalist in Albania last year. On 8 November, Nikolle Lesi, publisher of independent newspaper Koha Jone, was attacked by an unidentified assailant who beat him and threatened him with a gun. IPI's affiliate SEEMO said the attack was in response to articles published by Koha Jone.