Challenges European Independent Media Faces In Today’s World

One of the main roles of independent media is to provide perspectives on current events, political topics, and/or journalism reports in a more nuanced format, with less inherent biases compared to other available media outlets. In recent years, the changing social, political, and economic landscapes have increased the level of polarization amongst society, affecting the ways one consumes media, interacts with others, and how one person tolerates another that holds different beliefs. For independent media, continuing to provide a more objective take on these developments has become more challenging.

Central, Southeastern, and Eastern Europe have many independent media outlets in which individuals can consume content as an alternative to other outlets, some of which may be state-owned or may not be as objective. Several governments in these regions have a poor record for media freedom and being able to fully express different opinions, and independent media seeks to fill this gap, though it comes with challenges.

One example from North Macedonia involved a personal photo of Borjan Jovanovski, editor-in-chief at Nova TV and local correspondent for Euronews. Balkan Insight reports that in early October, a Facebook user posted the photo with threatening words involving fascism. Shortly after, there was a similar incident involving a photojournalist from the Meta news agency who was “attacked by a private user with hate speech and online threats” in a private Facebook chat.

Other areas of digital space confrontation with independent media focus on political rivalries, many taking place in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. These are generally aimed at defacing political rivals and journalists with “smear campaigns and personal attacks,” including photos with them edited into Nazi uniforms spread online. The last category relates to historical beliefs and interpretation of past events. Journalists conducting investigative journalism are also more prone to politically motivated attacks if they are investigating someone holding office or an ally of the office holder. This has happened on several occasions in the region, with the journalists receiving threats or online slander.

These threats are also particularly challenging for women reporters at these independent media outlets. Many face misogynistic comments, threats of violence, or increasingly, revenge pornography, which “is a form of violence against women.” One recent example involved Serbian parliamentarian Staša Stojanović in which a fake explicit video with sexual content was shared online, allegedly involving her according to reports.

This is a sample of the various challenges for independent media outlets and their journalists. Note that it is not a phenomenon unique to these regions in Europe, but it highlights the circumstances in which journalists may be in a risky position. Some cases may simply involve online smear campaigns. Others can have serious real-world consequences, particularly those targeting women journalists. In other extreme cases, it can lead to being blacklisted and being detained, which mainly applies in countries with autocratic governments, such as in Belarus.

In recent years, independent journalism has become more difficult to present objectively. Ranging from outside pressure, politically motivated attacks, and harassment against women journalists, many have had to shut down or move operations. What happens is that people in these countries are left with less media outlet options, thus not getting the full picture of events and news. It not only discourages critical thinking and approaches, but also gives autocratic and autocratic-leaning countries more options in promoting carefully crafted narratives which may not always contain truthful information or use facts to promote a different account from reality.

In these regions and as a whole, governments, as well as the people of a country, must respect differing opinions and engage in constructive debates on current issues. Governments must also not tolerate calls for harassment, gender violence, and smear campaigns. Many governments in Southeastern Europe must make more progress on this front, such as being consistent with punishments regardless of political party affiliations, gender, ethnicity, and religion. In nearby regions where media freedoms are being challenged, it is also critical to not attempt to influence media outlet reporting, particularly for independent outlets. It can promote greater media credibility and encourage constructive debates, components of a healthier media landscape.