This story was originally published by Meta.mk . An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
In times of war and global polarization the Western Balkans region is divided along the lines of current polarizing forces. Disinformation campaigns, hate speech, physical attacks, threats, low income, poor economic status, divisions, self-censorship, and job insecurity are the main challenges that the regional independent media are facing. World Press Freedom Day is the perfect opportunity to emphasize the importance of unity and cooperation, not just among media organizations in the region but all sectors of society, in order to overcome these challenges that significantly affect the democratic processes.
According to the results of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index for 2022 , several Balkan countries showed improvement , such as North Macedonia, which jumped 33 places to rank 57, and Montenegro, which gained 41 places to be ranked 63 out of 180.
World Press Freedom Index 2022 in the Balkans pic.twitter.com/BR960AluWG 
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Meanwhile, Croatia (48), Bulgaria (91), Kosovo (61) and Serbia (79) also improved their rankings, while Bosnia and Herzegovina (67), Greece (108), Albania (103) and Slovenia (54) showed decline. The RSF report  specifically warned about the spread of disinformation as an increasing threat to freedom of expression.
“The harmful effects of misinformation are obvious and tangible and specifically affect the quality of our life and the development of society and well-being,” says Bardhyl Jashari, executive director of Metamorphosis Foundation, based in Skopje, North Macedonia, the publisher of the Truthmeter.mk  fact-checking service.
Therefore, Jashari believes, all sectors of society, government, NGOs, media, academia, must cooperate and create short-term and long-term strategies with effective mechanisms to counter this harmful phenomenon aimed at encouraging divisions. He said:
“First, the media should increase the professionalism and relevance of the content they publish, NGOs and educational institutions should work to increase the level of media literacy and critical thinking skills of the population, government institutions should be more transparent, and create a legal framework that will provide an environment for the safe operation of journalists and the punishment of hate speech.”
Jashari further added that in the Western Balkans region, the disinformation influence aims to disrupt the ongoing processes of consolidating democratic institutions by misusing and deepening the existing ethnic, religious, economic, and ideological or party divisions. For that reason Metamorphosis has started a regional initiative, Western Balkans Anti Disinformation Hub, supported by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, to enable different stakeholders from all countries in the region to join forces.
The safety of journalists in North Macedonia, which is related to impunity  enabled by the unreformed judiciary , is an issue raised in reports by domestic civil society organizations and noted in the European Union annual progress report for 2021 , alongside “working conditions, especially their labour and social rights.” This situation is similar in the other countries across the region.
Nikola Petrović, director of the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC) , а think-tank based in Belgrade, Serbia explains that, besides the political and violent threats that many journalists and media workers receive daily in the Western Balkans region, the low economic status of professional journalists and media outlets is among the biggest threats to the freedom of the press. In a statement for Meta.mk, he said:
“Investigating and working on articles important for the whole society is often long and tedious process, which is impossible to accomplish without both financial and safety support to the journalist.”
“Fighting disinformation in this age of surreal number of news sources, has become one of the most important issues and obligations of any serious media,” Petrović added.
Petrović points out that the media in Serbia, especially the local media, should receive better funding that would allow them to remain independent.
“The media control bodies must be removed from the influence of the government and parliament and judiciary process against threats to journalist accelerated significantly”, Petrović claims.
Klodiana Kapo, managing director of Tirana-based fact-checking media service that promotes accountability based on the right to information and transparency Faktoje.al , stresses that, in Albania, there are more than 950 online news portals whose owners, financing sources and staff are not known, yet they are the biggest sources of disinformation in the country.
“Traditional media and television are captured by business interests, politics, and, in some cases, even by the Mafia,” says Kapo, adding that, as a result, “many journalists apply self-censorship as a form of protection as well as lack of freedom to exercise their profession.”
She believes that independent media providing a transparent, independent and depoliticized service should be engaged to provide employment and service opportunities to local journalists in different cities of Albania, as well as to students or young journalists.
“Journalists in Albania must have employment contracts, be well informed and provided with access to free legal protection in case of threats, intimidation or blackmail. Media literacy must be enhanced not only in journalism universities, but must be spread in as many communities as possible”, says Kapo.
Ismar Milak, project coordinator from Bosnian citizen organization Why Not?, which operates the fact-checking service Raskrinkavanje.ba , says that, in societies of never-ending transition, fragile democracies and impeded rule of law, media freedom is always at stake. He noted:
“In times of war and the global polarization like the one we are experiencing now, it is suffering additional strains as our region is unfortunately divided along the lines of current polarizing forces.”
As he further explains, this situation multiplies the damage that malign influences and disinformation can inflict on media and individual freedoms, making it necessary to multiply combatting disinformation efforts by connecting regionally.
“And we are doing exactly that in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region, all together,” Milak says. He emphasizes again that fact-checking, media literacy, and credible media reporting are all required to improve the current situation, while, at the same time, different parts of society need to play their role as well.
“The public institutions and media in particular need to improve their work in order to be able to even start winning this fight”, Milak concludes.