Petar Milin The University of Sheffield, United Kingdom and Xhevahire Pruthi Zajazi Expert on contemporary media and civil society issues
Petar Milin is a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield. His special field is data science, but Petar is from Serbia and CFOM asked him to consider the pressures on press freedom there. Here he teams up with Xhevahire Pruthi Zajazi, an expert on contemporary media and civil society issues in Macedonia (FYROM), and together they present a ‘point of view’ on the state of the media in Serbia and Macedonia. The aim is to provoke a wider discussion about the perceived lack of media freedom and independence in the Balkans. The co-authors have asked six prominent journalists and media experts from the region to comment on what Petar and Xhevahire wrote; their contributions are also featured below.
Media is in the grip of ‘soft-censorship’ and must break free for a democratic future
After Macedonia was thrown into political turmoil in 2015, journalism there suffered an unprecedented crisis of integrity. Citizens no longer regard their news media as an independent source of information. The publication in 2015 of leaked wiretapped recordings of phone conversations confirmed suspicions that many journalists have been under extensive and unlawful surveillance for several years. The recordings also revealed high-ranking government officials giving instructions to pro-government journalists and media owners on the content of news stories. Later that year, in July 2015, the main political parties in Macedonia signed a so-called Przino Agreement, in which safeguards for freedom of media was one of the essential articles. Yet, the Freedom of the Press 2016 Report by Freedom House places Macedonian media in the ‘Not Free’ category, stating that it is subject to political pressure and harassment, resulting in self-censorship. Similarly, the 2017 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders highlights the gravity of the problems by placing Macedonia in 111th place out of 180 countries; and the European Commission’s 2016 Progress Report on FYROM states that the situation of the media “remains a serious challenge”, and more efforts are needed to develop a culture of professional ethics, both in offline and online media.
We consider that mainstream, traditional media are increasingly beholden to political and economic centres of power, rather than to their readers and audiences. In addition, about 40 cases of physical violence, threats and intimidation, including judicial proceedings against journalists, have been reported in the last couple of years.
Just as in Macedonia, so in Serbia too non-transparent ownership, constraints on independence and unfinished reforms are among the biggest problems that the media are facing. According to Reporters Without Borders’ latest publication Serbia is ranked in 66th place in press freedom. This might appear somewhat promising in comparison with Macedonia (111th) or even with some EU states like Romania, which was 52nd in the 2015 Index). On the other hand, Freedom House sees the country’s media landscape as only “partly free” and ranks it as 80th out of 199 countries. The frequency of physical attacks and threats against media representatives, especially those investigating sensitive issues, remains one of the biggest ‘chilling effects’ on media freedom in Serbia.
Both Serbian and Macedonian media suffer from so-called ‘soft censorship’, where those who hold political power also (covertly) control media outlets. Media subsidies and advertising placements represent major leverage to serve those in power, promote positive coverage and/or to conduct smear campaigns against critics and any independent intellectuals and professionals who dare to challenge the most powerful forces.
A Consumer Viewpoint
As is obvious from the overview above, the freedom of media in the Balkans is under constant and long-lasting threat. The pressures on media come from a wide variety of sources, but the most pervasive source is a small group of people with power and determination to maintain their dominant positions. Groups of political and business figures – a textbook example of South East European oligarchy – are seen as the main storm-bringers. That is the obvious but sad truth. And that is only part of it.
Those oligarchies are corroding the major institutions of the state and society by subordinating them to their own interests, which are often short-sighted, vulgar, and avaricious. It’s a parasitic process, one that keeps the host in a near-death state, but just alive. In this set-up the majority of journalists and media are, unfortunately, providing the environmental conditions for such a symbiotic relationship to persist. They are part of the problem. On the other hand a small number of journalists are rising to the highest professional standards. They do so with little or no institutional, systemic support, because they are driven by a strong belief in the value of their work.
This situation, however, does not apply only to journalism and media. Most, if not all, the major state and social sectors are functioning in a similar way. In education, culture, science, health and other areas, large numbers of professionals are forced to adopt a sort of servant culture, hoping for a ray of light, or for a few crumbs to fall to them from the table. Others, though, are persevering and doing highly professional work in spite of adversity. Finally, the grey ‘in-betweeners’ are passively waiting for some miracle to come, for an external actor – perhaps the EU, or the USA, or Russia, China, or God — to rescue them and set things right.
The situation is a virtual deadlock. The servants are deluded. The apathetic are incapable of resistance. And the true professionals are too isolated, too alone and ultimately too few to represent any coherent force for change. It is as if they all are asking one another: “’Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?”
Reactions from inside the profession
Velimir ĆURGUS KAZIMIR, Serbia. Journalist and Writer; Founder of the Media Archive Ebart
“The EU presides over a media system that serves the ruling parties”
Media freedom in Serbia is in more danger today than ever before. This is a crisis that has been going on for more than ten years, but has reached its climax in recent years. The erratic process of developing media regulations to fit EU standards has undoubtedly contributed to such a situation. The positive goals of that process were undermined, first, by the overly dominant role that the state takes in the public domain, and secondly by the chaotic and non-transparent process of media privatisation. These things have jeopardized not only the essence of the media independence and public responsibility, but also professionalism and desired standards in Serbian journalism. The EU has allowed the development of an information system which is totally in the service of the ruling parties, as well as financial power-holders close to the authorities. A functional regulatory system has not been developed because media regulatory bodies are completely controlled by the government, lacking independent competence and authority. Self-censorship is much more evident than direct censorship, for which there is no need. Online journalism, as well as social networks, is becoming increasingly important source of information, but it cannot match the impact and importance of TV stations with national coverage and the dominance of tabloid newspapers. The parties in power are ruling not only the national, but also local media. The damage casts a shadow over not only the future of the free journalism, but also the future and modernisation of Serbian society at large.
“Macedonia will struggle to escape from the total colonization of the media”
Macedonia’s authoritarian regime may have fallen, but it has left behind what one might call a “Habermas’ nightmare”. It created a fake-news-infested pseudo public sphere by completely colonizing the media. This process had three phases: In the first, the ruling party captured the broadcasting regulator – the audio visual oversight body, effectively creating an instrument for sanctioning dissenters; second, there was the establishment of operational control over the private and public broadcasters by solidifying their financial dependency; and finally, there was the consistent and thorough pressure to undermine the self-organizing ability of journalists and media professionals to resist . The regime has fallen, but its residue structures can be expected to persist. The quest for the freedom of the media may well be a long journey for the society. Still, Macedonia now has another chance.
“Serbian media is locked into a culture of coercion and self-censorship”
Many years ago the Prime Minister of Serbia Zoran Đinđić (who was assassinated in 2003), while talking about Serbia’s political and social past, said something like this: “In Serbia we have never had any good and progressive time throughout our whole history.” The same goes for freedom of the press.
More or less, the position of the press in Serbia has consistently stayed at the same level, which is to say below any acceptable or imaginable standard. Today, as ever, it remains largely at the mercy of the government. The prevailing forces remain the same – suppression of free speech, lack of respect for different opinions and all forms of criticism. Nonetheless, the worst thing psychologically is that even in the 21st century, even at the height of the digital era, even as Serbia outwardly follows the path of joining the EU, the media community faces the most horrible economic and political pressure, and the most terrible poverty, degradation and self-censorship.
Let me emphasize one important point: because the state did not go through a truth and reconciliation process, Serbia still suffers the effects of being a post conflict society. The current government is led by political parties whose leaders were in power during the ’90s, during the armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Several journalists were assassinated in that time, and these cases remain largely unresolved.
“Media have the task of making journalism into a pillar of a new democracy”
After 11 years, the Social Democrats in coalition with all the Albanian parties in the Parliament finally formed a new Government, leaving VMRO-DPMNE in opposition. This new situation has galvanized tectonic changes in the media sector which are still ongoing. The media in Macedonia was heavily polarized in the last decade. The larger portion was under the state and ruling party’s influence and funding, and a much smaller portion was made up of financially very weak independent and pro-opposition media outlets. This divided the sector into a small group of powerful media outlets and a multitude of small and weak ones, mainly consisting of online or local media, leaving the field of investigative and fact-checked journalism to just a handful of media organizations. Hence, after the political changes, journalists in Macedonia hope that the worst is behind, at least in the sense of media freedom. Huge hopes are invested in the new Government to be shutting the door on the extreme practices of the previous government, including blackmailing, disciplining and controlling the media, which culminated even in colonizing the social networks.
Media was the main tool of the populists in controlling the society, and in many cases it still is. The damage is done, and now we need to heal the body politic through the establishment of democratic processes. Macedonia was once one of the most prosperous countries in the region, but is now the last in terms of democratic, financial and euro integration. Macedonia has gone deeper into crisis, but now it can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Serbia`s media sector is in better shape overall, but the direction is still downwards, since it is easy to see that Aleksander Vučić’s rule is pointing in a similar, or almost identical, direction to that of Macedonia`s recent strongman, Nikola Gruevski. The main task of the journalistic community now is to exert influence and ensure that the new Government will revive democratic principles and bring journalism back as a strong pillar of democratic society.
“We journalists were left without protection when thugs stormed parliament”
A few weeks ago, while we were reporting on the paralysis of the Macedonian parliament in a political crisis, we sent an official request to record a short TV stand-up in the plenary chamber. The office of the Secretary General refused our request, stating that the sound system was being upgraded so it was impossible to let us record there.
Soon after this, on the night of April 27th, protesters, including masked people intent on violence and criminals, entered the parliament and beat up parliamentarians and journalists without any effort by police to stop the assaults. We witnessed it, we were direct targets of the violence, and we were shocked that no protection at all was provided in such a dangerous situation. This incident said a lot about media freedom in Macedonia in recent years.
Dinko GRUHONJIĆ, Serbia. Assistant Professor, Media Department, University of Novi Sad. Chief of correspondents for Vojvodina province, Beta News Agency and program editor of Independent Journalists Association
“The outside world doesn’t care: independent media must challenge the tyranny of state controls”
Traditional media platforms, meaning the mainstream media in Serbia, are, with a few exceptions, under state control. On the other side, there are some media which still manage to work without depending on the current regime and tycoons. These media can usually be found on the Internet. How is it possible that these independent media still exist? The media market in Serbia is very poor. It is practically on its knees because of the state’s constant interference in the money flow. In such circumstances, which have been effectively described by my colleague Petar Milin, the only ways to maintain an independent position is to have project financing of media from donors from abroad, and media crowdfunding. So far, it has often been proved that entering a wild media market, which is ruled by imperious politicians and tycoons, is a sure way to bring about either the downfall of the media enterprise or at least a downfall of professionalism as far as journalistic contents are concerned. As a result, professional journalism, which uses an analytical and investigative approach, can only be found on the Internet. Nonetheless, it is very important to draw attention to its existence.
The influence of these outlets cannot be compared to the influence wielded by mainstream media in a country like Serbia. The reason is simple: our country has a very short tradition of democracy and a very long tradition of authoritarianism. Serbia is a country where free citizens are being marginalized. It is a country which is in a certain kind of “trap”, because free citizens and free media have powerful enemies in the state apparatus and usually don’t have a lot of friends in the developed world, which is anyway turning a blind eye to problems in the country, hoping for political stability on the Balkans. Therefore, the alternative media deserve to be valued and supported from abroad much more. It is equally important that the alternative media themselves find new ways to strengthen their public influence by connecting and cooperating more often, and more effectively.