Western Balkans: How funding crisis overshadows media and self-regulation
By Sanela Hodžić
During the years of communism in the Western Balkans media were under complete state control. This was assured primarily through official appointment of media managers and editors loyal to the political establishment. Courts of Honour in ex-Yugoslavia ensured ideological uniformity in media content and compliance with the goals of the communist party. Promotion of professional ethics was not their main goal.
During the1991-1995 Balkan wars, media were used by the ethno-national political elites. They contributed to the polarisation of communities, the demonisation of other ethnic groups and finally to the justification of violence against the “other”. To this day, there is no common moral condemnation of inadmissible media practices prior and during the conflicts.
Attempts to self-regulate the media sector has been anything but organic, straightforward and easy. The international community played an important role in putting in place the regulations and institutions to support media self-regulation, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro.
In general, relevant reports suggest that media regulation systems have primarily contributed to the pacification of media content in the post-conflict countries. However, the picture is not clear. In broadcasting, for instance, the regulation of the sector involves the power to assert executive measures against broadcasters for inadmissible media content and it is still not clear whether broadcasters engage in unethical journalism less than other media. In Albania for example it is considered that broadcasting is still more problematic than print media content (Irex, 2014).
Attempts to develop self-regulation systems have faced numerous difficulties, not least because the bodies set up to supervise systems of self-rule do not have executive powers over news media, which means they are dependent entirely on the voluntary acceptance and dedication of media outlets and journalists to support ethical practice. The acceptance of self-regulation has taken some time in all of the countries, but has been more or less achieved across the region. However, self-regulation is handicapped by certain realities.
Firstly, the commercial imperatives of the media business have had an impact on professional norms. Less money is spent on editorial costs and journalism especially since the media market is further impoverished due to continuing economic crises across the region. The main objectives of media outlets are to make profits and to cut costs.
Second, and the biggest concern, is the fact that most media depend heavily on power elites that are political (either government or certain political parties) or economic power (companies which are major advertisers) for financing. They cannot risk losing this support. An increasing concern is the increasing reliance of media on government funding.
Both direct government funding and advertising practices of government institutions have been blamed for the manipulation of media to serve particular political and financial interests. This process is reinforced by the appointment of managers and editors loyal to certain political/economic elites, a problem particularly found with public media.
Given these sober realities it’s clear that media policies in the region are not enough to guarantee the statutory rights of editorial independence and media’s public interest mission. Certainly, they don’t create an enabling environment for quality journalism that respects ethical and professional norms.
For example, media, with the exception of Croatia and Macedonia, are not explicitly required to have internal complaints procedures for their audience nor are they obliged to consult journalists when appointing or dismissing editors.
There is little recognition of the right of journalists to act ethically. The conscience clause is rarely found in contracts with journalists and even in Croatia and Serbia where the Media Act/Public Information Law guarantees the journalist’s right to refuse engagement that would violate legal, ethical or professional rules (without having to suffer consequences for his/her employment contracts and conditions), there is no evidence that this stipulation has been considerably used in practice.
This lack of respect for the professional status of journalists should not come as a surprise though, given that irregular, even unlawful, types of employment are frequent in media and these significantly discourage journalists from exercising these rights.
Self-regulation on a national level
Some form of national structures for media self-regulation have been introduced in the region although it has not been a harmonious process.
Efforts have been made in different countries to establish an organisational model for supervising the implementation of the ethical codes. The codes in some countries cover all media sectors, but self-regulation mostly concerns print media and in recent years – online media too.
Although the self-regulation efforts in Croatia started in 1993 with the drafting of a code covering all media sectors, for a long time there was not enough professional or political will to establish and financially sustain a body that would supervise the code and promote its use. As a result, the Council of Honor of the CJA (Croatian Journalists Association) handled breaches of the Code.
In 2011 another body was established, the Croatian Media Council with a mission to monitor and adjudicate on breaches of journalistic ethics. On a positive note, this body tries to actively involve both the representatives of the journalists’ association and large media organisations in the self-regulation mechanism, but the council’s reach is limited to members only and their engagement has been evaluated as weak. However, there is still no clarity on the roles and powers of the two self-regulating bodies.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo self-regulation of media was developed with the help of the international community. In Bosnia, thanks to major technical and financial support from international donors the press council was set up in in 2000, following the adoption of the press code the previous year. In Kosovo the press council was founded in a similar fashion in 2005.
Because the self-regulation in these two countries was not developed organically from within, based on the awareness and dedication of the media community and taking into consideration the local context, it took some years for the councils to win the support of local media and journalists, particularly in the case of Bosnia..
A major challenge for all councils is the shortfall in resources and capacity needed to make them sustainable. In Bosnia and Herzegovina the continuation of the council’s work is made financially difficult and depends upon external funding of several donors, most constant one being the Embassy of Germany.
International support was also pivotal in the developing of media self-regulation systems in Montenegro and Serbia. The Media Self-Regulatory Council in Montenegro started operating in 2012. It deals with content of primarily print media and in some capacities with online and broadcast media as well.
The current state of self-regulation of media in Macedonia is especially discouraging. The Council of Honor within the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), particularly active in the 2007-2009 period, relied on the enthusiasm of seven journalists engaged on a voluntary basis to monitor violations of professional standards.
But the council faced a lot of resistance, campaigns against its members and court charges for defamation after the council accused a journalist of inaccurate and manipulative reporting. It also suffered from indifference and a lack of support within the media community. Today, the council is a shadow of its previous self, with rare and vague reactions to breaches of journalistic norms.
Meanwhile, the journalists’ association has engaged in discussions with journalists, media managers in electronic and print media, as well as the public service broadcaster (Radio Television of Macedonia) on plans to set up a separate self-regulatory body leading to the creation of the Council of Ethics of Media in Macedonia in December 2013. This includes representatives of print, online and broadcast media. A complaints commission of seven members (journalists, editors and public representatives) within the council considers complaints about media content.
But skepticism has been raised regarding the future work and credibility of the body. As one journalist said: “Some members of the Council are people who brutally take part in the creation and dissemination of propaganda, who lie shamelessly. I perceive their participation in a self-regulation body as a great insult and have no confidence whatsoever in their impartiality” (Saška Cvetkovska, journalist of Nova internet TV outlet).
Despite this there is room for optimism. In October 2014, with goodwill in abundance from UNESCO, other European press councils and journalism support groups in the region, a new Council of Media Ethics was launched in Skopje. The council is full of confidence that it can establish itself as a credible and effective self-regulator. It will not be easy and the council faces daunting practical challenges to become sustainable. Nevertheless, it hopes to win the support of media and journalists, and particularly a new generation of young media people who appear eager and ready to reinforce efforts to strengthen ethical journalism..
In Serbia in the 1990s, after a period when media were used to support nationalistic goals during the war, the community of journalists, split and without any meaningful sense of solidarity, lacked the unity needed to establish a credible system of self-regulation as well as being unable and unwilling to finance a self-regulatory body. Common professional norms were adopted first in 2006 by the two major journalistic associations (UNS and NUNS), but it was not before 2009 that the Press Council was founded, and not before 2011 that it actually started functioning (thanks to donor support, primarily by the government of Norway).
Nevertheless, the council is increasingly accepted by the media community, with 78 media outlets as members at the beginning of 2014, involving magazines, dailies, tabloids and press agencies.
Since 2013, the council has introduced the approach already adopted in Bosnia to adjudicate upon ethical breaches by both member and non-member media. Both councils have also widened their remit to include online media. The council in Bosnia has an elaborate approach to user generated content – if the content is not removed upon the request by Council, it is treated in the same way as other journalistic work and is liable for complaints procedure.
Albania is the odd one out in the Western Balkans. There is no media self-regulation body. Although self-regulation has been debated in public since the 1990s and an ethical code drafted in 1996 by the Albanian Media Institute and a journalistic association support for self-regulation has not materialised. A Council of Ethics was established in 2006, but it dissolved later.
Some Optimism, But Ethical Journalism Remains in the Shadows
In sum, the experience of media self-regulation in Western Balkans is of mixed fortunes. There are positive signs of increased media participation and in some countries an increased number of complaints being filed to self-regulators. For example, in 2013 the Press Council of Serbia received 71 complaints, twice as many as the year before (35), and in Bosnia the number tripled between 2009 and 2012.
Complaints in 2014 in Bosnia and Herzegovina have mostly related to denial of the right to reply, inaccurate and unfair reporting, as well as discriminatory speech and hate speech. Similar types of violations were registered in Croatia in 2012, but the report of the Council of Honor from 2012 also identifies a tendency of hidden advertising. There are also reports about predominant use of unidentified sources in Kosovo (MSI Irex 2014).
The growing participation of media and for example the fact that the majority of cases in Bosnia and Herzegovina are solved through simple mediation between editors and complainants demonstrates that self-regulation is acknowledged both inside and outside the newsroom.
However, on the down side the self-regulation of media across the region is making only glacial progress and a number of obstacles to rapid development of these systems can be identified:
Lack of regular monitoring of media content and breaches of journalistic ethics which is mostly due to a lack of resources of self-regulatory bodies. Because the self-regulatory bodies mostly process complaints filed by citizens much of the inadmissible content escapes attention. In Montenegro, for example, the Human Rights Action found many more breaches of professional norms (511 cases) than those registered by the media self-regulator (83) in the period of November 2013 – February 2014.
Lack of awareness and motivation of citizens and other actors to make complaints about unethical journalism is a problem that exists almost everywhere. The councils in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia are trying to address the issue by raising awareness among journalists, citizens and representatives of the judiciary about the importance of media self-regulation;
Lack of certainty that media will respect decisions arising from self-regulation also undermines public confidence in the system. In some cases, media fail to publish a retraction, apology or decision of the press council and they suffer virtually no consequences. For example in Serbia, the publications Kurir, Informer and Vecernje novosti have ignored instructions from the press council on one or more occasions (Matic and Valic-Nedeljkovic, 2014).
Lack of efficient mechanisms against media that refuse to publish retractions or apologies. By definition the credibility of self-regulation depends entirely on the willingness of media to accept the process but this is sometimes lacking often for political or other particular interests of the media concerned. Public condemnation (by the professional and wider community) against media failing to comply with the decisions of a press council are low key and limited. As a result the public often remains unaware of the lack of accountability of certain media outlets.
Self-regulation in the online media sphere involves additional challenges. There is a lack of transparency of ownership and editorial and contact information from certain media. For example, the press council in Bosnia and Herzegovina has problems with communication with online media and overseeing self-regulatory principles, particularly when dealing with online media which are not registered as media businesses and do not publish their contact information.
Most troubling is that self-regulatory bodies across the region are faced with the problem of unresolved long-term financial sustainability. Part of the problem is the fact that the media markets are poor and unable to financially sustain the system.
In these circumstances professional accountability and support for self-regulation is not a major priority for media, but it is a particular problem when media primarily perform the role of an open platform for political propaganda or advocates for specific business interests.
Self-regulation in the newsroom: Making a start
Attempts to promote self-regulation within individual media have not met with great success. An attempt to promote such measures made on the policy level in Croatia was Article 24 of the Media Act (adopted in 2004), which stipulates the adoption of a statute in each media outlet, which would regulate relations within the organisation and provide norms of conduct.
This provision was largely ignored for years, until 2013 an economic incentive was introduced. The adoption of the statute became a mandatory criterion for: (a) granting new tax relaxation for dailies – Value Added Tax was reduced from ten to five percent for dailies, and (b) government funding for broadcasters (and since 2013 for online media too) under the “Fund for Pluralism”. However, whether it has led to change is uncertain given that there is no adequate monitoring of media compliance.
Nevertheless, some media have recently been developing internal codes of ethics, although this is still not a widespread practice. For example in Kosovo, broadcast media tend to have codes of ethics, but this is not the case with most online media (MSI Irex 2014). In Montenegro, a few media recently introduced the Ombudsman within media organisations (including TV Vijesti and the dailies Vijesti and Dan). The Ombudsman in the daily Vijesti in Montenegro has been functioning actively, with 36 complaints received in the period of 3 November 2013 – 1 March 2014, and the decisions made in this period “mostly seem founded”, as assessed by Human Rights Action.
But elsewhere mechanisms of implementation are mostly weak. For example, norms adopted within the Fair Media Group in Albania (including Shqiptarja daily, Shqiptarja website and A1 Report TV station) are considered obligatory for all employees, but there are no corrective measures foreseen for violation of these norms.
In addition, four newspapers and one online media outlet in Albania established the institution of Ombudsman in 2013, as part of a UNESCO-led initiative. But this complaint mechanism has not been readily accepted by the public judging by the extremely low number of complaints received. The website Respublika also started a section on their website called “Respublica vs. Readers” envisaged for comments and further discussion with readers.
Do journalists count when it comes to self-regulation?
Journalists are mostly familiar with ethical issues, but the degree to which these norms are accepted as a part of daily practice depends on their personal commitment and working environment. In sum, journalists are by large not considered free to act according to their professional ethics.
Those who act opposite to the political and economic interests of owners and their affiliates risk losing their jobs. A recent example was the release from duty of the editor-in-chief of the daily New Macedonia (Nova Makedonija), Zoran Dimitrovski, for criticising the government in his column, in February 2014 (Trpevska and Micevski 2014).
Media and journalists still play a role in fomenting national, ethnic rivalries and often play fast and loose with their ethical obligations by providing one-sided views on daily political issues..
Even the most innocent occurrences are not spared from bad journalism. For example, in a recent case in Croatia, media published sensational reporting stressing the nationality of a negatively portrayed actor. Media have been criticised for political bias, especially at election time and (self)regulators have registered numerous breaches of ethics and professional conduct. Journalists, more or less willingly, continue to comply with such practices.
Part of the reasons is that they work in fragile professional and social conditions, enjoying low status, no job security and an average salary around or under the national average. Journalists often suffer violations of their labour rights and have little options for alternative employment. They are regularly not provided with enough time and resources for good fact-checking and investigation and speed is often favored more than accuracy.
In the words of an MSI Irex panelist: “Journalists have no time, no support from their editors, no money and, I am afraid, not even any remaining personal drive to check multiple sources of information” (Dobric, D, net.hr, MSI Irex 2014, p. 49). Investigative journalism carries the risks of exposure to different kind of pressure, threats, lawsuits etc.
All of this is made worse by poor levels of media solidarity. Journalists are often isolated by a lack of support within media and from within the community of journalists at large. Some of these factors may contribute to breaches of specific professional norms. But more alarmingly, even where ethics are respected, codes in place and opportunities for professional conduct are available many journalists are unwilling to engage in relevant, critical and investigative reporting which can further devalue and marginalise the role of journalism in the eyes of the public at large.
Social and political realities cool the fire of ethical journalism
In conclusion it is clear that the media communities of the Western Balkans are making slow progress towards systems of credible and effective systems of media self-regulation. In all countries the first steps are taken and media professionals are largely declaratively supportive of self-regulation bodies (with the exception of Albania). But the systems are limited and held back by a range of intractable problems, political, economic and structural. The self-regulatory body in Bosnia and Herzegovina enjoys the greatest credibility in the region, but it relies for its existence on (reduced) financial support from outside the country.
It is impossible not to conclude that progress towards the creation of confident, professional and self-aware media communities that can help build democracy in the region will be stalled so long as there are no clear policies and practical actions to confront the crisis conditions under which media function.
The problems of financial dependence on oligarchs and political friends; the lack of confidence in journalism that is beset by professional and social crisis; and the widespread neglect of the mission of journalism in the public interest combine to define a profound crisis across all platforms of media.
In this situation the structures of self-regulation at national level, at enterprise level and at the level of the individual journalist are severely restricted.
As this report reveals self-regulation remains a principle exercised only to the small extent that journalists and media managers are willing and empowered to do so. It is a model welcomed by journalists and media support groups and although it remains in the shadows of particular business and political interests the developments of recent years do provide a base from which to strengthen the scope for more action at the level of the enterprise and within different media sectors.
In particular, actions to promote enterprise self-regulation; forms of peer-review (reports and monitoring by journalists’ groups and online monitoring); the establishment of news ombudsmen and readers’ editors; and promotion of national dialogues with policymakers and public representatives can help strengthen the credibility of and commitment to national self-regulation systems. The region is in need of new initiatives to promote professional norms and enable journalists to follow them regardless of the interests of media owners and political players. New initiatives to press policymakers to refocus their attention on the value of pluralism and media democracy to the development of the Western Balkans are essential.
Although when looked at globally the media sector in the region over the recent years shows signs of stagnation, the MSI Irex indicates that in all countries in the region the score for professional standards has in sum improved since the beginning of the 2000s. However, the past five years show a worrying trend of declining professionalism. The time has come to confront that fall with fresh commitment to an agenda for change. Above all is the need to restore confidence in ethical journalism and the ability of media to play a more effective role in creating credible and durable forms of self-regulation.