Branko Čečen

Director of Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS)

I remember my embarrassment like it was yesterday. I was a journalist apprentice for just several months, sitting in a bar with the most prominent journalists of a national daily, the only one independent from media machinery and corrosive nationalism of a former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic. I was fascinated by these warriors of free speech. They were smart, educated, street-wise and brave – people knew their names. They were loud, and drunk, too, but still – fascinating characters.

They were celebrating one of them, raising glasses to him time after time, hailing him as a hero of the profession. Grateful for a place at the table, awarded to me with no small amount of generosity, I wasn’t about to ask what did the man do to deserve such praise, but the circumstances of his heroic exploit kept precipitating through their drunken, celebratory cacophony of yelling, joking and laughing. I still remember the moment in which I realised what did he do to earn such glory – he asked a secretary of a public official to get him something and used her absence to steal a copy of a document from her desk, for his story. And I remember so well the emotional wave of a sudden realisation that what these role models of mine find to be a glorious act of professional bravery, to me was just… wrong. I didn’t care all that much, or at all, for troubles the official of Milosevic’s party may encounter because of the incident, though I probably should have. All I could think of was the poor secretary. What about her? Will she keep her job? Would she be able to find a new one, if she is fired from this one? And in that same moment, I realised my inadequacy, my lack of capability for acts such as the one I’ve been celebrating with these men, whom I saw as the best in the business. I was catastrophically disappointed in myself. 

I have some more sober, knowledgeable and very patient editors to thank for not radically changing my professional and life plans after this embarrassing self-realisation. It took some great professional trainers from the West, and a couple of study visits to the USA, to understand that I was right at my somewhat idealistic and emotional approach to, what I now know was – media ethics. It was instinctive, a matter of how I was brought up, and it was so violently challenged by what was to come in following years of bloody chaos of falling apart of ex-Yugoslavia, too. But it was what I have taken from that bar in 1991 that defined my approach to work for wild Serbian print media of this period: I tried to be as courageous and bold as my wilder and older colleagues, but in show-casing that successful and impactful journalism was possible without hurting innocent secretaries along the way. I took media ethics, just as I took journalism, quite personally. And I hung on to every source of professional rules, standards and guidelines for dear life. Sometimes even literarily. But that’s another story.

The Band of (Journalistic) Geeks

It was probably this guiding principle that has led me to become a director of Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS), an organisation that left much to be desired at the time of my arrival. To my complete delight, young reporters I’ve found there quickly proved to be much more ahead of my generation on exactly the topic of this story: ethics. They weren’t very versed in it – that is not the point. The point is that they craved it. They wanted to be the most ethical investigative reporters there are, and they were eager to learn. I’ve used them, in a bit of a vampire fashion, to suck their energy and zeal for journalistic excellence in my own pursuit of demonstration as to how we can do our job properly. Even in Serbia. For me, personally, the mere fact that these young reporters were not embarrassed by their older colleague in a bar, represented a significant improvement, when compared to the start of my career. 

Soon, our organisational mission stated exactly: “CINS was founded (…) to showcase that independent journalism up to highest professional standards is possible in Serbia, too”. And it still says so on our website. I have found like-minded people, young and brave, prone to rather publish a “weaker” story, but proven all the way, than the spectacular one under lower standards. The happy bunch of journalistic geeks.

Though we managed to pull off some great feats of journalism, like a spectacular upset of winning the European Press Award in 2017, we never came around to formalising this geekiness of ours and putting it on paper. Constraining conditions of the very existence of an organisation like ours in the Serbian media landscape, dominated by the pro-government media, public smearing of journalists (very often us) by public officials, death threats on social networks, and constant attempts by the state to slow and tire us down, prevented us from compiling our own code of ethics. There was always something more urgent to do, pay for, or invest time into. That was quite a shame, really, since our reputation as a center that is staunchly professional and ethical became, by last year (2021), quite a formidable one. We knew we should have done it a long time ago. We had it in our mission. We needed it.

Ethical Journalism Network

The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) couldn’t have approached us with a proposition of working on editorial guidelines at what seemed like a more opportune time.  We had, as it happened, just started working on our new organisational Strategy. By that time, the process of collective work on the Strategy has, as it usually does, shown gaping holes in our organisational system, as well as some inter-personal issues. The understanding of our work so far, as well as what it is supposed to be in the future, was quite different among us. The emotions were high, problems many and difficult, and the atmosphere, with no obvious solutions at hand, somewhat grim.

The skeleton of our future Editorial Guidelines offered by EJN, through the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) and the Building Trust in Media in South East Europe and Turkey project, as well as the supporting materials provided in a neatly useful package to help us navigate through the task, has sat on my hard-disk, untouched and unread, for quite some time. I thought: “No, we don’t have the guidelines, but we are fanatical about the issue and know so much about it, we will do it in no time, and with ease”. Well, at least I was still idealistic. Because this idea of breezing through the existential backbone of our calling was miles away from what was needed to actually compile it. However, the plan was for me to put the provisional guidelines together so that we could collectively work on the proposition until we were happy about it. But the Strategy, on top of the pressure of our intense everyday work, kept the guidelines kit sitting on my hard disk for quite some time, untouched. 

That, however, doesn’t work with our Editor-In-Chief, Milica Šarić, a living bundle of endless energy. She kept pestering me about the guidelines for weeks, then months. She wanted it to be done, she needed it, personally and professionally speaking. Finally, on one of the occasions of her usual less than gentle nudges, she managed to annoy me. So, I sat down and thought about it: what else, in fact, could be more of a priority, for people like us? It was a small revelation, really. I started pondering over our ethical existence every spare moment of my time, not just in order to get Milica off my case, or to quieten my conscience, but to check if I’ve really traveled anywhere from that chair in that bar, when I thought I should probably change professions. It turned out to be sort of a dance with my reason for professional being, of a sort. I hardly typed a sentence I hadn’t felt to be existentially important for my work and vocation. I realised it would be so for all of us, and saw an opportunity for these guidelines to remind us all about why are we going through these difficult processes in the first place. And, perhaps, to quiet our differences about the future of the organization.

Milica and I inserted, somehow, meetings about guidelines into our already impossible timetable, and I finally presented the team with what I’ve put together. What happened then was quite remarkable. 

Guidelines to the Rescue

The collective work on guidelines turned out to be a rallying point for all of us. It was a topic our reporters talked about with almost religious belief in their eyes and voices. They were passionately discussing it, cheered good suggestions, made jokes about lesser ones, and relished the moment, often leaving for drinks after the meeting would end. And just like that, all other disputes became less severe in the light of this central document, a credo about which we passionately agree. The Strategy became just a thing to discuss, and not a paramount issue of life and death. The work on the guidelines themselves progressed marvelously and was ended with eleven densely-packed pages of strict rules we happily imposed on ourselves to remind us all why are we doing this uncomfortable, tedious, and sometimes even dangerous investigative journalism. 

We realised that these guidelines are a foundation for every single element of our future (the strategy) that we wanted to plan. 

Now, let’s not just think that this process was all easy and simple. In the first place, it is one thing to design some “laws” of the profession in your little organisation, and quite another to evoke every ethical problem reporters and editors have encountered over years of living with a finger in the eye of an authoritarian government, to derive an adequate set of rules to govern similar situations in the future. Every single one needed revisiting and discussion. Also, investigative reporters are so tediously detail-oriented and dedicated to the precise meaning of words and sentences, that the process threatened to become just too long. Fortunately, at the same time, investigative journalists are so very efficient. The compromises were found quickly, were constructively agreed upon, and we could see precise sentences, well thought-through, piling up into something we all felt was so very important. It was tremendously satisfying work.

A Generational Leap of Integrity

A bunch of young, but already professionally-experienced reporters found new aspects of our ethical existence, turning them into good rules. As a director, I saw the legal opportunity to impose the guidelines upon everyone working with CINS. With the rest of the management, we developed texts of new contracts which demanded compliance with our guidelines from every signatory of a contract. From programmers and designers, to photographers and members of the Board of Directors. In a somewhat similar fashion, we entered the system of revisiting and amending guidelines as an obligation of the newsroom and management into the very text of the guidelines. I am certain we will run into new ways of making the system of upholding our belief in journalism and its values last for as long as the organization does, but right now our system seems watertight and as smart as they come. As for the Strategy … we agreed upon it with professional calm. 

Our Editorial Guidelines is a document I would have loved to have had in 1991, at that bar, with those old-school reporters celebrating a professional crime. I wouldn’t have thrown it on the table to rub it in their noses – they were honest, hard-working and brave heroes of early freedom of the press in Serbia. In fact, I think that most of them would, providing some explanation and education, understand why ethics is important, and adopt it with gratitude. But it would have been so much easier for me if I had these guidelines to read before falling to sleep and after every one of many events which tested my sense of integrity and ethics at those uncertain and challenging times. I would have been spared so many professional and personal doubts and uncertainties, I would have known where to direct my work, and how.

I hope that present and future reporters and editors, at least those working for CINS, will at least have those problems off their tables. I hope they won’t waste time and emotions on these issues again, using all that energy for more purposeful endeavors. If nothing else, these guidelines are such a giant leap for just three generations of journalists in a society with little democratic experience, that I may even claim some pride in putting them together and making them a firm structure for young journalists to hang on to. 

It is a seed from which, as long as it is alive, good media and good journalism may grow one day, perhaps at a time when this world decides to be a little less antagonistic to the truth.

Author photo by Vladimir Miloradovic

Feature photo by ONUR KURT on Unsplash

The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), in partnership with UNESCO and supported by the European Union (EU), has been implementing the Building Trust in Media in South East Europe (SEE) and Turkey since 2016. In the context of a rapid digital transformation followed by a decline in the commitment to journalistic professional standards and civil society’s trust in media, the second phase of the project was launched. The role of the EJN in Phase 2 is to support the media outlets in South East Europe and Turkey to perform a self-assessment exercise of their commitment to good governance and ethical and professional standards – also called ethical audits.


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