2018 ended with more dark clouds hanging over media professionalism and ethics in Kosovo and the wider region of South Eastern Europe.
Continuing political, economic and financial pressures, coupled with increasing lack of experience, disrespect for the professional standards, unfair competition, have all led to a growth in untruthful and biased content in large areas of the media.
New technology and online based media, including the social networks, have all worked more in favour of those who use journalism for their own benefit; politicians, businessmen and various interest groups have all acquired more instruments to control and influence media reporting to suit their needs and aspirations.
Paradoxically, instead of increasing professional competition the increased number of new media and journalists is producing more unprofessional and unethical journalism.
Also, the trend of declining public trust in the media has continued. Media are being perceived less as “seekers of truth” and more as – to use the technology writer Dan Gillmor’s phrase – “loudspeakers for liars”.
All this has put more pressure on professional journalists, who have already been struggling to find a way towards sustainability without compromising the standards of the profession. With their existence being endangered and their credibility being questioned, professional journalists and media are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place: left with a nearly impossible mission to maintain ethical principles in a market that favours unethical reporting.
The situation appears even worse, when things are put into the actual political and social context: Kosovo and the whole South East of Europe are seeing an increase in authoritarianism, government control and populism, that in turn puts added pressure on professional media and journalists, who by doing their job properly run the risk of being labeled and targeted as “traitors”, “foreign spies” or “enemies” of the nation and the state.
The number of verbal and physical attacks and threats against journalists continues to be high, with authorities still unable or even unwilling to prosecute rigorously such cases. According to the Kosovo Journalists Association there were 16 attacks on journalists last year reported to the authorities. Two of these were physical assaults: one journalist was attacked in the north of Kosovo and another at the University Clinical Center of Kosovo, reported the English language website, Balkan Insight.
Too many attacks on journalists remain unsolved, which only increases the feeling that those targeting media can count on impunity. Even worse, institutional and political leaders themselves don’t hesitate to verbally assault journalists labeling them “liars” and “traitors”, thus making it appear legitimate to target the media.
Oddly enough, the attacks on journalists occur mainly in cases when reporting has been meticulous and well-researched, while the unethical and yellow-press media are targeted much less by politicians and powers that be.
The aforementioned global trend of declining democracy is reflected also in lesser care of international missions and representations for the worsening state of the independent and professional media in South Eastern Europe. While in the past, a government attack on media would have been met with an immediate rigorous and uncompromising response from the representatives of the West, particularly from the European Union, these days the reactions are much softer, sometimes even lacking.
The reasons behind this attitude are two, at least.
First, many governments of what we call the West are themselves more prone to view the media as an “enemy”.
The fact that there are countries within the EU in which governments can control and regulate the media, or that the president of the United States can openly attack credible journalism as “fake news”, makes it easier for the West to accept that pressures on free media and free speech in the Balkans are a “natural part” of the political debate.
And second, the local leaders in the Balkans are “partners” to the West, willing to make and break important deals, but only if foreign diplomats are ready to turn a blind eye to what are considered to be “internal affairs”. This “unspoken deal” has led to corruption still being endemic, rule of law still being selective, democracy permanently remaining “under construction”, and independent media being freely targeted.
These are particularly apparent in Kosovo, where Western diplomats and various international missions still yield great influence over local institutions and society. But in countries such as Serbia, Albania or Montenegro, where the Western world has lesser presence and clout, the situation seems to be even worse.
However, this grave picture of the state of the media does not mean that there’s no hope. Despite the fact that the number of media and journalists who ignore the standards of the profession is greater than those who don’t, credibility and professionalism is still valued and cherished by many journalists and among the public, in Kosovo and the wider region. And, not all Western representatives are ready to turn a blind eye to government pressurizing the media.
As far as Kosovo is concerned, there’s still a fair number of media and journalists who adhere to journalistic standards and accept responsibility to report professionally and in an ethical way.
There’s also a general acceptance that while the truth might not always be fully available, it is the duty of the journalists and media to make the best effort to seek and find it, report it without distortion, always honouring the obligation to consult all relevant sides of the story.
This responsibility and obligation is best reflected in the work of the self-regulative Kosovo Press Council, which reviews complaints against press and online media, based on the Code of Ethics accepted by the industry itself.
Of course, the self-regulated nature often means that agreed principles and the Code are not respected by all members. But, even so, institutions like the Press Council and the Kosovo Journalists Association help keep the media community focused on continuous debate about ethical and professional issues.
Parallel to this, there is a growing understanding among the media in the wider region that common problems are best tackled jointly. This understanding is bringing to life initiatives, such as the Media Association of South-East Europe, established in January 2018 by independent media from the six countries of the Western Balkans.
All these initiatives and organizations, with many others that function in all the countries of the region, prove there’s still a will to fight for better journalism.
And, more importantly, there’s awareness about the particular issues that will determine the outcome of this endeavor.
First, ethical journalism needs to be upheld and improved upon, so we can make a clear distinction between the professional media that respect standards, and the ones who don’t.
Second, media literacy needs to be improved , so that the wider audience in society is capable of critically analyzing and evaluating various media and their influence.
And third, we need a comprehensive reform of the media, so that new technology can be used to the advantage of professional and ethical journalism. In this endeavour particular importance should be put on the need to build alliances between professional media and various social networks and technological platforms.
We need to start acting today, so that we can impose a change.
The future of the media will not be defined by the pressures we face. It will be defined by our response to that pressure.
Agron Bajrami is the Editor in Chief of Koha Ditore, the largest daily newspaper in Kosovo. Bajrami filled various journalistic and editing positions at the newspaper since its establishment in 1997, and took over as Editor in Chief in September 2004. Bajrami is also the head of the Kosovo Media Institute, and a regular columnist for Montenegrin daily newspaper Vijesti.