19th November 2012
By Alexandre Leclercq

Media Fan Flames of Hatred in Balkan Journalism Crisis

Aidan White

More than twenty years after revolutions in the south-eastern fringes of Europe opened up a new era of democratic pluralism with promises of an end to political control of media, journalism still operates in an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.

Even if the guns are silent in the Balkans these days, bitter tribal battles between Muslims and Christians and different ethnic communities are still being fought in some of the media in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo.

These are the bleak findings of a series of country reports produced by the South East Europe Network for Professionalisation of Media, an EJN member, which were discussed at a conference of media support groups in Bucharest on November 16-17. The reports will be published in full early next year.

The state of media in each of the countries covered – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia – was assessed according to the conditions in which journalism is practiced  – the levels of threat and attacks; the relations between media and politics; the role of law in media governance; the state of broadcasting; the changing market conditions;  and the scope for ethical journalism and self-regulation.

The conclusions are troubling. Hate-speech and intolerance still infects journalism and the political culture remains deeply attached to notions of control and command of media, even in countries which are now established members of the European Union.

In each of the countries surveyed contradictions abound, with legal and constitutional guarantees – on paper as good as those to be found anywhere – rendered meaningless by poor government, institutional corruption and political opportunism.    

Journalists live under the constant threat of political interference and legal intimidation. Often major media are owned and controlled by unknown forces; and, even worse, some journalists willingly flout ethical principles and go along with deceptive handling of the truth to suit their political friends.

Worst of all is the evidence of physical attacks and legal intimidation of journalists, particularly in Serbia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.  

In Bosnia and Kosovo there has been enormous investment of expert resources and media development funds to enhance pluralism and to forge professional institutions and forms of media regulation to strengthen tolerance. But even though there are more media outlets, particularly online sources, this has also increased the scope for hate speech in tragically divided communities. These problems are made worse for media working unsustainable conditions – weak economies, underdeveloped advertising markets and a congested media landscape.

The scourge of defamation laws is everywhere, but in Slovenia it is a particular curse with the Prime Minister and his ruling party in the vanguard of legal actions against journalists.  In Serbia alone there were 241 legal cases against media in 2011, mostly dealing with defamation.

The impact of Hungary’s  one-party media law, which led to a startling European-wide controversy and condemnation by all of Europe’s political bodies, has been amended no less than 12 times and in some 200 articles in the past 18 months, but there is little chance of this law being finally dumped in advance of elections in 2014. Meanwhile, uncertainty over media regulation only reinforces self-censorship.

In Romania, where media have played a central role in the polarising political turmoil which has seen the coming and going of three governments in a year there are fears that media are too politically engaged.    

Even where there are positive signs – in Albania, for instance, the penal code has been cleaned up to remove offences that protected politicians from media scrutiny – and in Montenegro, which erased defamation and insult laws in 2011, few people believe it will make any difference. A lack of institutional support, a weak judiciary and the absence of political will can render good legal protection ineffective.

In Bulgaria there is an astonishing lack of transparency over who controls media. The country’s dominant media force – the multimedia New Bulgaria Media Group – has a labyrinthine ownership and funding structure that defies easy analysis. The lack of national market controls and supervision has already prompted a European Union investigation.

The public broadcasting crisis is also deepening. In Croatia, for instance, the public radio system has come under pressure and although the law covering Croatian Radio and Television was changed in 2012 the system’s independence is not guaranteed and it continues to suffer from “management problems, political meddling and nepotism.”     

The decline of journalistic freedom in Macedonia during 2011 and 2012 has caused consternation within the international media community with particular concern over selective and politically-massaged application of broadcast law. But it’s not just the law that worries; Macedonia has low ratings on almost all freedom counts with self-censorship, media concentration, and poor protection of economic and social rights.

Everywhere the media advertising cake is often unfairly distributed. Political and corporate interests combine to deny independent media much-need revenues. This lack of transparency in how advertising is allocated, particularly from public and state agencies, means that the media market can be easily manipulated.

The final balance sheet from this comprehensive audit of media conditions reveals a considerable democratic deficit and a suffocating atmosphere of political and corporate corruption.

But is there any good news? Well, some. Participants at Bucharest noted that in some countries the public broadcasters are becoming more trusted, that online media offer the hope of a durable challenge to abuse of power, and media professional groups – such as the independent Editors Forum in Hungary, and self-regulators in Bosnia and Slovenia – are trying to strengthen media standards.   

The EJN with its emphasis on ethics, good governance and self-regulation has agreed to work with partners in the region to help them to create systems of self-regulation both inside media and at national level. These will need to be credible and sustainable if they are to challenge the legacy of hatred and intolerance that still infects much of the reporting in the region.

Photo Credit: Adrian Murphy – West newspaper kiosk (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)