news 03 Sep 15

Balkan Media in 'Worrying' State, Conference Hears

The main problems facing the media in the Balkans range from government pressures to money and the loss of trust in journalism, a conference in Belgrade heard on Thursday.

Igor Jovanovic
Media conference in Belgrade | Photo by Vesna Radojevic, Source: Twitter

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, told a conference in Belgrade on media freedom organised by Newsweek Serbia that the “situation in Western Balkan journalism is worrying”.

Talking to the conference via video link, she said there were a number of censorships issues in the Balkan media, that the media's financial situation was unsatisfactory and that governments refuse to admit that problem exists.

“Everybody is talking about the laws [on media freedom] that were recently adopted but laws need to be implemented, and there is a problem… We need to speak loud and clear about the problems with media freedom,” Mijatovic said.

She added that governments all over the world misuse the so-called journalistic responsibility in order to censor stories they do not want to be published.

Mijatovic mentioned several cases, including the recently imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist Khadiya Ismaiyilova and other journalists who were jailed because of stories they published.

“The problem is the way the whole of society, not just governments, treat journalists. Societies are not yet ready to say ‘Do not mistreat journalists’, even long-lasting democracies do not have that kind of responsibility,” she said.

Mijatovic added that the situation in the Balkans was worse because of the many unresolved murders and physical attack against journalists.

Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network, said the influence of governments on journalism was a problem but it had to be recognized that there are other problems within the profession.

“There is a lot of corruption and a lack of transparency in journalism…We have to tell journalists that we need to regain the trust of the people, we have to be responsible institutions of a democratic society,” White added.

He said journalists need to be “impartial and accurate” and that those are standards which contributors in the digital sphere often do not meet.

White, who was General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, added that the media need to inform people in ways that enable them to decide freely, based on accurate information.

“That is why journalists’ responsibility is completely different to the responsibility of artists and scientists,” White concluded.

Speaking on media freedom and the problems in the Balkans, Slobodan Georgijev, from BIRN Serbia, said that journalists who try to report on sensitive issues are mostly marginalized and lack protection.

“The biggest problem here in Serbia is the problem with the government. It influences the media and tries to shape the media environment ... if you do not make deals with the government and if you try to monitor its work, you are in trouble,” Georgijev said.

He mentioned the attacks on BIRN, following its investigation into the tender for de-watering a mine, when government officials and some media outlets launched a campaign against BIRN.

“Some of our colleagues did not report on the affair we had discovered but on what BIRN is, who our sponsors are, who BIRN’s journalists are, etc. Some even published we were some kind of spies, trying to spy on the Prime Minister. That is very dangerous message,” Georgijev said.

Ivan Ninic, a journalist who was recently physically attacked in Belgrade, said Serbia needs investigative journalism because of the scale of serious misuse in public finances.

Ninic, an associate of the Anti-corruption Council and the anti-corruption portal Pistaljka, said members of the political elite "felt threatened" by his forthcoming investigative stories.

“Anyway, I don’t feel safe but I have refused police protection because it can be a difficulty if you are working as an investigative journalist,” Ninic said.

Gavin MacFadyen, from City University in London, said that it was not only journalists in the Balkans who were facing various pressures.

He said that former CIA operator Edward Snowden's discoveries had revealed the scale on which governments monitor journalists all over the world.

“We do not have our privacy anymore. We do not know what government is doing but they surely know all about us … I do not see the way we can protect ourselves in that situation,” MacFadyen said.

Beside debates on freedom of the press and investigative journalism, there are panels taking place about war crimes investigations, regional TV stations and regulatory bodies.

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