Oppressor or sponsor? Governments strengthen their influence on the media in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia

Never has freedom of information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much,  the NGO says in relation mostly with the Arab spring. Due to the continuously shrinking private advertising market, the state governments in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzogovina and the Republic of Macedonia have turned into the most influential advertiser in the media. Not surprisingly, this trend has highly destructive influence on the freedom of speech in the three Balkan countries, as the public money are mostly spent for securing media comfort for the ones in power. To various extents in the respective countries, this comfort is being achieved through different  channels for applying pressure on the journalists  – political, public, economic, legal.
This is one of the main conclusions of a journalists’ meeting organized by AEJ-Bulgaria with the support of the Council of Europe, dedicated to the problems of hate speech and self-regulation in  Bosnia and Herzogovina, Bulgaria and Macedonia. The conference took place on June 29th in Sofia, Bulgaria with the aim of identifying the most significant problems of the media and journalism in the three countries and establishing a basis for further common actions on regional level.

Hate speech

According to the journalists, bloggers, legal and media experts who participated in the conference, the use of hate speech is а common practice in the discussed Balkan countries. Unfortunately, the demonstrations of hate speech, which are declared a crime both by the internal and international laws, are rarely or never sanctioned in Bulgaria and Macedonia, even though many law suits have been started in both countries.
In order to fight with the problems of racism, xenophobia and other forms of open hatred in the media landscape, the independent Press Council in Bosnia has created a well-functioning self-regulatory system based on the direct involvement of the citizens. If citizens notice a case  of hate speech in the media, they send a complaint to the Press Council which has the authority to evaluate it. Although the decisions of the self-regulatory body cannot take any form of legal or financial sanctions (but they can serve as a basis for court actions), they have a significant influence on the editorial policies, as they are an expression of the people’s will, according to Liljana Zurovac, Executive Director  of the Bosnian Press Council.
“It is our mission is to educate the owners, journalists, editors and the citizens to fight for their rights”, she says. The head of the Press Council is determined that the campaigns to raise awareness among the citizens have indisputable effect,as more and more people recognize hate speech and take actions against it  – in 2012 the Council has received 52 signals for hate speech (out of 200 in total).

Death of journalism?

“The role of journalists is under threat – from commercial, political, economic and legal forces. Of course in that regard, we are far from unique…. Government commercials are used to buy the media editorial policy, there is unclear media ownership, biased reporting by the controlled media, poor social and working conditions for journalists, censorship and auto-censorship.But, journalists in Macedonia are facing these challenges in a form that is so intense, so severe, that we can only say that we are facing the death of journalism or to be precise the death of the journalist’s role to speak and act on behalf of the public: In holding the powerful to account. In asking the questions that people want answered, in investigating the truth. Journalism as a public good is completely vanishing in Macedonia and we are expected not to even talk about it.”, Tamara Causidis, President of the the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media workers commented.
Ms Causidis’s observations on the Macedonian media environments are similar to the conclusions of AEJ-Bulgaria’s latest freedom of speech survey, according to which a widespread culture of pressure and self-censorship is dictating the Bulgarian media landscape. According to the survey, the applied pressure comes both from the inside, practiced by editors and owners, and from the outside, through the direct influence of advertisers and political and economic players. This has led to the creation of a well- developed “culture of pressure” , including well integrated and institutionalized channels which transmit the external influence directly into the newsrooms.
The instruments of intimidating the critical journalism in the two neighbouring countries also share common features, although in Macedonia cases of direct public pressure on journalists and their families, lay-offs and blacklisting seem to be more severe.
“Simply, critical journalism is labeled as non-patriotic. Critical media and journalists are branded as mercenaries of suspicious funds and political parties, or as criminals.”, Tamara Causidis explains.
“If there are any critical journalists, they are being named and shamed”,  Saska Cvetkovska, journalist in the Nova-Web News Portal in Macedonia, adds. This is a job of the pro-government mainstream media, which openly frames them as pro-western traitors, ”sorosoids” (a term, successfully adopted in Bulgaria, too), spies, and gay…”It all started in 2008, and now almost all the media is supporting the government of PM Nikola Gruevski. 95% of the media is spreading hate speech. We infected the society with hate”, the journalist comments.  Cvetkovska has been a victim of social and legal pressure herself.
According to Aleksandar Trifunovic, Manager of the Bosnian independent web media portal Buka, in Bosnia and Herzegovina the case is not of such severe pressure on the media, but there is widespread social apathy. A proof of that are also the international freedom of the rankings – in Reporters without Borders 2013 ranking Bosnia and Herzegovina ranks 68th, Bulgaria – 87th and the Republic of Macedonia – 116th. In Freedom of the Press 2013 Survey, all three countries fall in the category of “Partially Free”.
Still, due to the fact that the government is the biggest sponsor of the media (even through direct donations),  politics can very powerfully influence media content and this is happening quite openly. “In Bosnia and Hezegovina, the most  important is to reduce the influence of politics on media and media content. It is important to work on making the audience recognize what is relevant information and what is not. It is absurd that our society is economically falling apart, unemployment is the highest since the war and the information about the causes for such situation is rarely published.”, Trifunovic adds.

Towards more regulation

In both Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Macedonia, the conservative governments of Bevanda and Gruevski are trying to pass new media regulations which will consolidate the influence of the ruling parties. In the Bosnian case, if it gets passed,  the new Law on access to information will protect the politicians from giving away certain information in public – a possible consequence about which the OSCE office for media has already warned.
In Macedonia, the project for the new Law on Media and Audiovisual is an attempt for establishing a common legal framework for all mass media providing information to the public, irrespective of the technical means used in this process. However, it has been widely criticized by all the relevant organisations and institutions and now undergoes significant changes.
The main problem of the proposed regulation, according to Filip Medarski, lawyer and press freedom activist, is the new Agency for Media and Audiovisual Media Services (also responsible for the press) , which will be given extended powers and will be widely politically influenced, as it will be appointed and held directly accountable by the National Assembly. The draft law contains many other controversial provisions – on the illegal media concentration the licences for TV and radio broadcasting, the allocation of state funds to the national broadcaster, etc.
“When we bare in mind the current bad situation with the freedom of expresion in our country, we come to conclusion that this attempt (for adopting a new media law) carries very high risks with it.”, Medarski concludes.
The idea of strenghthening the media regulations is still in a very preliminary phase in Bulgaria.  Actually, such discussions have been going on for years and the ex-prime minister Boiko Borissov even initiated expert consultations for drafting a new law on the press, but there is a lack of public consensus on the prospect of adopting more strict regulations in the field. At the same time, self-regulation has limited effects, as just a small number of the media which have signed the Media Ethics Code actually stick to its principles.
Therefore, a solution may be provided by finding more effective self-regulation alternatives or by the adoption of new EU regulations which allow for more competencies of the EU institutions for taking actions in cases of violations of freedom of speech in the Member States. Currently, a EU-wide discussion on a future Directive on Media Pluralism is being initiated by the EU-Commission and a high-level expert group headed by the former President of Latvia, Professor Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga.

Internet – the oasis of free opinion

As a result of the existence of brutal state influence on the traditional media, the internet takes the role of a true alternative for practicing critical journalism and raising the citizens’ voices in all three Balkan countries.
“The new way of consuming media content is mainly the reason why there are hundreds of internet portals in BiH. This is good. The problem is that the internet media market has not been regulated. This means you can publish whatever you want in the comments under the texts, you can insult, spread hatred without being sanctioned by the system, which is not the case with radio and television content. However, even though they are not regulated by law, I believe that internet media in BiH are the oasis of alternative and free opinion and all positive things that happened recently have in some way or the other involved new media. These are young journalists, without any burdens from the past, and they are our best chance for creating new media content in the country.”, Alekandar Trifonovic comments about Bosnia.
According to Draško Luković, blogger and correspondent of Al-Jazeera in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the media, whether they want it or not, will have to adapt to new trends and new audience which is technically and technologically more literate with every new generation. “This new audience wants and has to take active part in creating public opinion and the media have to accept this as an opportunity and not as a threat and work on educating their citizen-reporters in the field of media ethics. This situation might bring benefit for both sides and enable media to gain back their very basic function – to be an open forum of the citizens, platform in which different opinions and stances are met and exchanged, to be one of the main gears in the mechanism of democracy which leads the society forward, instead of being, as until now, the platform for political clashes, serving of opinions and the means of distraction.”, he explains.
In Bulgaria and Macedonia, where the journalists in the mainstream media are severely influenced, blogging and disseminating information via various online channels is seen as one of the few options for self-expression and preserving the journalists’ personal integrity. According to the above mention AEJ press freedom survey, which was also carried out among ”netizens” (citizens who actively produce media content through blogs and other internet tools ), 80.8% of the respondents say that they are motivated to produce media content because this allows them to focus on topics of their personal interest. Over 82.6%of the respondents believe that the role of citizens journalism is to compensate the defects of the traditional media. It is worth mentioning that more than 83% of the participants in survey  confess that they have produced, or still produce, content for the traditional media. More than half of them claim that the freedom of expression in the country is poor.
Author: Maria Cheresheva, AEJ-Bulgaria
* The meeting was organized with the support of the Council of Europe.    

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