In the line of fire: Journalists take hits from all sides

09/07/2012

Caught between ethnic identities and ethics, reporters in Southeast Europe are commonly intimidated into self-censorship.

By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 09/07/12

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Journalists in the region say they face a litany of challenges in covering the news. [Reuters]

Working amid conflicts that have torn countries apart and divided their populations, journalists in Southeast Europe are all too often influenced by ethnic identities, threats of imprisonment or violence and their publication's shaky finances.

The pressures facing the region's journalists can only be eased by stronger laws that protect journalists from government retribution, and by having an independent press that is not reliant on politics to keep its doors open.

"Media and politics, instead of keeping account of each other, are in bed with each other," said Lufti Dervishi, who teaches investigative journalism at the University of Tirana in Albania. "As we talk about the media role as a watchdog ... the watchdog never barks when a family member passes by."

There are countless examples throughout the region. Montenegro journalist Petar Komnenic was ordered to spend four months in prison in May after writing that prosecutors asked the police to illegally put senior judges under surveillance.

In Kosovo, parliament voted twice this year to reject proposals that would have decriminalised libel, making it a civil offence instead. Proponents of the change argued that criminal punishment for libel makes it too easy for unscrupulous governments and police to pressure journalists into covering up wrongdoing.

Macedonia journalists signed on to an agreement in June that decriminalises libel in that nation, but provides fines for alleged offenders. Critics say that self-censorship is all but assured.

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Professionals from a cross-section of media-related fields attended the annual conference on the Greek island of Halki, sponsored by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. [ELIAMEP]

"The traditional roles of journalism have become essentially negligible ... the dominant instinct in the newsrooms is not journalism, it's self-censorship," said Kadri Gursel, a columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet, who was kidnapped by the PKK while working for AFP in 1995. "If you read the Turkish press the last five years you'd believe there is not a single case of corruption."

The role of the media has often been viewed with scepticism and belief that journalists too were taking sides.

"Journalists may have a very important role, and that's accurate reporting to contribute to all sides … and avoiding the practice of diminishing the importance of developments that exaggerate events that continue conflict," Dimitri Sotiropoulos, a research associate at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, told SETimes.

The foundation hosted more than 30 journalists, NGOs and officials last month at a conference on the Greek island of Halki to discuss press freedom.

Journalists argued their role was to be objective and report the truth, even if it was contrary to their government's official positions, but acknowledged that in many countries they come under pressure. In the case of Turkey, journalists have been imprisoned on specious charges, leading their colleagues to scale back investigative stories out of fear.

Agron Bajrami, who was deputy editor of the newspaper Koha Ditore in Pristina during the NATO bombings and forced to work in exile, said Kosovo has a lingering problem. "There are still too many as media behind the governments and still in the service of the government." But he said there has been progress.

"The kind of language that existed immediately after the war has disappeared at least among the Albanian-speaking population." He said what's holding back Kosovo now is "We have a political elite which is not prepared to play its role in a democratic society. They are ready to control or even own media because that's how they sustain their power."

The pressure crosses borders and comes from all sides. Ivana Konstantinovic, a news editor and presenter at RTV B92 in Belgrade, said "My friend and colleague is being watched by policemen and can't go on a vacation or to a restaurant."

It's the same in Albania, said Ilda Londo, a research co-ordinator at the Albanian Media Institute. "Journalists' jobs are not safe and very often the only answer is self-censorship. It creates a very poor quality of investigative journalism," she said.

Jan Zielonka, a professor of European Politics at Oxford, accused some journalists of being bedfellows with those they cover, particularly in Southeast European countries marred by conflicts, repressive governments and organised crime. "Journalists are suspects in this game too. They trade their services for personal and professional benefit and undermine the quality of the media."

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Journalists say intimidation leads to self-censorship, shaping what eventually appears in newspapers and other media. [Reuters]

Lada Price, a Bulgarian journalist, disagreed. "In many countries, journalists have perhaps no choice but to play the game," fearing for their safety. Indeed, only days before the event, Lidia Pavlova, who investigates organised crime in southwest Bulgaria, was threatened and her son was brutally beaten twice.

Ana Petruseva, who operates the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Macedonia, said that when five fishermen were killed at a lake outside Skopje in April, the media got carried away with nationalistic rhetoric and inflamed the situation. "People said Albanians did this and that's what the media carried without question … the media never questioned what the police said and never challenged the official version," she added.

And in Serbia, she said, journalists are pressured and intimidated simply for reporting facts about war crimes cases. Media owners are threatened with losing government advertising unless they support the ruling powers.

"Self-censorship … this is probably the biggest problem in Macedonia and to an extent in Serbia as well. Journalists don't want to stir tensions or get themselves into trouble for their salary of 300 or 400 euros and get themselves sacked. ... Most of the media are mouthpieces of the government or follow the government line ... That has dramatically reduced the trust most people have in the media."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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