Media in the W. Balkans in the past and today – from censorship to self-censorship?

The address of B92 President of the Board of Directors Veran Matić at the First OSCE South East Europe Media Conference, organized in Sarajevo Oct. 13-14 by the office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media & OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Veran Matić
Veran Matić

Most of the editors in charge of media in the Western Balkans still remember very well the period of living in a single-party system, where state had full control over media. This reminiscence is focused mainly on the examples of censorship, bans, court proceedings and prison sentences for the crime euphemistically referred to as “verbal delict“. To be sentenced due to “verbal delict” was the most direct proof of their power and control: police, judiciary and the media. On the other hand, to be sentenced for “verbal delict” meant that for some of the journalists and authors - a kind of recognition and special status of a convict. Of course, everything depended on the fact where this “verbal delict” was committed. If something like that occurred in the army, you could get several year sentence, while if you were a student-author, you could get a month or so. Also, there was a big difference among the back then Yugoslav republics. In one period, most liberal atmosphere was in Slovenia and Serbia, and "the toughest“ was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Vojvodina. Distinctions and confrontations among the republics made it possible that from time to time you could write something against your own (local) authorities in another federal republic. In that way, the biggest financial affair was launched, with a political background, of course, when Belgrade newspapers published the series of articles about financial malfeasances in one region of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The existence of state control and censorship, in a way, has swept the memory of the ways in which journalists managed to send the messages and disclose information that are not in favour of the then authorities. The need to write about reality, to write truly and engaged, has always existed. There were, of course, several taboos such as the figure of immortal leader – Josip Broz Tito and the state in the army, those were issues that were not available for criticism unless in the form of allegorical satire, and even in that case, on your own risk. Other issues were open for criticism, with due sense of caution, and minding that intangible leaders be left out of it, as well as ideological values. We are talking about ketman, of course, which is apparently completely forgotten. (Ketman would, most surely, survive as a term should the process of lustration be conducted). This is very important to point out as it is not true that in the time of single-mindedness, no one could write about lots of things, and in a rather critical way. All, at the end, depended on the courage and ability of the journalists and editors themselves.

Today, when there is no "verbal delict“, and the media are, according to the Constitution, free, we expected that the kingdom of freedom has entered on a big door in the region of the Western Balkans. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead of freedom, we got the market. Instead of a single-party system, we got multi-party system. Democracy and market, however, without strong and independent institutions such as judiciary, without transparent ownership, efficient law against monopoly, without control over political parties’ financial dealings, as well as without an efficient tax control, this kind of democracy becomes a nightmare for the journalists and the media people that fought for the freedom and media independence.

We are faced with several kinds of pressures which in most cases are more efficient than the old state censorship. First of all – there’s legal possibility that media and journalists be pursued over every critical word, alluding to libel. Moreover, there is financial pressure exerted by powerful advertisers and advertising agencies which are mainly close to political parties, and finally, there are direct life-endangering threats to which some of the journalists and media are exposed when they launch some issue that interfere with the financial interests of the local and national powerful persons.

How those mechanisms of exerting pressure are being kept and how hard it is to break them is obvious from the recently adopted Media strategy. Apart from declarative regulations pertaining to the fact that Serbia respects and guarantees freedom of speech and media freedom, that it accepts the highest international standards in this field, this Strategy with no concrete act or proposed measure treats the problem of growing number of court proceedings against the media and journalists. Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has adopted in 2008 the Resolution no. 1636 on indicators for the media in democratic society, where the first proposed indicator refers to the weaknesses in the regulations vs those in practice – large number of court proceedings that deal with freedom of speech. There are no official records, but it is without doubt that today, such cases are more numerous than ever. In case of B92, this is especially true. Worst of all, although Serbia has ratified European Human Rights Convention, and although the Constitution anticipates that the courts are obliged to arbitrate the cases dealing with human rights in accordance with the practice of authorized international institutions, including the practice of the European Court for human rights, in implementing Article 10 of the European Convention, the verdicts that Serbian courts bring, are far from this practice. In B92 only, for the last several months, we have been sentenced, in the first degree, and some verdicts were even confirmed on the second degree, which drastically deviate from the local regulations and such practice. For example, we have been sentenced for slandering people that are being mentioned in a document of a state body, because we have shown on television the document in question (the case of police file on the investigation in case of Saric, that was seen in our documentary "Reaction“). According to Serbian courts, the only document issued by state body that can be published is official press release issued by that organ. We are sentenced because of citing another media, and radio host read it to the president of Serbian Parliament, asking for her comment. Moreover, the quotation concerned the issue of hiring party people in state owned companies led by her party colleagues (claim of Frank Simatovic’s wife over "Index finger“, hosted by Suzana Trninic). We have very important witness of the abuse in the privatization processes, but every interview or statement of his on our television results in our paying huge fines, with the obvious goal of not only pressuring us not to publish his statements, but also not to investigate any misuse in privatization processes (the individuals whose names cannot be mentioned, the charges of Beko and Tijanic). The state does nothing to educate judges.

What seems to be even worse is the lack of any awareness on the part of political elites on the need to actively participate in creating favourable environment for media, favourable atmosphere for taking part in a public debate on the issues of common interest, favourable environment for expressing ones opinions and standpoints. On the contrary, with unfortunate changes in the Law on public information, by tightening sentences envisaged by that law, even if those amendments are later proclaimed unconstitutional, and by asserting that the biggest problem of our media scene is lack of responsibility for the words in public (this is, namely, something that Mr. Bradic claimed, while he was the minister of culture), all of these in fact created the atmosphere of fear that in a way strengthened self-censorship.

The second problem, i.e. financial pressure of powerful advertisers and media agencies, is not even recognized in the media strategy. Every mentioning of the negative impact that vertical integration could have on media, or monopoly on the markets of media content distribution or on advertising market, and the measures that could be taken to prevent this, which all media associations proposed, was simply eliminated from the final draft of the media strategy. In this final version, a single sentence pertains to this, and it says that the problems of the competitiveness in media sector will be dealt with by the Commission for the Protection of Competition. This will be just fine, if this Commission hasn’t been formally established 5 or 6 years ago and which was competent so far for the issues of competition in society, hasn’t been dealing with these issues at all. All this time, we haven’t been given any analysis whatsoever, either of the media sector, or the advertising sector. We have no guarantees that something will change in future.

Financial power of the big vertically integrated companies and large advertisers that journalists and media feel directly, as well as the awareness of the fact that the Commission for the Protection of Competition has done nothing to prevent the companies and advertisers which violate this competition, along with the fact that those companies and advertisers are close to the centers of political power, presents an additional factor for self-censorship and apposite speech in the media.

Finally, direct threats to the journalists lead to the fact that journalists get police protection, which, in some cases, lasts for several years. Moreover, nothing has been done to eliminate the causes of threat. In this way, physical protection becomes the only measure taken, instead of being just a temporary measure taken to protect journalists until the state deals with those who represent threats, and until they are brought to justice. So, final outcome is that journalists are indeed protected, but in the same time limited in their work and moving, and thus prevented from meeting with their sources, meaning that they are only partially free. In the same time, even when the charges are brought against those who threaten them, the sentences they got are almost symbolic.

It is not uncommon that in such circumstances self-censorship becomes a way in which journalists and their editors manage to survive. Once ketman, today self-censorship – it is hard to distinguish the difference. Only in the fact that there are no prison sentences today.

Maybe it’s time for us to start "criticizing“ skilful heroes of our transition. Maybe this could protect us better. Although, in the rule of law, it is perfectly possible that those "heroes“ ask for protection in the judiciary systems of neighboring countries. They can, surely, afford it.