B&H: Pressure and self-censorship

By Mirna Stanković Luković 

A new acting director of Sarajevo Canton Television (TVSA) was recently appointed – former assistant head of Novi Grad Municipality and SDA member, Elvir Resić. He was selected for this position by the media outlet’s supervisory board. The previous director, Zlatko Topčić, who had been linked with the SDU party, had resigned from the position, telling the media that “this move was a logical development”.

“THE UGLIEST EPISODE IN MY PROFESSIONAL LIFE”

Topčić, a prominent author and scriptwriter, had been appointed to the position of TVSA director in 2013, replacing long-time journalist and editor, Konstantin Jovanović. According to Slobodna Bosna magazine, the TVSA directorship had gone to the SDU (Social Democratic Union) party after the 2012 elections, in the distribution of positions within the new parliamentary majority.

Konstantin Jovanović told Žurnal, “After the change of government, less than halfway through my contract and under direct pressure by people from SDU who had entered the new coalition and who evidently in the division of the ‘pie’ proposed the new Canton TV director, my downfall started, until I was eventually removed.”

“That was the ugliest episode in my professional life, believe me – worse than the war period. Everything I had done until then collapsed. They completely took over editorial policy; they restored things to how they used to be; and SDA made all the key moves. The current staffing situation at the organization shows that people were appointed on SDA’s instructions to the two key positions: the positions of director and executive director,” said Jovanović.

The takeover of editorial policy is also confirmed by the case of a journalist from this television station. The journalist was publicly accused of unprofessionalism by the management of TV Bastille, as some residents of Sarajevo call this media outlet, because she had “brazenly and arrogantly” refused to read “part of an SDU press release, accusing management of putting political pressure on her and favouring that party”.

A management press release from September 2013 stated, “It is unfair to present TVSA journalist Amra Butković as a victim of political pressure because it is precisely she who had tried through political pressure to be promoted to an editorial status, which she is not even formally entitled to because she does not have a higher education.”

“There is no doubt that in similar situations, our stance would be the same toward any other political option. TVSA is firmly committed to fulfilling its social function in a professional and politically unbiased way. TVSA is determined to resist occurrences of pressure, politicization, or censorship of press releases by journalists, who should leave their partisan preferences for the voting booth, rather than exposing them in public under the guise of independence, hurting TVSA’s reputation in a situation when, as an organization, we are finally overcoming many years of losses and when, to the joy of the citizens of Sarajevo, we are preparing a new program schedule, new visual identity, and new, more attractive shows,” stated the press release.

Butković responded that the management was deceiving the public by saying that, in similar situations, the Public Enterprise of TVSA would take the same stance toward any other political option.

“Easily verifiable facts show that in August this year, in news programs at 18.30 only, six pieces of information and one live report from SDUBiH were broadcast, while at the same time not a single piece of information was broadcast about the activities of other political options in the Sarajevo Canton Assembly. This represents political impartiality from the management of the public – I underline public – enterprise of TVSA sees it,” Amra Butković said at the time.

The 2014 Report on the Work and Operations of TVSA, adopted by the Sarajevo Canton Government on 18 January 2016, in its section on the work of the Entertainment, Culture and Art Program Newsroom, briefly states that in Sarajevo Morning, the TV station’s morning program, “deviations have been known to occur from the principle of restraint from journalists’ comments and from the strict presentation of facts and information. Journalists’ partisan preferences could be recognized – equally toward parties in government and opposition – which were criticized in staff meetings, and also reprimanded as an inadmissible occurrence from a broadcaster that wants to be seen as an objective service for all citizens”.

The sanctions imposed on Amra Butković were annulled at the end of last year after they were found to be unlawful by a first-instance verdict of the Municipal Court of Sarajevo.

Amra Butković is not the only one who sustained pressure at TVSA. In December 2011, the then acting president of the supervisory board demanded that journalist Azra Bavčić air a statement of his in its entirety. He first harassed the journalist in the newsroom, and then went into the editing room. After that, in TVSA premises, he continued watching the news program, humiliating the journalist and her report.

Such open and documented pressure on journalists and editors is nevertheless relatively rare. Žurnal’s source (the name is known to the newsroom) claims that pressure has been exerted perfidiously.

“People are chosen if it is judged that they will not see it as pressure, just as politicians or the media owner choose the editors. It is all linked. ‘Hot’ topics undergo strict editorial control, under the pretext of the seriousness of the information or situation. They do not even refrain from writing an entire article, under which the person who recorded the statements only formally signs their name. Such articles were once given to announcers to read, while in newspapers, only journalists’ initials were signed. I am afraid these things have been denuded to such an extent now that people agree to sign their name even under an article in which they did not type a single punctuation mark,” said our source.

PRESSURE FROM THE EDITORS

Pressure on journalists is usually from editors.

“It is much more devastating that ‘editors’ remain consistent in their work, even to the extent that the hidden masterminds are surprised by the amount of servility from those they appointed to these positions. Exalted by that role, as well as by all the privileges they have, such editors, of course with admirable exceptions, curry favour with individuals or groups. Unfortunately, such people are valued because this kind of ‘editorial’ or ‘journalistic’ profile suits every political option.”

Rešad Šabanović, journalist at RTV Zenica and president of the media outlet’s Employee Council, told Žurnal, “It has never happened to me, believe me, to have someone come and tell me: ‘You will do this item in such and such a way.’ Such things usually go through the editor, if someone wants to exert this kind of pressure. It does happen in a staff meeting, when you suggest a topic, that the editor says, ‘No, that is not interesting,’ although it actually might be; but you never have hard evidence that there is something behind it.”

Managements deal with “disobedient” staff in different ways. After an employee strike at Radio Herceg Bosna, the public radio station’s management in 2010 fired four of their employees who were trade union members. They were only reinstated in their jobs by court decision.

Lejla Turčilo, professor at the Faculty of Political Science of Sarajevo, told Žurnal, “I find it fascinating that certain political strongmen consider these media outlets their property to such an extent that in some conversations with journalists, you hear stories about local government representatives even choosing which cameraman will film them. That shows how much these local powerbrokers see these media as their own.”

According to Amer Džihana, director and co-editor of the analiziraj.ba platform, “I remember an example when a journalist was conducting an interview with a local politician. The next day, after the article was published, the politician called the journalist at seven in the morning and asked: ‘Why did you include that picture of me?’

“That just shows the kind of relationship it is. Politicians who drive an Audi 6, and journalists who receive 300 or 400 (around 150 to 200 EUR) mark salaries, are in two vastly different worlds, although the assumption is that journalists should be equal interlocutors with politicians. We are so far from all that, that I am not surprised such things exist,” Džihana told Žurnal.

Most colleagues who are subjected to pressure are unwilling to talk about it. The fear of retaliation and potential loss of work, and thus livelihood, is effective. Some of them just want to forget these experiences as soon as possible.

However, often there is actually no need to pressure journalists. Because of fear, some journalists resort to self-censorship.

Lejla Turčilo told us, “With some honourable exceptions of colleagues from such media, you have a large number of people who have understood their role to be ‘authorized microphone holder’. There is a lot of pressure on journalists working at these media outlets, and probably due to this, they refrain from direct confrontation with government officials. From denial of information (if you had previously been ‘disobedient’), to information being shared without balance with other media (if you had been in disfavour), the result is that the relationship between public authorities and public local media is always to the detriment of public information, the public interest and citizens.”

Rešad Šabanović from RTV Zenica also thinks that the problem of self-censorship is far greater than direct pressure.

PROFESSIONALS AND SELF-CENSORSHIP

Our anonymous source believes that self-censorship appears as the consequence of so-called editorial policy.

“We cannot look at everything the same way, because at every media organization there are those who gather the courage to stand up to censorship or resist self-censorship. In the conditions we face, that is a much more difficult road, because professionals at organizations where they feel pressure can fall into disfavour with the editorial structures. These people then end up working on topics that are not related in any way to the authorities which would exert pressure and influence on the media outlet’s work. In addition, they are often paid a lot less than ‘subjects’ who are not and have never been journalists, but are partisan officials. Journalists fall into the trap of self-censorship in order to spare themselves everyday stress, or when they realize that a different approach would jeopardize their existence. We all know how underpaid journalists are. Perhaps it is most dangerous when young journalists come to understand this to be one of the facts of life of being a journalist. Once they learn that, it is difficult to change this attitude in their future work. It is frustrating that so many young people, even 20-year-olds, are working on very serious political topics. Sometimes, I admire their courage. I often wonder if it is stupidity, but I think it is very skillful and calculated manipulation with these young people, who are doing what the editor is instructing them to do, or someone above the editor,” said our source.

Lejla Turčilo has observed a new trend that has appeared among young journalists.

“Also interesting is a new method of pressure that I am seeing, although I do not have empirical proof of it: in the media, both public and private ones, even journalists are preparing to move into working for PR companies, while at the same time doing journalistic work. Public companies or public local communities are especially attractive. In other words, journalists work for media outlets until both they and the powerbrokers assess that it is time they move into PR. That way, through your suitability or by building a PR-oriented career through the media outlet where you work, you agree to that kind of dependence. Journalism becomes a transitional stage between unemployment and doing PR for the municipality. There are a lot of intertwined mutual influences through which this happens, and it’s the public and the public interest that lose out,” said professor Turčilo.

She emphasizes that pressure is not just when the head of municipality picks up the phone and threatens someone.

“Methods of pressure actually manifest themselves through every gift a journalist receives, privileged information or any other form of subtle manipulation. It is not only pressure when they threaten you or when they deny you money or information; you are often under greater pressure in a situation when you are offered privileges,” maintains Turčilo.

Amer Džihana points out that there are often people with different personalities at the local level.

“Some people do not want a single opposition voice to exist; there are also those who are more open. The situation is not the same everywhere. There are different levels of autonomy at these local media outlets; some are completely instrumentalized, and I would not be surprised if there were also stations that are in open conflict with the authorities. In our country, the structure of government is such that a municipality head, for instance, can come from one political option, while the majority in the municipal council is from another political option. In that case, there is some potential for journalistic autonomy, although it may also mean an even more difficult situation for journalists if the authorities cannot agree on the budget,” Džihana told Žurnal.

The question of journalists’ susceptibility to political and financial pressure cannot be separated from the conditions that these journalists work in.

Šabanović told Žurnal, “I have been president of the Employee Council for five years and I have had the opportunity to see this – all of us who do this work know one another. For example, when a journalist receives an award for being an excellent correspondent, and five days later he receives a job termination notice by email, and only then realizes that his retirement contributions have not been paid. It is all connected. It doesn’t only happen in small communities.”

“Independent journalism is only a fantasy here. How can we talk about independent journalism when 90% of journalists – or, at least the ones working in Zenica and reporting for other media ¬– are not registered, they work 24 hours a day, they have no voice of their own? They write about other people’s problems, but they cannot say anything about their own profession. Who can be independent in a situation like that? Pressure does exist, but it is not like someone will stop us in the street, hit us, threaten us. The truth is that most journalists do not engage in investigative reporting because they neither have time nor support in newsrooms to do that. Assignments are carried out, statements are taken, without any commentary, without any conclusions, there is no investigative reporting, so basically, there is no need for pressure. We cover everyday things – press conferences, communal issues. Not topics like organized crime, bribery and corruption,” said Šabanović.

It is difficult to prove the pressure that journalists suffer in their everyday work, but it is not hard to prove media bias. It is enough to watch news programs from several different televisions and see how reports about the same events differ. This kind of bias is not necessarily proof of pressure, but it does give a good idea of the influence that politics and money have on media integrity.

(zurnal.info)

Translation: Kanita Halilović

This article has been produced with the financial assistance of the South East European Media Observatory project, supported by the European Union. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

 

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