Between foreign capital and responsible journalism

by Borislav Vukojević, 30 June 2016

Media founded in the region by big foreign capital are in the focus of another article by Media Observatory, centered on regional television broadcaster Al Jazeera Balkans.

Although Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH), much like the entire Western Balkans, is not a market at which international media can profit, in the past five years the country has become home to several international television networks. The purpose of this article is to review the work of Al Jazeera Balkans (AJB) which officially began broadcasting on 11 November 2011, at 6 p.m., local time. The network is headquartered in Sarajevo, with regional centers in Zagreb (Croatia), Belgrade (Serbia) and Skopje (FYR of Macedonia). Al Jazeera Balkans is the first branch of this Qatar’s media network to air in a language other than English or Arabic.1 Although financed out of Qatar’s state budget, part of its revenue does come from advertisements in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In its first part this report deals with the legal circumstances of AJB’s registration in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later on with the outlet’s journalistic integrity, and its ideological standpoint inferred from lawsuits and complaints filed against it with the self-regulatory body (Bosnia and Herzegovina Press and Online Media Council). To get an insight into the network’s internal organisation and working atmosphere, we also looked into how respected are the rights of journalists and professional standards. In the final part of the report we analyzed the context of the international media in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

AJB’s position in the Bosnia and Herzegovina’s regulatory and self-regulatory system

AJB was founded after Al Jazeera Media Network (initially known as Qatar Media Corporation) bought the frequency of Sarajevo’s NTV 99 for 1.56 million dollars. Having a license to broadcast in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from a legal point of view AJB is not a foreign channel and is fully subject to home media regulations and laws. This was confirmed by Boris Kujundžić of the Communications Regulatory Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (CRA), who said that for a broadcaster to receive a domestic broadcasting license, 51 percent of its business activities have to take place in BH territory.

A standard procedure was followed during the issuance of the broadcasting license and there were no controversies surrounding the process. According to secondary sources, under the Law on Direct Foreign Investments (Article 4), a foreign company’s stake cannot exceed 49 percent, yet in case of Al Jazeera Balkans this legal obstacle was sidestepped via indirect ownership. Namely, AJB is owned by Al Jazeera Network registered in Sarajevo, which in turn is owned by Al Jazeera Media Network based in Qatar. This means that foreign ownership in this area is actually unrestricted, and points out to flaws in the regulatory system.

Yet, the majority of BH’s public welcomed the founding of AJB, foremost for the network’s technical capacities, more advanced than in other home media houses, the expected better working conditions, and, finally, for its compliance with professional standards. When we checked with the relevant courts and regulatory bodies for possible complaints regarding its program’s content, the information we obtained confirmed Al Jazeera Balkans abided by the standard journalistic codes of conduct. Namely, since its founding until the end of 2013,1AJB was penalized only once, in 2012, for the violation of the Rule on Provision of Audio-visual Media Services (Article 13, Item 7). The outlet was issued a verbal warning for violating the rule against re-broadcasting content, i.e. for not stating clearly the aired program was a rerun.2 The Municipal Court Sarajevo and Basic Court in Banja Luka confirmed that there are no ongoing lawsuits for defamation filed against the Al Jazeera Balkans.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina Press Council, the self-regulatory body for domestic print and on-line media, to this day received a total of five complaints against AJB concerning content posted on their website. Ljiljana Zurovac, Press Council’s executive director, stated that one of the complaints is still being processed, while the other four were successfully solved by having AJB remove the inappropriate comments, and thus showing responsibility to the public and acceptance of the self-regulatory system.

Founded on  1 November 1996, Al Jazeera is a Qatar state-funded broadcaster based in Doha and owned by the Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN). It is also known asJSC (Jazeera Satellite Channel) and is partially funded by Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, of the House of Thani – the country’s incumbent ruling family. The network’s initial investment was 137 million dollars, and Thani claimed the money he provided was only to make and keep Al Jazeera an independent outlet. Ten years after the founding, on 15 November 2006, Al Jazeera English was launched (initially under the name of Al Jazeera International), this being an event which marked the beginning of Al Jazeera’s international expansion. Al Jazeera America began broadcasting in January 2013, only to be shut down in April 2016 because of its unsustainable business model. Al Jazeera Turk, airing in Turkish, commenced with its work in February 2011. In addition to Al Jazeera Balkans, AJMN also owns Al Jazeera Sports (beIN Sports). Yasser Abu Hilal is the network’s present general director.

Al Jazeera’s editorial policy and ideological standpoint

Al Jazeera Balkans’ editorial policies are fashioned after the highest journalistic standards: from the confidentiality of sources, through copyright, to guidelines on how to act in situations which involve children, the elderly, terrorists, elections and such. The same goes for guidelines on AJB’s website, which in detail explain commenting and photo policies, as well as media rights.

Tarik Đođić, AJB’s general director, says that the house’s mission from the start has been to make a center in which high standards of a big network can be observed. “I believe that in these almost four and a half years of broadcasting, Al Jazeera Balkans reached its goal, which was to be a voice – we call it the voice of the voiceless – and that we managed to offer some other views, as well as what we promised at the beginning: to inform and educate; I think we are fully successful in all that,” Đođić said.

The interviewed experts agree that AJB does not broadcast typical propaganda, but their opinions on the outlet’s ideological standpoint vary.

Zlatko Dizdarević, a longtime correspondent from the Middle East and a diplomat, thinks it is obvious Al Jazeera Balkans fully sides with the West and its allies in the Persian Gulf area: “Truth be told, Al Jazeera Balkans’ editors cannot be accused of producing outright mistruths and lies, something there is an abundance of in journalism in even some world-known media, but the selection of what is to be broadcast – especially regarding the happenings in Syria and the region, is carefully thought out, one-sided and suggestive.”

On the other hand, a few of the interviewed experts maintain that Al Jazeera serves as some kind of ideological counterweight to the other media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina and other international media such as the N1. Thus, Željko Budimir, senior assistant at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Banja Luka and an expert on geopolitics, is of the opinion that AJB is a geopolitical project of the petro-states from the Arabian Peninsula. “The goal is to have a counterbalance (…) to the western viewpoint; they [AJ] successfully buy influence, journalists, they buy, and by doing so, promote ideas. Out of this springs the basic idea of (…) bringing to the front issues the Muslims face in the Middle East, [AJ] acquaints the western audience (…) with an entirely different view (…)” says Budimir.

When it comes to reporting on the local issues, Tarik Đođić says that AJB does not side with any of the current political elites in BH, pointing out that the task of journalism is to inform the public of the answers to the five Ws, i.e. basic journalistic questions. The journalists we interviewed say they have never faced censorship, nor have they ever been accused of being under any political influence. Mladen Obradović, a reporter whose articles are published on the website, says that each story has to include all sides and participants. While Zlatko Dizdarević claims there is no difference between Al Jazeera Balkans and the N1 when it comes to reports on domestic topics. Borka Rudić, general secretary of the Association of BH Journalists, thinks that the difference between the two is the result of dissimilar journalistic traditions, and is reflected in the fact that AJB supports positive stories, while the N1 deals more with daily politics and local leaders and clashes between them.

Commercial interests and the advertisement market

Although in the beginning Al Jazeera was not present on the advertising market, i.e. did not air commercials, its policies on advertisements are gradually changing, and the network is already starting to make deals with advertisers. Ekrem Dupanović, editor in chief of Media Marketing, and Davor Marko, a researcher in the Center for Social Research Analitika, both confirm this trend stating that for a year now AJB has been airing commercials for BH Telecom and National Tourist Organisation of Serbia. Đođić confirms the existence of plans to introduce more ads into AJB’s program, but stresses that this will not include the small advertisers, and that thus the network will not pose a threat to other media outlets as it will not take over their advertisers.

“Yes, we want more out of marketing, but not so that we become our colleagues’ competition; we’d like to introduce some big corporations,” says Đođić. Neither do the interviewed experts think that Al Jazeera’s further turn towards advertising will threaten the local media. “I don’t think it will disrupt the market, as the market in Bosnia and Herzegovina is already “colonized” by politics, media groups, and advertising pools,” says Davor Marko. Senad Zaimović, the director of marketing agency Fabrika, gives another reason, stating that such AJB policies are legitimate. “According to the available data the TV station in question has a rather low audience share, and so a large number of ads would not bring them much profit.”

HR and organisational policies

Tarik Đođić points out that the key to AJB’s success is keeping the administrative positions at the barest minimum. “Almost 98 percent of our staff is directly involved in the program production: journalists, editors, cameramen, IT support, studio people, and our entire administrative structure numbers some 5 to 6 people with me included. [It’s] The barest minimum, as we understood from day one that all we needed to invest in are the journalism, TV, web and all that goes with it,” says Đođić.

The journalists we interviewed say that the working conditions and organisation in AJB are of high quality, which, they point out, guarantees their journalistic independency. Amer Džihana is convinced that AJB journalists are under no pressure, but adds that “it’s possible, I presume, they were told which [subjects] to tackle and which to avoid.”

The experts agree that AJB hired the best journalists, which is reflected in the high quality of the program.

Conclusion

All things considered, journalism-wise, Al Jazeera Balkans brought a lot to the table. Thus almost no violations of the journalistic program standards by the network were observed, its advance technology allows high quality broadcasting and on-site reporting, and internal rules of the station and opinions of the journalists testify to the insistence on abiding by the rules of verification and high journalistic norms. The same can be said for the journalists’ labor rights, for, if we take the word of two interviewed journalists who work for AJB, the network dutifully fulfills its obligations towards the employees and the working conditions are considered good compared to that of the majority of media houses in the region.

The interviewees confirmed the existence of positive correlation between financial power and professional journalism. Looking at Al Jazeera, the money not closely related to domestic economic and political actors brings stability and creates a positive setting in which it is much easier to practice responsible journalism, at least when it comes to reporting on regional events. There are exceptions, such as the protests in Mostar, during which Al Jazeera sided with the mainstream media, negatively portraying the protestors.

It is the opinion of the experts that AJB is free of propaganda, yet some of them do think that the selection of information in some cases points to the existence of particular focus on certain topics, especially if the occurring events are of some special geopolitical interest to Qatar.

Although still almost negligible, Al Jazeera Balkans’ commercial interests are clear from the signing of the first advertisement contracts and plans for the increase of commercial activities. According to their official statements, AJB’s target advertisers are international companies not widely present on the current domestic market.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s electronic media market currently numbers 148 radio stations, 44 commercial TV stations, three public services, plus hundreds of cable TV operators. When an international TV network, such as AJB, arrives on a market, it stands to reason that domestic media will find themselves facing numerous challenges. Of such opinion is Boris Kujundžija from the Communications Regulatory Agency, who states that the priority of the regulatory body in such circumstances is to protect home and local media.

The statements of AJB’s director, as well as the voiced opinions of the interviewed experts suggest that there are three reasons for which Al Jazeera joining the advertising market will not threaten BH media: AJB’s orientation towards international advertisers, the network’s low viewing ratings, and the already established and stable relationships on the current BH ad market.

Yet, if we take into account the fact that BH Telecom, one of the most important local advertisers is AJB’s client, as well as the fact that some of the international advertisers serve as a significant source of income on the local market, it is obvious that domestic outlets are in for new challenges. On the other hand, new clients, which AJB has promised to bring, are more than welcome to boost the impoverished ad market. Now we can only wait and see if the other media with foreign capital active in the region will follow AJB’s example and how that will affect BH and regional media markets.

Mehmed Halilović thinks that the appearance of international media on the domestic market is welcome, providing it is occurring under fair conditions. “How much the home media will benefit from this is the main question, as the local media, in this case, are weak contenders for a variety of reasons – given that they are mostly financially drained and that they have, one way or another, been under some kind of political influence, and I think the local media will have to change their ways,” he concluded.

1In addition to having 20 hours of TV program daily, Al Jazeera also owns a website: Balkans.aljazeera.net.
2The available reports (see: http://rak.ba/bos/index.php?uid=1272548169) cover the period to, and include, the end of 2013.
3 In the period between 2011 and 2013 (according to the reports on violation cases of the Communications Regulatory Agency) a total of 240 penalties were handed down: 24 fines (in the total amount of 108,000 KM), 11 licenses were revoked, 34 licenses suspended, and 95 verbal and 76 written warnings were issued.

Translation: Malena Selić.

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.

The article has been prepared with the mentorship support by the members of the Editorial Board of MediaObservatory.net website.

The article was originally published by South East European Media Observatory

SEE Media Observatory is a regional partnership of media CSOs, members of SEENPM, dedicated to enhancing media freedom and pluralism and improving media reforms in the countries of South East Europe.

South East European Media Observatory is envisaged as a long-term initiative of SEENPM.

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