When people think of “interesting times”, as in the proverbial Chinese curse, the year 2016 will probably come to minds of many. It was a full and pregnant year, with a wealth of events that have influenced the world. The Brexit vote and the whole discussion about the relevance of the EU, the terrorist attacks all over the world, the coup in Turkey, the war in Syria, the flux of migrants toward and across Europe, the stronger stances in the Russian discourse and, last but not least, the US elections that brought to power Donald Trump. We all have learned new words: post-truth, fake news, alternative facts.
Not a dull moment for journalists. But what about the media consumers? Were they prepared for this cascade of information? And how did this information get to them? Who was there to help them navigate these murky waters, to provide them with context, localization and interpretation of facts?
The present report is the third in a series of reports examining less-explored angles of the freedom of expression, prepared within the frame of the South East European Partnership for Media Development. It looks at how the media in South-Eastern Europe (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) served their public interest role, by providing their audiences with sufficient, correct, balanced and comprehensible information. For the sake of the comparability, we looked especially at the Brexit and US elections campaigns, as two events that are journalistically relevant and with a predictable impact on the region.
In the preparation of the national reports, the authors consulted media reports and studies about the status of the media and journalism in their countries. They also conducted interviews with journalists, academics and foreign affairs experts, who commented on the ability of the media in the targeted countries to cover international news in a manner that is comprehensible for the local public, to provide both local angles and broader context and to see the trends beyond the sheer facts and figures. We also looked at how the social media play in this respect, what is their role in the free flow of information and to what extent they offer a fertile environment for a valuable, pluralistic exchange of opinions. Last but not least, we looked for the possible propaganda in the media in the five countries, identifying the authors and the interests at play.
With all this information at hand, we can compound, as in a cortical homunculus drawing, the media reflection of the international current affairs and thus see how big the world is for the public in our project countries.
- International reporting: scarce, shallow, politicized. One common trait our national reports is the apparent lack of interest in and poor quality of the international reporting in all five countries.
- Social media: information without context. With legacy media so unprepared to deal extensively with the people’s appetite for foreign news, social media seem to have taken over as an important source of information, enjoying all the freedom of an unregulated medium without too much care for rules of fairness and accuracy.
- Hard to define, but easier to spot, propaganda seems to be present to various degrees in the media in the region.
- We tried to see the place of the SEE region in relation with the “big world”. What we found is an almost isolated group of countries, paying lips service to integration, but consistently looking inwards, to their own local political navel.
The reporting of foreign news is scarce and of questionable quality in the SEE countries covered by the project. Information comes to the public mostly from intermediary sources such as big international media and is only marginally treated, explained for the use of local audiences and put into local context. The absence of specialized journalists and correspondents, and the apparent lack of interest of most media to cover the international scene concur to this situation.
International news reporting often mirror the internal politics and media often follow the interest of the ethnic or political groups in the countries. In some cases, the international events are reported on only if they have links with the local politics or reflect the diplomatic activities of the countries. This also applies to information regarding EU and NATO that is superficially reported and interpreted despite the countries’ expressed interest to join these organizations.
Social media contribute to a more vivid and interesting debate on international issues in all the countries we studied, but the amount of inaccurate or biased information, as well as the presence of hate speech make the medium unreliable. The lack of media literacy of most of the users, as well as the attempts of some political actors to manipulate the public discourse using the social media further complicate the situation.
As a result, the access of the people in the countries in the region to information on international affairs is limited. While people are informed about events, the significance of these events and the impact on the world and their own future are not always properly underlined. The news comes form a handful of countries (USA, UK, France, Germany, Turkey), while the rest of the world is virtually non-existent. People end up only half-informed, with a poor perception of the world around them and isolated even form their neighboring countries.
A successful integration of the countries in the region into the European Union and NATO has to have a serious information component, through methods that take into account the media consumption habits of the people, as well as the credibility and accountability of the source of information. If they want to maintain their relevance, media and journalists have to endeavour to better know the information needs of their public and to better, more responsibly, cater for them.
SEE Partnership for Media Development is implemented by a consortium of media organizations from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania.
The Project is co-financed by the European Commission, the Civil Society Facility, Media Freedom and Accountability Programme, Europe Aid/134613/C/ACT/MULTI
The SEENPM members that are part of the project: Albanian Media Institute, Mediacenter for Media and Civil Society Development (BiH), Media Initiatives – Association for Media Development and Promotion of Professional Journalism (BiH), Macedonian Institute for Media (Macedonia), Montenegro Media Institute (Montenegro), Media Center (Serbia), Media and Reform Centre Nis (Serbia), Media Development Center (Bulgaria).