Devastating results of research conducted by the Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation: journalists on the whole highlight that the government controls the media, but that editors are the central point from which that control is exercised. A significant majority of journalists note that pressure has been worsening increasingly in recent years, that journalists have a tendency to self-censor, work with less professionalism and are ever less capable of resisting pressure, as well as noting that their working conditions and personal safety have worsened.
Almost three quarters of journalists in Serbia, 74 per cent of respondents, believe that serious obstacles to media freedom exist or that conditions for such freedom do not exist at all, as well as that the situation has been increasingly worsening in this respect in recent years, while almost two thirds of them consider that the media is controlled the most by the political establishment, according to the survey “Freedom and Control of the Media: Journalists’ Testimonies”, conducted by the Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation.
The research surveyed a total of 177 media workers from across the country, who provided detailed answers related to their experiences with pressure, but also the conditions under which they work.
In-depth interviews were conducted with ten journalists, who, under the guarantee of anonymity, provided many specific observations of the applying of political, financial, marketing and other pressures on editors and journalists. These interviewees included journalists of two public service broadcasters, as well as some of the largest commercial, regional, local and minority media outlets.
The research project, authored by media researcher and associate of the Institute of Social Sciences, Dr Jovanka Matić, was conducted from October to December 2017.
External pressures on the media
Results showed that journalists in Serbia are more often confronted by pressure coming from outside than from within the newsroom itself, and that this most often entails pressure applied by the authorities (experienced at least once by almost 70 per cent of respondents) or representatives of political parties (56 per cent).
Pressure often implies the refusal of institutions or officials to provide information, give statements or grant interview, expressions of dissatisfaction with reporting or discrimination against media outlets or journalists personally. More than a third of those surveyed have had such experiences, while around half said that they’d experienced something like this from representatives of the ruling political parties. As many as 48 per cent of respondents had been insulted by representatives of government bodies.
These pressures are inextricably linked to the extreme closed-door nature of institutions towards the media, which was noted by almost 70 per cent of those surveyed. The consequences are endured by the citizens, given that this situation reflects reporting itself.
Almost 40 per cent of surveyed journalists said that their editor had imposed a topic on them without professional justification, while the same percentage stated that editors had changed the value tone of an article or headline, in order to present certain people or events in a positive or negative light
“The news programme used to be politics, politics, politics, sport and weather, while now its Vučić, Vučić, Vučić, sport and weather”, said one of the interviewed journalists.
The surveyed journalists also say that the situation has worsened in recent years and that pressure is intensifying increasingly.
“The Minister calls the editor-in-chief or the editor of the daily news bulletin or the deputy editor. Or somebody from their PR department calls – you never know who they are, but they call constantly… Everybody wants to appear in the daily news bulleting and express their views”, says one interviewed public service broadcast journalist, adding that duels are avoided.
It has also happened, according to the testimony of one national television journalist, that they were called from the cabinet of the president and told “that guy shouldn’t appear as a guest”.
Attempts to control the media also come, to a lesser extent, from advertisers, reflected primarily through the cancellation of advertisements, failure to pay for published media advertising, or via pressure to present advertisement material as a news feature (masked advertising).
According to the results of this research, journalists in Serbia are also exposed to internal controls, i.e. intervention in their work by editors and management, at the expense of the public and in favour of some special interests.
Almost half of the interviewed journalists had experienced censoring by their editors in the form of refusals to approve their proposed topics. Almost 40 per cent of respondents said that their editor had imposed a topic on them without professional justification, while the same percentage stated that editors had changed the value tone of an article or headline, in order to present certain people or events in a positive or negative light.
“Most of the interviewed journalists see editors as the focal point of the media content control process. They feel that editors, and particularly chief editors, find themselves between “a hammer and an anvil”, but they do not see editors as protectors of professional integrity, rather as its violators”
The research also reveals a distressing situation in this part:
“Most of the interviewed journalists see editors as the focal point of the media content control process. They feel that editors, and particularly chief editors, find themselves between “a hammer and an anvil”, but they do not see editors as protectors of professional integrity, rather as its violators. They don’t perceive editors as colleagues in the same business, rather as opposing enemies, with different motives,” the study found.
Just as external pressures have become increasingly stronger of late, journalists also assess that internal controls over media content have been intensifying in recent years, and that editorial interventions are ever more frequent. Although they say that no topics are officially forbidden, “the limits of what is acceptable are well known among journalists”.
“A tacit agreement on untouchable topics includes those that would in some way harm the government, the ruling parties, or public companies, as well as topics related to the Church, large corporations and companies to which media outlets owe money for various services,” the study notes.
How that functions in practise is described by one daily newspaper journalist, who states that the editor never says, “you mustn’t cover that topic,” rather simply, “find a different topic”.
The outcome of this, as the study notes, is increasing passivity among journalists when it comes to opposing editors, leading to them following the path of least resistance and many (self-)censored journalists in Serbia sticking to coverage of “harmless” topics, i.e. those with less pressure.
The influence of management on journalists is somewhat lower, but the figures are still high – a quarter of respondents had encountered management requests for the special treatment of advertisers in regular reporting, while it is not uncommon for a director or owner to demand that an advertisement be presented in the form of a media feature.
Similar interventions also occur as a result of political, and not only economic, interests, with as many as a third of surveyed journalists stating that the management had demanded certain politicians or events be reported on in a certain way. Almost a third of respondents had experienced management refusing to publish their finished article or feature, or management meddling in the selection of topics to be covered.
“This isn’t local TV, this is a very bad SNS PR agency”
Considering these results, it is to be expected that three-quarters of surveyed journalists assess media freedom in Serbia in 2017 in a negative way, i.e. they either consider that it doesn’t exist or that there are serious obstacles to this freedom.
The survey states that the interviewed journalists described media freedom in Serbia in the following ways:
“There isn’t any”; “There’s no media freedom in Serbia. I don’t know what freedom of the media in Serbia is”; “One big zero… This isn’t local TV, this is a very bad SNS PR agency”; “Freedom of the media is today at its lowest point since 2000”; “In the last 10 years, since I started dealing with journalism, I think the situation has never been worse”; “There isn’t any. But I don’t believe the government is primarily to blame. It’s the fault of journalists”.
“The news programme used to be politics, politics, politics, sport and weather, while now its Vučić, Vučić, Vučić, sport and weather” (public service journalist)
According to almost half of respondents, wages are less than they were five years ago; a third state that their labour rights have reduced in the meantime, while working conditions and their personal safety have worsened, along with the volume and diversity of production.
In order for the situation in the media to improve, journalists consider, it is essential to prevent the applying of political and economic pressure, and to empower journalists economically. State funds must be allocated to the media impartially, while it is also deemed necessary to amend media legislation in order to establish mechanisms for protecting journalists from pressure.
Apart from the state and regulatory bodies, respondents actually also have expectations of themselves and their colleagues – around half of those surveyed consider it essential to improving the situation for journalists and editors to themselves be more courageous.
The research project ‘Freedom and Control of Media: Journalists’ Testimonies’ was conducted by the Slavko Ćuruvija as part of the project ‘Public Money for Public Interest – Support to the Civil Sector Initiatives for Public Interest’, which is being carried out jointly by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) and the SĆF, with the support of the European Union.
The article was republished from Slavko Curuvija Foundation website.