IREX Vibe 2021: Effect of pandemic on media systems in Europe and Eurasia

Photo by IREX VIBE 2021

The 2021 edition of IREX’s Vibrant Information Barometer (VIBE) shows that a media sector already struggling with reduced advertising revenue has been further compromised by the 2020 global economic downturn triggered by the pandemic. The study conducted in 13 countries throughout Europe and Eurasia highlights that the global financial downturn, governments withholding information, and misinformation related to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic have materially impacted the media and information sector.

As advertising throughout the region has become increasingly politicized, media outlets are more susceptible to politically motivated benefactors who affect editorial content, leading to increased self-censorship. Governments throughout the region held back information, while misinformation including rumors and conspiracies about the pandemic – ran wild.

Vibrant Information Barometer looks at four principles of information vibrancy: Information Quality, Multiple Channels, Information Consumption and Engagement, Transformative Action. According to the IREX’s VIBE categorization, media systems can be: Not Vibrant/Failing Information System (score 0-10), Slightly Vibrant/Weak Information System (11-20), Somewhat Vibrant/Stable Information System (21-30), and Highly Vibrant/Thriving Information System (31-40).

After almost 20 years of conducting the Media Sustainability Index, IREX developed the Vibrant Information Barometer with funding from USAID to better capture and measure the way information is produced and utilized today. Through expert in-country panels, VIBE seeks to assess how vibrant countries’ information systems are in the digital age and explicitly examines newer concepts, such as media literacy and information bubbles, along with media resources and quality of information in the media and information sector.

Media systems in Southeast Europe

Albania (somewhat vibrant – overall score: 22)

Albania’s main challenge in 2020 was addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, naturally leaving aside other political topics and debates. While Albania’s media landscape enjoys a satisfactory infrastructure, fact-checking and verifying information, along with the quality of information, are not at the same level, leading to the spread of misinformation–especially in online media. While Albania’s legislation generally guarantees the right to freedom of expression and freedom of media, in practice journalists are vulnerable and often resort to self-censorship. Although multiple channels of information exist in terms of access and technology, the information provided is rarely qualitative or independent.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (slightly vibrant – overall score: 18)

The COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted the political, economic, and media sectors in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) and emphasized issues, including complex administrative divisions and corruption, that have been stalling the country’s progress to a fully functioning democratic society. Professional journalists played an important role in informing citizens about COVID-19 and uncovered a series of fraud in public procurement contracts for pandemic-related medical supplies.

In some cases there is quality information on a variety of topics but overall the quality of information has decreased, mainly driven by an alarming number of false and misleading content about COVID-19. There is no strategic approach toward media literacy education and there is lack of awareness and knowledge about digital security and the legislative framework for the protection of personal data is insufficient.

Kosovo (somewhat vibrant – overall score: 24)

Kosovo’s media significantly fueled both the pandemic and political crises in the country. The media sector has seen an increase in harmful content, including misinformation and fake news related to the spread of coronavirus in particular, spread through all sorts of media channels. Online media have increased rapidly, spurring a diversity of information channels. These information flows, however, do not mean that most citizens of Kosovo have the skills and tools necessary for media literacy.

Montenegro (somewhat vibrant – overall score: 21)

Alongside political conflicts and the change in government, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Montenegro hard, causing serious health and economic impacts. A slew of negative influences and poor practices keep Montenegro’s media sector stuck in a vicious circle, plagued by the same problems year after year. Online journalism has completely sidelined print media, which continues to see its circulation decline, in contrast to the ever-soaring influence of social networks. Information quality falls short of the professional standards and customary norms that support the free press in a democratic country, primarily due to: the political bias of media outlets’ editorial teams, the prevalence of fake news on social networks, the malign influence of foreign governments (Serbia, Russia), biased interpretation of facts, and limited human resources that hinder quality reporting and the development of investigative journalism. Media literacy, although an element of advanced education reform efforts, is marginalized, priming the population for political manipulation and information misuse.

North Macedonia (somewhat vibrant – overall score: 21)

The quality of information is falling due to extreme polarization along political, ethnic, and religious lines and a growing tendency to avoid doing original or enterprise reporting. While there are multiple channels for information and many information providers, the numbers alone do not ensure true media and information pluralism; habits of information consumption and engagement remain at the mercy of political actors; and the chances for transformative action based on accurate information remain remote given the divisions in the country.

Serbia (slightly vibrant – overall score: 15)

The turbulent past year produced two new media phenomena: unprecedented 1 The Group of States against Corruption, Strasbourg, France 2 Bureau of Social Research, Belgrade noncritical coverage of candidates during the election campaign and media merely transmitting authorities’ information during the state of emergency. The press violated the Journalist’s Code of Ethics, established and monitored by the Press Council, an independent self-regulatory body for Serbia’s media sector – in 3,643 texts. The year also saw the explosion of fake news and extensive efforts by the ruling party and president to prevent any media criticism of authorities. For the first time in two years, several journalists were arrested, and 189 attacks on journalists were registered, of which 32 were physical attacks and 14 were attacks on journalists’ property.