Maja Sever: We Must Convince the Public of the Importance of Journalism

Photo: Mediacentar Sarajevo

“We’re sending a message to each media outlet: the fight goes on”, Sever says.

We have to stay strong in solidarity and simply convince the public how and why journalism is important. In the flood of information from numerous social networks where everyone can share and spread information, it became clear why journalists and journalism are important, says Maja Sever, president of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), in an interview with Mediacentar Sarajevo.  

The EFJ is the largest journalistic organization in Europe that represents more than 320,000 journalists from 72 journalistic organizations in 45 countries, and Sever was elected to this position at the election assembly of the organization that was held on 13th and 14th June 2022 in Izmir. The president of the Croatian Trade Union is the first female president in the history of the EFJ. 

In an interview with Mediacentar, she recalls the importance of strengthening independent, transparent funding of the media according to professional criteria, with the aim of serving the public interest, but also creating a better framework and mechanisms for the protection of journalists from attacks, as well as in the realization of labour and social rights

You are the first female president of the European Federation of Journalists. Is that a testament to possible changes in the journalism profession? 

Well, yes, but unfortunately the news is not good, because we know that in the professions with more and more women, those professions are always paid less than those in which the majority are men. Unfortunately, those are the statistics, but it doesn’t matter, we should turn this into a story of women’s bravery and determination and that they know why journalism is important and significant for every society and democracy.

After being elected as president of the European Federation of Journalists, you said that we live in a world where journalists are killed, detained, sued, that female journalists work for less pay, that journalists are constantly exposed to attacks and insults, and that they do not have protected labour or social rights. What can be done in such circumstances to protect journalists?

Baby steps. There is simply no other way. The media environment has changed, societies have changed. We have to stay strong in solidarity and simply convince the public how and why journalism is important. In the flood of information from numerous social networks where everyone can share and spread information, it was shown why journalists and journalism are important, as people who are educated, who do it for a living and know how to verify information. Our job is to strengthen journalists in verifying information, their work and strengthen their capacities. 

The protection of labour rights is very important. Because until you know whether you will patch up by the end of the month for both loans and bills, you cannot be free. You cannot write freely, bravely and boldly, even about those who in one way or another may even finance or have financed your media, until workers’ rights are protected. In our country, this is a big problem due to the lack of collective agreements and general awareness about organizing workers in the media. 

In that context, how important it is to ensure independent funding of the media?

To ensure funding with which the media will be able to work freely. We in Croatia have an example and I think that, unfortunately, you also have connections between local political authorities and the financing of local media. In such cases, it is normal for those local political authorities to expect the media to write and do their political propaganda. Therefore, strengthening independent, transparent financing of the media according to professional criteria with the aim of serving the public interest, not some political structure. 

Then we have that same connection with advertisers. I can’t tell you how many times I heard about media outlets that wrote about “malfeasance in such and such company”, after which they received an email about the withdrawal of ads from that media. Therefore, this “ease of blackmail” is extremely problematic.

Providing funds, providing means to support independent work through financing. Women – all indicators say we have this pay gap where we still work for less than our male counterparts. The “glass ceiling”; statistics say we still can’t progress fast enough and based on our merits as our male counterparts. And then, unfortunately, these are again statistics, not my impression or yours – women are always more exposed to attacks, online abuse and insults.

Since you mentioned online attacks, which, as all research shows, are more pronounced against female journalists, in your opinion, in the countries of the former Yugoslavia where there are still no clear protection mechanisms or a legal framework that regulates the online space, how much can be done to protect them?

That’s what I’m trying to do and I hope that I’ll succeed in this position, to explain as simply as possible why our solidarity and common struggle are important, not only for journalists but also for people who are media experts, who are legal experts. So, you and I know what it’s like in the field. We know and feel what kind of protection we need. In my further activities and through the Croatian Union of Journalists, and now in the European Federation of Journalists, in cooperation with other people who have professional media and expert legal knowledge, we must build a framework which will then be implemented in your country and mine. The idea is that when someone attacks you, through this framework you can quickly seek protection and that protection will be provided to you, that you will not have to wait for an answer from the competent institutions for two months, which is what happens in our countries, but simply the establishment of a solid mechanism to protect our security, unfortunately, not only from online abuse.

We are really working on that and it is one of the priorities that were emphasized at the assembly of the European Federation of Journalists.

To what extent can the European Federation of Journalists influence the situation in the countries in this region to move in a better direction when we talk about the protection of journalists and other rights of media workers?

I sincerely believe that my election as the president is a sign that they want to show us that we are equal. We talked and we are working and cooperating. We have a group where we try to provide concrete daily support to people from this area to strengthen the trade union fight for labour rights. I know how open they are, but I’m also the most boring person in the world, it’s not a problem for me to send an email and beg at six in the morning. These people always had time to answer me, to help me, to give me connections and support, and I think that most of the people who cooperate, who are in that organization, feel that way.

My decision to apply was indeed partly supported and motivated by that support. I see it as a sign that we continue and strengthen support and assistance in this part of Europe as well. Yes, I am now the president of the entire European Federation of Journalists and I am also interested in the problems in Denmark, I am interested in Assange (Julian) – the decision to extradite him, but I also think that in these few days I am really available to each of you, each of your media outlets, to send the message: the fight goes on. I think that is also their message. 

There is one more thing I really think I represent, and they decided to support me as such – I truly am a woman from the field. I’m staying in journalism. I work part-time as a representative trade union member, because it’s a volunteer position, I am not employed by them, and I continue to work with Stanković (HRT talk show Nedjeljom u 2). With Stanković, I cover the entire region. So, I stay in the field and that kind of connection, that kind of direct contact with people who really work and know these problems, I think that is also quite important. 

How much could the European law on freedom of the media, which has begun to be worked on, help the media in countries that are not yet members of the EU?

This is just the beginning of that fight, the beginning of that process, it’s just starting to be worked on. Our goal is to try to simply cooperate, propose, and warn about those specific important things and problems in the entire process of creating that law and to use all possible tools to participate in and contribute to the discussion. 

What pleases me is that opinions are always sought from people in the field. I know, because we cooperated on that mechanism called The Rule of Law, so we also discussed a lot about what specifically bothers people in the field, what is it in your legislation, what is in practical daily work, and then it rises to that level of concrete proposals in the debate on European law. The ultimate goal is generally to have a legal framework for better protection of free, independent and professional journalism throughout Europe. Of course, I believe that, just as it reached us every time in Croatia when we were still trying to enter the EU, it will also spread to countries that are on the European path. 

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