Regional Study: Media and Civil Society in the Western Balkans

The Albanian Media Institute, a SEENPM member, with the support of Council of Europe and Friedrich Ebert Foundation, initiated a regional research in six countries of Western Balkans, seeking to explore the relation between media and civil society. The research was conducted based on a common methodology in six countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. 

The main aspects analyzed in each country include the media sector, the status of civil society, the way media covers civil society, the perception of civil society sector of the media, civil society representation in public media bodies, the hybrid between media and NGOs, and the status of public participation of citizens as influenced by media and civil society sector. The first section of the book attempts to summarize the main observations noticed in each country along these lines, while each country report includes a more detailed information on the state of affairs.

Download the regional study: ‘Media and Civil Society in the Western Balkans’

From the introduction to the study: 

Media and Civil Society in the Western Balkans: A Complex Relationship

Although, in a broader sense, both NGOs and media are considered part of the civil society, in reality each of them has an independent existence and live a complex relationship. There are numerous civil society organizations in all Balkan countries, but overwhelmingly they are not seen as an active and thoroughly influential actor in domestic affairs. Civil society organizations and efficacy of their activity still face a lack of trust among Balkan public, while civil society itself seems to be often politically divided.

NGOs are also invariably dependent on foreign funding, often lacking sufficient financial and human resources. As Frank Hantke, director of Friedrich Ebert Foundation office in Tirana notes in his observations on civil society and public participation: “If democracy is largely nurtured and developed from outside only (through experts, consultants or even political pressure from other countries) it has nearly no chance of long-term survival. There are unfortunately already too many examples. Top-down democracies remain mostly thin facades while bottom-up democracies assure a more sustainable development.”1

On the other hand, all Balkan countries present media landscapes that are overcrowded, chaotic, non-transparent, where clientelism has become a chronic disease and self-censorship is now the norm. Although both media and NGOs subscribe to the same set of values: freedom, democracy, public participation, access to information, transparency, the relations between them oscillate between love and hate.

Media coverage on civil society is often superficial and politicized. It is limited to broadcasting some footage from the seminars or conferences, or in the political use or misuse of some paragraphs from the research and studies of civil society. Civil society organizations are often demonized from the media as a bunch of people, supported by the West, who swim in money. On the other hand, civil society organizations often view media as PR agency for their activities, as opponents, and not as their allies.

Coverage of civil society in the media

Presence of civil society in the media reports is diverse in each country and is inextricably linked to the overall political context and dynamics and the power relations between civil society, media, and government. What seems to be a common thread, though, is that the coverage is, at its best, frequent, neutral, and limited to report of current events and activities related to civil society, lacking follow-up of the stories and a deeper analysis of the phenomena. Even in countries where there was a more frequent and positive coverage of civil society in the media, it rarely tended to go beyond reporting on specific events, press conferences, and so on.

While civil society representatives are invariably quoted as sources of information in most countries, another common tendency is for the coverage to include only one source of information, namely just the civil society actor, rather than balance it with public official sources to enable the reader to have a more balanced judgment on the public policy issue at stake.

Even in countries like Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the press coverage seemed to be more active and positive vis-a-vis the civil society sector, in most cases the stories covered lack a background, context, and other sources of information that would complete the picture for the public.

While in some countries, like Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, the civil society sector had a good visibility, not only in terms of space, but also of prominence in newspapers, the other extreme were countries like Macedonia and especially Serbia, where presence of the civil society is negligible or even hard to detect. This is in line with the political regimes established in the last two countries, where the government seems to control great part of the media, leaving little space for alternative voices that might oppose the government. As a result, the public perception on NGOs in these countries might be heavily distorted, receiving only the negative and often “commissioned” coverage on NGOs, rather than any information on positive work they do.

For example, the Serbian report highlights that even though civil society is very active in providing recommendations in the country’s negotiation process with EU and many of the recommendations have been accepted, the public is totally unaware of this contribution and only views the civil society organizations as “public enemy.”

Part of the explanation for the insufficient or biased coverage of the civil society sector lies in the ties between government and media, as well as on the fast news production that dominates the current media scene in all countries. However, most reports also identified a lack of cooperation between media and NGOs and especially the inability of civil society organizations to communicate properly and in an interesting way for the media on their work as the main culprit.

Other reasons identified for the poor coverage on civil society also included the existing feeling of distrust between media and NGOs in some cases, as well as perceived politicization of NGOs, often leading to smear campaigns, especially during electoral campaigns or other significant events.

On a more positive note, the media in most countries in the region has become an ally of civil society organizations in relation to marginalized groups, most visibly LGBT community. Although some online media display hostile tendencies towards this community, most traditional media has had a very good cooperation with organizations working in this field, resulting in a generally positive and active coverage in the media of this community, sometimes even opposing conservative political statements.

1 F. Hantke, “Civil society <-> Democracy <-> Civil society organizations (NGOs).”

Download the regional study: ‘Media and Civil Society in the Western Balkans’