The Balkan states, situated in southeastern Europe, include Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. Altogether, the Balkan states have a population of almost 54.5 million people of very diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. Montenegro is the smallest of these states and Romania the largest. The Balkan states are emerging democracies with parliamentary systems; Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union on January 1, 2007, and others aspire to do so in the future.
Media In Transition
The media in the Balkan states have traveled a long way since being freed from the Marxist-Leninist straitjacket in 1989, but becoming professional media that reflect and serve full-fledged democracies is still beyond the horizon. The desire to join the European Union and pressure from western journalism, human rights watchdog organizations, governments, and other supranational organizations have effected some modest changes in the region’s media, both to the laws and regulations that relate to them and to the practice of journalism.
Despite the progress made, there are still nagging problems that ensure that the media remain only minor contributors to the process of democratization and examples of an institution that has not been allowed to fully reach the status it should have or play the roles it must play in a democracy. One common post-1989 development is the tremendous increase in the number of media in the region, in some cases doubling, tripling, or quadrupling the number of outlets available during the communist era, and the free access to indigenous and foreign media offerings. The new constitutions in the region confirm the importance of the freedom of the press and of speech but the Freedom House Report (Karlekar 2006) judges the media in all Balkan countries to be only “partly free.”
Culture, the media’s history, the nature of the communist experience, the presence or absence of underground media during the communist era, and post-1989 economic and political development make for some distinctions between the region’s media.
The privatization of the media, particularly the press, was accomplished in the very early 1990s outside of a legal context and regulatory agencies or rules, either spontaneously or mediated by the state, according to Coman (2000). The press was the first to privatize; radio and television, partly because they depend on frequency allocations, were obliged to wait for new broadcast laws to be enacted.
The post-communist media outlets almost instantly became vehicles for the political interests and aspirations of newly formed political parties and their politicians, whose numbers also climbed vertiginously after 1989. The post-communist elites have in great measure perpetuated the communist mentality that made control and manipulation of the media, anathema in mature democracies, perceived necessities. These undemocratic elites were not always able to control or manipulate all media, however, and the battle to minimize or eliminate such attempts continues with ever-changing levels of success. Media control and manipulation were made possible by the political atmosphere and overall culture in the Balkan nations, constant since 1989 with only minor modifications, the economic struggles of the media outlets, high taxes levied on the media, and the system of state and government advertising.
Public broadcasting is perhaps the least free in the Balkans, and Splichal’s (1994, 48) observations in the mid-1990s in great measure still hold true: broadcasting is “largely subordinated to the state authorities and party elites rather than to public accountability”. The situation of Romania’s public broadcasting, for example, epitomizes that in the region; according to Coman and Gross (2006, 104), it “struggles with the vestiges of the old, leftover mentalities from the communist era, a bloated staff, and the ever-present threat of government interference.” Major attempts at breaking this pattern were made in a number of countries, with mixed results. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, reform of public broadcasting stalled in 2005 and media independence was threatened, as it was in Montenegro.
Media ownership in the region is diverse, running the full gamut of possibilities: media are owned by the state, individuals and corporations, political parties, churches, and other groups. Additionally, the dominance of foreign media groups, particularly at the local and regional levels of the Balkan press system, give rise to concern, according to the European Federation of Journalists (2004) report. Foreign media groups are present in Albania (Italian), Bulgaria (German, Greek, British, Eurocom), Croatia (German, Finnish, Austrian), Macedonia (German), Romania (German, Swiss, Finnish, French, Luxembourger, American), Serbia (German, American), and Slovenia (Austria, Germany, Sweden).
While the media landscape in the Balkans changed in 2005 and 2006, Balkan journalists and western observers bemoan the negative side-effects of commercialization: lack of social responsibility and of a better understanding and acceptance of media roles and functions in democracies, and the absence of ethics and professionalism.
Without indigenous models of good journalism, Balkan journalism developed helterskelter in response to the personal whims of journalists and editors, the legacies of advocacy journalism from the pre-communist and communist eras, and political and economic exigencies. Ethical problems abound, ranging from unconfirmed and anonymous sources and reporting that is opinion-based and tenuous, to the acceptance of bribes and pure propaganda presented in the guise of news stories. The verification of facts, when they are the basis of news stories, is often shoddy.
The worst breaches of professional and ethical rules occur during election campaigns, when journalists are apt to work for a politician or a political party while they are employed by a news media outlet. Or as Siroka (2005, 67) describes the Macedonian case, “the media . . . tendentiously compile (dirty) material to be used . . . in the course of the campaign in order to discredit certain political opponents, which is in a way directed by some [sic] political structure that uses or abuses certain journalists/media.”
Ethics codes have sprung up throughout the region but to no avail, because there has not been any universal commitment to abide by them, mechanisms to enforce these codes are missing, and the overall culture in the region exhibits a deficit of concern for ethics. Furthermore, the journalists’ general lack of organization and power gives them little leeway in self-policing and no leverage to combat those who have no interest in seeing a professional, ethical journalism develop. Working for several news outlets at the same time, for politicians and political parties during elections, accepting money and other gifts for writing favorable articles or for not covering certain stories are only some of the unethical behaviors of Balkan journalists.
Coupled with tenuous job security for journalists and low pay, the attempted manipulation and control of journalism have led to a return to censorship in some cases and more often to self-censorship. The Committee to Protect Journalists (2005) reported that, as is the case in the other countries in the region, journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia “commonly practice self-censorship to avoid pressure or harassment from nationalist politicians, government officials and businessmen who use advertising revenue, threats, and occasionally violent attacks to ensure positive coverage.”
Balkan journalists are in danger. In April 2006, Bulgarian journalist Vasil Ivanov’s apartment was bombed in response to his investigation of the abuse of inmates in the Sofia central prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (2005). That same month, a municipal court in the southern Serbian city of Prokuplje upheld a lower court’s verdict that found an RTV Kursumlija editor guilty of criminal defamation. Such incidents, together with other modes of intimidation and threats, were a common occurrence during the 1990s and have only slightly decreased in the new century.
The trend of violence, intimidation, and threats against and harassment of journalists began shortly after communism’s demise and was at one time or another fueled by governments, political parties, politicians, businessmen, officials at state, regional, and local level, and organized crime groups. Throughout the 1990s, reports Henrikas Yushkavitshus (World Press Freedom Committee 2006), a UNESCO communications advisor, physical violence against journalists was “the ultimate form of censorship.”
Freedom of the press has improved in the last few years. Of particular importance are the changes in defamation laws; in Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, and Serbia-Montenegro defamation is still under the criminal code but is no longer punishable with imprisonment. In Croatia, if there is intent to harm, defamation is still considered a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment, as it is in Serbia, where the defendant can be imprisoned for up to six months if he or she cannot pay the fine levied after a guilty verdict. In Bosnia-Herzegovina defamation is a civil matter, and in Albania it remains under the criminal code and is punishable with imprisonment, however, prime minister Sali Berisha ordered government officials in October 2005 to use the right of reply rather than sue the journalists for defamation.
Additional burdens for journalists and media organizations are created by the absence of legal protection of sources and an interpretation of access-to-information laws in the countries where they were enacted that is seldom in favor of the news media. Things have improved in Croatia, where a press law enacted in 2003 restricted access to public data and reduced the protection of journalistic sources at the same time as it guaranteed press freedom and journalists’ rights, and in Montenegro with the adoption of the Law of Free Access in 2005.
Despite attempts by politicians to enact press laws, most Balkan nations have opted not to have such laws. Albania is an exception; its 1997 Press Law is vague enough to allow for a heavy-handed interpretation by the government, despite the law providing for broad freedom of the press.
Post-communist broadcast legislation was enacted in Albania in 1998, BosniaHerzegovina in 2005, Bulgaria in 1996, Croatia in 1999, Kosovo in 2006, Macedonia in 1997, Romania in 1992, and Serbia-Montenegro in 2002. The new legislation addressed both public and commercial broadcasting, the organization of the ruling broadcast councils, their membership, and their mode of selection or appointment.
Small, tentative improvements are indeed discernible in the majority of the Balkan countries. A survey of Serbian journalists, made public by the International Federation of Journalists in April 2003, identified four major extant problems, however, that are shared across the region: political pressure, self-censorship, political constraints in editorial policy, and lack of courage on the part of editors. Altogether, the Balkan media and their journalism are works in progress, and their evolution depends as much on a better understanding of the role of media in democratic society and the professionalization of journalism as it does on the democratic evolution of political culture.
- Coman, M. (2000). Developments in journalism theory about media “transition” in central and eastern Europe 1990 –1999. Journalism Studies, 1(1), 35 –56.
- Coman, M., & Gross, P. (2006). Media and journalism in Romania. Berlin: Vistas.
- Committee to Protect Journalists (2005). At www.cpj.org, accessed September 20, 2007.
- European Federation of Journalists (2004). Eastern empires. Foreign ownership in eastern and central European media: Ownership, policy issues and strategies. Brussels: European Federation of Journalists.
- Gross, P. (2002). Entangled evolutions: Media and democratization in eastern Europe. Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins University Press.
- International Federation of Journalists (2003). At www.ifj.org.
- Jakubowicz, K. (2006). Rude awakening: Social and media change in central and eastern Europe. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Karlekar, K. D. (ed.) (2006). Freedom of the press 2006: A global survey of media independence. New York and Lanham, MD: Freedom House, and Rowman and Littlefield.
- Reporters Without Borders (2005). 2004 Annual Country Reports. At www.rsf.org.
- Siroka, J. (ed.) (2005). Ethics and journalism in south eastern Europe: Comparative analysis of the journalistic profession. Belgrade: Media Center.
- Splichal, S. (1994). Media beyond socialism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- World Press Freedom Committee (2006). At www.wpfc.org.