Voices of Freedom

Looking for solutions in Eastern European media

News | Maruska Strah | December 2008 / January 2009

On October 23rd, Ivo Pukanic the owner of the Croatian weekly Nacional died when a bomb exploded in his car in Zagreb, in the courtyard of the newspaper building. According to BBC Balkans correspondent Helen Fawkes, the car bomb followed a string of attacks in Zagreb that have been linked to organised crime.

Pukanic is one of thirty-seven journalists who have died trying to rout out corruption in the region during last year alone. It is journalists like Pukanic that the South East Europe Media Organization hopes to help through publicizing these incidents and pressuring governments to protect them.

Since its founding in 2000 in Zagreb, the South East Europe Media Organization has dedicated itself to the support of free journalism in the states of former Yugoslavia as well as in other countries in the region such as Moldova, Romania, Greece, and Turkey together, with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

Oliver Vujović, Secretary General of SEEMO, an affiliate of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, is encouraged by the results.

"Around 60% of the problems that journalists have are solved in a period of six months," he told The Vienna Review in late November. Usually, the organization first talks to politicians, media executives, and even religious leaders, and if this is not enough, SEEMO issues press releases to draw public attention to the problem. As people in positions of influence tend to avoid negative publicity, the approach often works.

In many situations, SEEMO has managed to bring adversaries to a consensus.

"We had a case in Serbia when a female Serbian journalist, whose job was writing about issues concerning religion for the Serbian daily Danas, was forbidden to attend a press conference organized by the Serbian Orthodox Church," Vujovic related. She was not a Muslim, but she was critical about something that had happened in the Church. "Keeping this off the record," Vujović said, "we sent a letter to the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and, after a week, they withdrew their objections and she was allowed to attend the conference."

Today, SEEMO has around 500 individual members. Of these, some 50% are editors in chief or directors of broadcasting companies, Vujović explained, although many support SEEMO as private persons only. Some choose not to reveal their involvement to their employers, afraid that it will endanger their jobs, which have often come through appointments from the governments."

Thus, membership can be a courageous act; all members have to be ready to support other members and SEEMO in controversial situations, as well as being able to accept press freedom rules and free access on the market for all media.

Board president Radomir Licina, Senior Editor of the Serbian daily Danas, told The Vienna Review that we should be cautious in using terms like "improving" or "declining" in reference to the level of journalistic expertise in South Eastern Europe or any other area.

"I tend to be amongst those who are skeptical," admitted Licina, "because I think journalistic practice in too many countries has been influenced in ways that did not contribute a lot to the quality of reporting."

After the breakup of Yugoslavia, most countries welcomed democratic values because, for the first time since the breakdown of former Yugoslavia, they felt free to express themselves. Many, however, were not completely ready to use that freedom.

"Freedom of expression, which is one of the primary goals of SEEMO, is not a goal in itself but should be shared with responsibility when presented to the citizens," insisted Licina, "In too many regions, this was not always the case."

"In Serbia, the situation was horrible at times," Licina went on. "The system has changed and regimes are still changing, but the basic attitude remains the same, even though the political classes manipulated the media and used it as its tool." The political leadership classes are the ones deciding what is going to be published, thereby controlling and influencing the media. "We now have a lot of media companies where we don’t know whom they are working for. There are not enough media outlets that understand what their basic role is."

Even in the countries of the European Union, SEEMO experiences limitations on the free press when governments, as in Slovenia, have tried to manipulate the press in their own interest.

In Russia, the main problem is economics, explained Andrei Richter, Director of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute. With almost 90,000 media outlets, "there is simply no market for the press. There is too much for a single country."

Ironically, many feel there was more free press in the 1990’s during the first years after the fall of communism, when Russia went through its Golden Age. But after that, there was almost no free political press, though there are many independent tabloids, gossip, and fashion magazines today.

"When we speak about political media, there are no free outlets," admitted Richter. "Maybe there are some small local examples, such as Novaya Gazeta and Eko Moskvi radio station. These examples are basically witnesses to the fact that there is no free political press in Russia."

In contrast, Erhard Busek, former vice chancellor of Austria and director of the Institute for the Danube Region, believes that "the problem is not the freedom of the press; rather, it is the quality that makes the press weak." To the question on how to improve the quality of the media, Busek told The Vienna Review, "Something has to be done concerning training." This will, however, require "greater solidarity between journalists," he said.

SEEMO can certainly help journalists stay independent; to what extend they can actually achieve possible solutions in the media is still, unfortunately, very much dependent upon sponsors and the government and, therefore, remains an open-ended question.

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