A roundtable focused on the phenomenon of media politicization and media clientelism in the Western Balkans was organized in Tirana on October 28, 2016, with the main aim to discuss the situation with the phenomena of deep polarization and politicization of the media and cemented clientelism, increasingly recurrent in the Balkans.
The event was held in the framework of the regional tours within the South East European Media Observatory. It gathered journalists, civil society activists, representatives of regulatory institutions, and students of journalism. Regional guests in the roundtable discussion included Boro Kontic, director of Media Centar, Sarajevo, and Zaneta Trajkoska, director of the School of Journalism and Public Relations, Skopje.
The roundtable was opened by Remzi Lani, director of Albanian Media Institute, who briefly talked about the context of democracy in the Balkans and the media situation, emphasizing illiberal threats reflected also in the media systems in place in each country. Although some countries are in a more difficult position than others, facing more autocratic regimes, the problem of political pervasion of the public sphere and the colonization and politicization of the media is present in each country in the region. Coupled with media clientelism, exhibited in different forms, the deep polarization of media outlets and journalism association and the politicization of the media content have further withdrawn the media from pursuing public interest.
Boro Kontic and Zaneta Trajkoska exchanged their opinions and experiences concerning media and democracy, pointing out the main problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. Boro Kontic provided a brief overview of the media landscape in the country, emphasizing the market saturation and its fragmentation. He especially focused on the inflation of news and news media, resulting in a situation where the public is bombarded with news, but news of superficial nature, without being informed on the “why” of the events or phenomena. He described the financial and professional difficulties that media face, concluding that often the media are forced to retreat to the shelter and comfort provided to them by political power.
Zaneta Trajkoska was far more pessimistic in her speech, speaking not just about the freedom of media in Macedonia, but also about the general lack of freedom in the country, marked by government efforts to legally corrupt the media and its continuous attempts for media to succumb to fear of government pressure, through different methods. She described the Macedonian media as struggling to have independent news, in a context where the agenda of the news and even the sources of information to be interviewed are dictated by the government and where even vox-populi is manipulated, leading to a distorted and heavily biased reality that is created in the media. Even online news portals, which could be more free and independent in theory, were overshadowed by the government funding of hundreds of portals, leading to a situation where there is only one truth for the people of Macedonia to see - the one created by the government. Climate of fear and incomplete or misleading reporting in the news media is maintained, among other methods, through media buy-offs in a situation where the government is the major advertiser and thus it is able to suppress attempts of investigative journalism. Overall climate of mass surveillance on media and on population in general also contribute to these grim media trends.
The Albanian participants also shared their experience, focusing on the occupation of public space by politicians in traditional media, the inevitability of so-called protocol news, the domination of politicians as sources of information, practices of Facebook journalism through mere reports of status of politicians, the political parties’ control over the performance of media and journalistis, and the way political parties are broadcast on TV, especially in electoral campaigns, the selective transparency of institutions, etc.
In view of the gloomy situation on politics, media, and their interdependence in the region, the natural question was what can be done to improve the situation. One of the answers was the process of EU integration, since this is the moment when EU still has some leverage on national governments to assist the countries in drawing closer to democratic standards, including the media. Specific attention was paid to several initiatives of investigative journalism that were providing a good opposition to these phenomena, but highlighting that these are donor-driven projects, which face sustainability problems. Finally, media literacy was also considered relevant in the long run, mainly raising the awareness among citizens on the way media systems work and how to have a critical approach to media content, with participants highlighting the role the public broadcasters could play in this respect.