Precarious, Self-censoring and Under Political Pressure*

Precarious, Self-censoring and Under Political Pressure*
Aidan White, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network and member of the SEE Media Observatory Advisory Board on the situation of the journalist profession in the SEE region.
The analyses of the state of journalist profession in the region.
The analyses of the state of journalist profession in Albania, Bosnia, Croatia Macedonia and Serbia reveal media expansion over the past 20 years, but with no comparable development in professionalism. 
Although there are improvements in training, many journalism students are moving into corporate communications or public relations while others find themselves making unacceptable compromises in media enterprises where newsroom standards are low. 
Political problems remain in place everywhere, but the evidence is that journalism is less affected by physical threats. Worryingly, journalism is still at risk but increasingly as a result of sophisticated forms of internal pressure. 
Highs and lows of the journalist profession
It is a common thread in the countries of the region that political influences and internal structures mean that inside media there is a strong tendency towards self-censorship. There is no widespread attachment to investigative journalism or editorial risk-taking. 
Although some positive improvements are reported, much of the journalism is self-serving and constrained by the interests of media owners. It is often supervised by weak editors who serve primarily the interests of political and private power. 
The journalist faces common problems in all the countries: poor levels of professional solidarity and little faith in the ability of journalist associations to combat professional and social problems, even where there is only one primary journalists’ group. 
Nevertheless, there are signs that unions of journalists working for change are beginning to have impact, particularly in Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia.
General there is no formal commitment to an ethical code by media organisations, in spite of indications that there is support for such a code. 
There are some efforts to create a viable ethical framework. The newspaper Shekulli in Albania, for instance, began a ground-breaking initiative a decade ago, although this was short-lived and efforts continue at B92’s “Insider” in Serbia. 
Everywhere there are problems of financial pressure which lead to some cynical attitudes developing in newsrooms (“ethics are a luxury”); there is a critical lack of time available to do professional work; and the prevalence of media competition leads to a “herd mentality” and low-levels of journalistic practice.
Importantly, a lack of unified professional organisation contributes towards unequal power relations between owners and journalists. 
At the same time, it should be noted that there are some attempts now to raise the status of journalism. One way to do this is sponsorship of reporting prizes (as in Albania) which is something that could be further encouraged elsewhere.
Precarity and self-censorship
It’s clear that poor social conditions, job insecurity and low wages have a major impact, not least in lowering morale across the media of the region. Even where media make promises to improve working conditions and where there are supposed to be legal protection through labour codes, precarious work is the reality for most people in in media and most journalists do not work to an agreed and formal contract. Even though wages are low for most people in journalism, “huge differences” exist and celebrity journalists and senior executives get generous payments. 
These working conditions are factors that according to the reports “affect quality of media and freedom” and also contribute to self-censorship. There is also evidence of internal corruption and inducements (bribes) to journalists, and sometimes these corrupt practices are endorsed by editorial leadership. 
Not surprisingly, the region’s media appear to be weighed down by a “passive” newsroom culture in which editors and journalists rarely divide on editorial matters and where, as  the Albanian analyst reports, “self-censorship has been refined becoming an integral part of journalists’ work.” 
There are positive signs, such as the development of a media strategy and the media coalition in Serbia and the development of an Action Plan from Mavorovo adopted by editors-in-chief, journalists and Macedonia media experts in 2011.
These developments (including the support from government in Croatia to fund regional media) need to be strengthened across the region to target the problems of social crisis – no collective agreements; no internal governance standards; and precarious work for media professionals – and to support investigative journalism and more effective systems of self-regulation.
Political pressures channeled through newsrooms
Above all, the threat of undue political influence disrupts the news gathering and reporting process. The culture of what is called podobnost in Macedonia and political influence over the placement of key editorial posts; governmental influence on the reporting and editorial structure of public broadcasting (nuanced control, no sackings, but accepted practice of rotation of eligible and non-eligible staff) is apparent in most countries as well as in some countries the suggestion of regular direct contact with editors by political leaders and even directly with individual staff. These structural and cultural tendencies erode attachment to ethical journalism and need to be addressed. The development of a culture of press freedom in the region must begin with actions to strengthen editorial independence and to combat the threat of political interference.
At the same time, there are also internal threats. In many countries owners seek to influence the news agenda to promote their private interests. 
Sometimes owners mediate relations between politics and journalists and this becomes complex when the owner has political ambitions (as it was in the case of Macedonia’s A1 TV). The nexus of political and financial interests determines how media behave.
Everywhere, too, there is concern over the role of editors in chief, not as independent voices of journalists, but as key actors in the chain of political and/or ownership influence. 
Their active manipulation of newsgathering and production is often not seen as a process of professional standard-setting, but is considered by some to be little more than active censorship and interference in the work of journalists. There is a consistent feeling of conformism in newsroom because of a lack of independent streak in the editor class. 
Despite all of this some say that there is less evident political bias in journalism (in Macedonia, for instance) but market developments in most countries, which are heavily politicized, indicates that many industry stakeholders are complicit in a system which does not allow for any genuinely pluralist and independent voices. 
To resolve the common problems identified here there is an urgent need for a fresh strategic approach. This should aim to 
a) strengthen media and community solidarity around principles of pluralist and ethical journalism;
b) create more broad coalitions of media professionals to define and develop strategies for change including new forms of funding for independent journalism across all platforms of media;
c) support efforts to create more transparency and good governance in media administration, both private and public;
d) build media solidarity through support for more independent media professional groups;
e) Build public confidence in more effective structures for media self-regulation
*This report has been written as a review of the analyses written by the researchers involved in the SEE Media Observatory.
Media Integrity