The media market in southeastern Europe is one of the most dynamic in the world. However, the independence of Balkan journalism is less impressive, as a conference co-hosted by DW has shown.
DW and the Southeast Europe Association hosted the two-day conference
At the close of the "Media in Southeast Europe" conference in Bonn, one of the presenters summoned the words of Bruce Springsteen to characterize the media market in Southeast-European countries: "57 channels and nothing on."
Liana Ganea of the Romanian media watchdog Active Watch said that the media in southeastern Europe was not only lacking in quality production but also in freedom of speech.
Ganea cited the example of Romanian tycoon Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, who in 2009 ordered a journalist working for his media group, Realitatea-Catavencu, to "attack" certain political figures in Romania.
"When I tell you to attack somebody, then you have to just attack him," the multimillionaire commanded his reporter, who was recording the conversation and afterwards made it public.
Romania joined the European Union in 2007; however, Ganea said that the situation had gotten worse ever since, mainly due to a "war" and an "earthquake."
"The 'war' was the political battle before the presidential election in 2009, which unfortunately had a very negative impact on the media. Romanian news outlets were completely manipulated and polarized; journalists were on one side or the other, and they acted like vicious fighters. And then came the 'earthquake': the global economic crisis."
As a result of the desolate financial situation, several media institutions around Southeast Europe were forced to close departments, with even experienced journalists being laid off.
Remzi Lani, head of the Tirana media organization in Albania, told Deutsche Welle that journalists in his country often pandered to politicians and businessmen - and not the general public
"The main problem is media 'clientelism' - the media is sandwiched between politics and the economy. It doesn't serve the public interest, but rather that of big business and influential politicians. And who pays the price? It's the public, which is not represented and whose interests are forgotten," Lani said.
Zurovac is concerned about the influence of religion on reporting in Bosnia
In every Balkan state, the media is officially free but not always independent. In Albania, Lani added, corruption is an "inescapable nemesis" to the freedom of reporting.
Apart from politics and business, there is a third influence that infringes on independent journalism, according to Ljiliana Zurovac, head of the press counsel in Bosnia.
Zurovac told Deutsche Welle that media coverage in her country was all too often swayed by religious conviction.
"Unfortunately [religion] is very strong, but not because the religious centers in Bosnia are too pushy. Many media organizations are very willing to cooperate; And this is regardless of the faith, whether Islamic, Orthodox, or Catholic.
Independence or survival
The diversity of the media market in Southeast Europe is indeed impressive; in the capital of Bulgaria, for instance, there are over 30 different radio broadcasters for fewer than 1.5 million people. The online news offerings in Bulgaria, as for the other countries in Southeast Europe, are too expansive for any single person to follow.
However, only very few media outlets are able to survive on their own. Without financial assistance, most private broadcasters and television stations would have already gone bankrupt.
Ganea said the choice was between independence and survival
Liana Ganea, of Active Watch in Romania, says many media organizations there are forced to choose between journalistic independence and bare survival.
"We have to scrutinize the desolate state of journalism in our country, for this may be the only way to start making changes to it. We have to talk about the problems of the press openly. To give our journalists confidence, we have to face the public and discuss our weaknesses. To find solutions, we have to face the political and economic pressure," Ganea said.
A central part of the Bonn conference was the debate on how journalism in Southeast Europe can be financed in the future while still allowing for independence from business and political interests.
The director the International Federation of Journalists, Renate Schroeder, said at the close of the two-day conference that "we all view journalism as a service for the common good," referring to the federation's plans to focus more on Southeast Europe in the future.
Author: Alexandra Scherle (glb)
Editor: Chuck Penfold