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Empowering people in South East Europe to make use of their Press Council

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Democracy requires a well-informed and pluralistic public sphere. This is connected to media striving for truth, unbiased and high‐quality reporting. The level of participation and engagement of citizens in the society is shaped by the ability of the media to awaken and maintain their interest in a variety of issues. Civil society also has a large role to play in holding the media accountable. But how can civil society perform this role? One way is through being able to distinguish low-quality media outlets, and another is by lodging complaints to a media self-regulation mechanism, such a press council, when professional standards of journalism have been potentially breached.

In South East Europe, five press councils are currently working to improve media accountability. Yet, these are not all sufficiently used by citizens. The number of complaints they received vary widely from one country to another and some councils may only receive 30 to 40 complaints per year. The reason behind is not the high respect for journalistic standards but rather the lack of awareness of citizens about their right to complain to a press council and their right to demand quality news.

In the framework of the EU-funded Project “Media Accountability in South East Europe and Turkey”, UNESCO supported a series of awareness-raising activities with the objective of empowering citizens to make use of their press councils. These activities were tailored to the needs and specificities of each local press council and ranged from public campaigns in the regions to the creation of new websites or the audiovisual promotion of these bodies.

These awareness-raising activities led to the press councils reporting an increase in the number of complaints they received from citizens. However, as underlined by the expert Catherine Speller in the needs-assessment report of media councils in South East Europe, “the kind of engagement activities the councils undertake to promote broad cultural awareness of their services require continual efforts, if the organizations are to become fully embedded in the communities in which they are based”.

Below is a list of successful activities implemented by press councils in South East Europe.

Developing new websites for press councils with possibility to file online complaints

© Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia

UNESCO supported the design and creation of two new interactive websites for the Kosovo Press Council and the Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Both websites allow media users to file online complaints. A year after its creation in December 2013, the Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia has already received more than 40 complaints from citizens around the country. Before 2014, the Kosovo Press Council would receive on average 30 complaints per year. As of October 2015, it had already received more than 200 complaints – an increase of more than 200% of the number of complaints received since the new website was created.


Meeting with the public and journalists throughout the regions

Public campaign in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. © Press Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the press council organized a public awareness-raising campaign called “Citizens and Journalists fighting for the truth”. This campaign took place in 35 cities around the country and involved more than 1200 people.

The participants took part in a survey and were asked to give proposals on improving media reporting and tackling inaccurate and unprofessional journalism. In doing so, the press council was also able to raise awareness among civil society about the complaints procedure of the BiH press council.

Interview of Marina Tuneva following a local event in Strumica, FYR Macedonia, © Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM)

In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, six regional debates were organized in 2015 in the cities of Bitola, Ohrid, Stip, Strumica, Tetovo and Kumanovo. Around 130 members of the public, representatives of civil society organizations, media institutions and journalists attended these meetings, where the work of the Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM) was presented and explained by members of the Managing Board, of the Press Complaints Commission and of the Executive Office. Representatives from the Association of Journalists were also represented during the event to show support to the concept of self-regulation in the media. During these meetings, there was extensive media coverage, which contributed to the promotion of the Press Council. More than 20 media articles covered these local events. In addition members of the council gave 10 interviews to national media outlets and 20 to regional.

Being transparent on the way citizens’ complaints are adjudicated

Public debate in Serbia. © Serbia Press Council

In Serbia, to promote the Press Council through an innovative approach, the Press Council organized public debates of its complaints commission on topical issues in the Serbian media. The idea was to challenge participants in debating topics of media ethics. The Press Council’s website and social network administrator coordinated the debate promotion, created a logo for the events, and produced a video of the debates. The idea was to set up two teams to argue in favour and against the breach of the code of ethics, and in doing so learn more about the work of the press council and its importance.

Printing and distributing hard copies of the code of ethics

UNESCO funded the printing of 5000 copies of the new edition of Serbian journalists’ code of ethics. The code was widely distributed during the Belgrade first Media fair from 28 October and 1 November 2015. Also, in 2014, UNESCO funded the printing of copies of the Code of ethics of the Kosovo Press Council.

Increasing the visibility of press councils for media users

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Press Council organized a broad campaign with media outlets belonging to the press council to encourage them to regularly publish on their webpages or in their print editions information for readers on how to file complaints with the press council of the country.

The dailies “Oslobodjenje”, “Vecernji list BiH”; magazines “Start BiH”, “BH Dani” and “Slobodna Bosna” and internet portals startbih.info, slobodna-bosna.ba, oslobodjenje.ba and klix.ba published an announcement with this message: “Use your own rights!

Citizens: you have a right to complain on inaccurate print and online media reporting.”

The Press council in Bosnia and Herzegovina also organized 20 radio shows called ‘Zoom- Your voice in the Media’. Produced on a weekly basis, these shows lasted around 16 to 18 minutes and addressed different topics related to media ethics, media freedom and various journalistic challenges. The shows were broadcast throughout the country and were made available afterwards on the facebook page of the press council.

In Montenegro in September and October 2015 four radio shows were produced and broadcast on radio Antena M. to discuss the new draft code of ethics in Montenegro, and current issues in Montenegro journalism and problems with professional and ethical standards in Montenegro media. The program was broadcast every Wednesday between 10 and 11 am and was run by Sonja Novakovic journalist in radio Antena M.

Explaining the importance of media self-regulation to media professionals

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM) has conducted several interviews with media specialists and practitioners to explain the important of media self-regulation:

Enes Osmancevic: The promotion of professional and ethical standards among journalists and editors is of key importance for safeguarding the profession on Internet

Enes Osmancevic. © CMEM

CMEM: To which extent the regulatory and self-regulatory mechanisms succeed to oppose the violation of professional and ethical standards in the online media?

Enes Osmancevic: The mechanisms for regulation are defined by the state and they are implemented by an agency that should be independent. Regulation implies sanctions - fines and even revocation of license for broadcasting. Self-regulation is based on voluntary acceptance of ethical codes, whose implementation is a responsibility of the Press Council, as is the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, self-regulation does not have mechanisms to sanction. Its role is to protect the media from political interference and to protect the public from bad journalism. In recent years, the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina annually receives more than 1,000 complaints from citizens regarding the content published in the print and online media. It suggests that the audience is more sensitized regarding the violation of ethical standards, but also in terms of the credibility of the Press Council. Also, most citizens' complaints are resolved by mediation, by publishing a correction. The promotion of professional and ethical standards and their consistent implementation is an ongoing task, which on the one hand is an effort to professionalize the media and improve the journalistic standards and on the other hand it educates audiences and consumers and promotes media literacy and culture. >> More

Katerina Blazevska: Collective defense of professional standards can only be effective if it is based on their individual defense

Katerina Blazevska. © CMEM

"Every journalist should consider whether and how to comply with professional standards, if he is overwhelmed by censorship or self-censorship, whether journalistic freedom is subjugated by the economic non-freedom, i.e. by the dependence on wages and political preferences of the employer", Katerina Blazevska says, in the interview for the Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia.

CMEM discussed with Katerina Blazevska about the situation with respect to the professional and ethical standards in the journalistic profession in the country, from the perspective of the situation during the transition and in the last 15 years. >> More

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