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    Freedom and Transparency of Media Ownership

    Media and Public Credibility – Press Council in BiH


    FREEDOM AND TRANSPARENCY OF MEDIA OWNERSHIP

    Lack of transparency of media ownership is the cause of negative trends in online media

    By: Berislav Jurič

    The media in Bosnia and Herzegovina are free only on paper, namely in its laws which are according to certain marks amongst the most liberal in the region and which guarantee media freedom. However, various pressures, economic and political, suffocate this freedom so it should be taken with a certain reserve. Reporters without borders placed BiH on the golden middle regarding the threats to media freedom, i.e. on the 65th place out of 180 lands surveyed, while the European Commission Report for 2016 states that the “political and financial pressure against media has continued in the reporting period”.

    Transparency of media ownership and financing, are the measures that ensure pluralism of ownership and prevent media concentration, and are the key to media freedom.

    Prof. Ilija Musa PhD, Head of the Journalism department at the University of Mostar as well as author of the book “Media Law – Freedom of Expression in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Croatia”, states that the lack of transparency of media ownership affects a number of negative trends in the media, especially online media, where the lack of transparency of information on the publisher, seat of the media, editor in chief and the composition of the news room – the cite notice/imprint, are the base problem relating to responsibility of persons who inform the public.

    Problematic Valuation of Information

    “It is problematic to value information published by the media whose news room is anonymous, because sensationalistic and false media publications in a digital age spread very fast, while the hidden individuals who placed them have no responsibility for the damage caused by such publications. Although the Press Council in BiH, as a self-regulatory body strives to set professional standards in the online space, the desired level of application of these standards has not been reached. In the municipalities where the laws regulating the work of media, which have been passed in the 90’s when online media were not active are still in effect, it is clearly stated that all means of public information are obliged to be recorded in the register of public bulletins. Thus a clear obligation has been delivered to online publications serving to publically inform as well to publish the cite notice. The problem lies within the lack of implementation of the mentioned municipal laws in the Federation of BiH, which points to the necessity of regulating the media space at least through a framework law on the national level, which would stipulate the basis of operation within the media industry, thus making it mandatory to publish a site notice, which would also ensure that the public could value more clearly the sources, journalists and editorial staffs where they get their information in order to ensure that the level of responsibility of journalists and media houses would be raised and the information standards would be established as is the case in other democratic countries”, says Musa.


    Wrong development of media

    Husein Orucevic, paleologist and sociologist from Mostar, noted that the ownership structure of online media changes very quickly, especially of those media who have high ratings, whose articles are often shared through social networks, and which are acclaimed to be successful and influential regardless of their contents. “We are used to following and trust a certain online media; by changing the ownership structure which remains unknown to the reader, the editorial policy also changes, and thus the opinion toward certain events”, he said.

    He says that it is clear that the lack of transparency of ownership of a media directly influences the users of that media. “Sometimes I feel that it is not any better in the case of electronic media, regardless of the fact that the ownership structure is better shown there. Before all, I have in mind the local media here, who are ultimately impoverished, and the journalism structure is devaluated and dying through such bad financial situation. The executive government institutions, namely the legislative before all – the parliaments, often enable financial support to media, regardless of whether it is public service or private, while the media in turn, affirmatively cover their work. The lack of criticism of the government leads to civic uniformness, and thus to separation of the government from the voters, as well as to non-transparent work of the governmental organs, who then lack control from the citizens and non-government sector”, said Orucevic.

    Prof. Lejla Turcilo PhD, Professor at the Journalism Department of the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Sarajevo, notes that the lack of transparency of media ownership influences the wrong development of online media. “The technological potential of the internet enables anyone to start an online media, use it as a tool or even to political and other purposes, to deceive the public and creates a wrong image of reality. This should not be an unregulated area, and the first step in regulating should be the obligation of anyone who decides to officially communicate with the public through online media to register their ownership as well as site notice, so that the citizens could know whom they are dealing with. In essence, without transparency of media ownership we will have a sea of communication channels dominated by cheap populism, anarchy of publishing, spin and manipulations instead of responsible and transparent informing of the public”, said the Sarajevian professor.

    The columnist from Banja Luka, Dragan Bursac says that only through appearance or lack of site notice on portals can we become to an extent aware of who the media owners are. “And they come in all kinds, from cabbage and satellite antenna smugglers, through political oligarchs to classical tycoons. And in fact, it has always been so in this post-war society. Journalists are the cheapest and most replaceable work force. So then instead of media you have quasi-family craft associations, where information is only one of the activities of the ltd. Along with the mentioned cabbage smuggling”, portrays the Banjaluka columnist.

    The public service as an indicator of insufficient freedom


    Musa claims that the issue of media freedom is relatively complex even in more solid democracies. “The levels of responsibility and media freedom are the essential indicator of the development of democracy in a given society, while the influence of various structures on the coverage content, from governmental to business, and are not wanted in any media system. Still, the influence of various interest groups is present due to the economic situation of a media house, as well as due to personal relations of journalists towards representatives of some influential circles, which threatens the objectivity of media coverage. The development of democracy, the governmental organization and other specificities of BiH’s society are reflected in the shaping of the media system, in the development of certain media groups and in the publications of the media. Thus we can say that BiH situation is such that there is opportunity for the development of free and responsible media, but we still need to invest much effort in order for them to truly be responsible and free”, said Musa. Musa cites the PBS in BiH as an indicator of insufficient freedom.

    “Even though the legislative framework guarantees a high level of protection of media freedom in BiH, it is difficult to estimate the level of realization of this freedom only on the basis of constitutional stipulations. Namely, the fact that Croats as a constitutive people in BiH are still not in the position to establish a service within the frame of the PBS system that would enable public information as guaranteed by international documents, even to national minorities in democratic societies, clearly speaks to the stat of freedom of public information”, Musa states the PBS as one of the examples of limited media freedom.

    Turcilo claims that there are media in BiH that are still resisting the socially and politically limiting and discouraging context for media freedom, are doing their job responsibly towards the public and in the public interest. “However, they are a minority unfortunately, while the majority is losing their freedom and accepting to place the public interest second to profit, political or economic, amidst the pressure of politicians, advertisers and owners. I would say that there are responsible journalists, but they hardly find space in the media ‘silenced’ by pressure and influence”, said Turcilo.

    Media goals

    On the other hand, Orucevic states that responsibility means freedom, and that it should be defined upon which criteria we speak of media freedom. “Once, in our former land, free media were those who were not under the influence of the party. Today, a free media is that which has the freedom to write about everything, not straying from any topic that seems interesting or important for its editorial staff. Today, I would measure media freedom through the responsibility and professionalism of its editorial staff and the coverage of its journalists. Coverage responsibility is subject to the journalism ethics code, and varies in relation to the situation, which can be local, regional or global. The complexity of the system of liberal democracy makes journalists seek more answers to one question. Listening to two sides is not enough anymore as to make the news as close as possible to our imagined criterion for objectivity in the political system where we live. Professionalism still includes the journalism trade, because without it, the information is not full, understandable or readable,” says Orucevic.

    Musa says that the media’s responsibility for a publically stated word, stance or opinion “is especially important due to the force with which the media influences on social relations and processes within a social community”.

    “They shape the behavior of individuals and social communities, thus strongly influencing political and social movements. It is exactly due to the responsibility towards the public that the media is expected to publish verified, accurate and current information on all events, occurrences and individuals that are at the focus of the public’s interest. In view of this, it is important to create a media policy in a certain country as to define goals, measures and activities that the country should take so that the media could have the social role that is expected of them, the role of an overseer of social movements, transmitter of cultural heritage and behavioral corrective of the various segments of society. Due to the complexity of the governmental organization, the existence of at least three parallel media systems, the unregulated relations within the media industry, the lack of institutional care for the media and the nonexistence of a real media policy in BiH, the media’s responsibility towards its participants often weakens, which is also supported by the drop of professional standards in the journalism profession,” states Musa and adds that the media, as institutions, affect the development of society, culture and the behavior of individuals and social groups, thus influencing political and general societal movements, through editorial policy and distributed media content.

    “The social environment, the achieved level of culture and political institutions also directly influence the development of the media and media systems. The lack of care about the way in which the media is developing, the media policy, very negatively influences the culture of communication, the lack of tolerance towards others, the strengthening of discrimination, the occurrence of hate speech and the endangering of the decency of the people about whom the public is informed”, he said.

    Turcilo says that the responsibility towards the public and the work in the public’s interest imply that the journalists should place man, the citizen, in first place when creating their stories, so that the story they make provides an adequate level of quality, verified and objective information for that citizen, which are not tainted by any interests except the interest to reach the truth.

    “Responsibility means to protect those who are endangered in a community and society, such as children, minority groups and endangered categories so that their rights are not neglected in favor of sensationalism, as well as giving voice to those who lack it, so that we on their behalf demand responsibility from political representatives and oversee their work,” says Turcilo. She feels that that is a difficult and challenging task, but not unachievable even in our conditions.


    Chase of sensationalism

    Orucevic notes that the media that we today characterize as irresponsible are often led by an ideological or political understanding of reality, by ideological or political goals, which they achieve with no regard for the complex reality in which they operate and inform the public.

    “There is another category of irresponsible media. It includes media who present sensationalistic and unverified information to the public so that their circulation and ratings would increase. In question here is not a measure of responsibility, but economic value, the chase for a sensation, which is cheap and easily noticeable by an ever more poorly informed public, so that news that 10 years ago would not capture a minute of attention, captivate the public for months today. Neither of the two mentioned principles of media irresponsibility fulfill the media’s needed primary educative function; to inform the public on the values of the political system under which they live, to facilitate understanding of political institutions and their decision making, to explain the laws and their implementation and transparency, etc. By not fulfilling their educational role, the media directly threaten the citizens’ freedom,” states Orucevic.

    Bursac feels that it is the individuals who are the most responsible for the media and the state of media. “The media, as everywhere in the world, are comprised of individuals. If we take a look in to the BiH media, we can see that the thing is very simple. A media is free to the extent to how many free journalists it has. While responsibility is a thing of ethical belief. A question of the relation towards the truth, society, topic and people, which are being written about. Do we have this in BiH? Yes, but too little,” says Bursac.

    This columnist, who was nominated for the European Press Prize 2018 in the category “Opinion (Columns)”, feels that being responsible towards the public means being responsible towards one’s self.

    “If you deceive yourself through an article, and do not believe your words, then you are irresponsible towards your audience. How can others believe you? Essential journalism is a thing of ethics, and not just merely transmitting information from point A to point B,” says Bursac and notes that behind irresponsible media there are irresponsible people without a conscience.

    “Behind irresponsible media are people who do not just deceive the public, but are a breed who cause wars, fabricate history and thus cripple entire generations. This kind of irresponsibility is like radiation. It works both in space and time,” says Bursac.

    The Project “Media and Public Credibility” is supported by the EU Delegation in BiH, however, the Delegation is not responsible for the content of this article.

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