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    Media and Public Credibility: Transparency of Media Ownership is important for preventing Hate Speech

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    Author: Hana Imamović

    Citizens have a big role in preventing hate speech in online media - through submitting complaints to the Press Council when they recognize indicting content and hate speech in media content, as well as through measured and constructive discussion in user comments, without using inciting rhetoric and hate speech.  

    It is prime time for the responsible institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina to start the development of progressive media policy, as well as to, in accordance with the recommendations of the European Union and the best practices, regulate the transparency of media ownership, in order to approach the issues of media regulation and self-regulation in an adequate manner.

    A few studies have been made addressing this problem, as to point to the urgency of solving this issue, and one such study is a part of the project “Media and Public Credibility”, financed by the EU Delegation to BiH, and implemented by the Consortium comprised of the BH Journalists Association, the Press Council in BiH, Mediacenter and the JaBiHEU NGO. This study emphasizes a strong need for advancing the transparency of media ownership, being that the lack of regulation over media ownership resulted in a total absence of insight into which individuals and interests stand behind certain media. This prevents the government from adequately regulating concentration of media ownership, foreign ownership and conflict of interest between media and related sectors, and, ultimately, it prevents the development of progressive policy which would promote quality journalism in the public interest.  

    The project coordinator of this project in the Mediacenter Sarajevo and researcher, Anida Sokol, notes that transparency of media ownership in BiH is for the most part unregulated, and even though it is partly ensured through the process of registration, including registration of business subjects and registration of associations and foundations, the process does not include all types of media. “More precisely, media acting as associations are not included, while the Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) does not dispose with data on the ownership structure of legal entities who are owners of emitters, but only with data on direct owners,” clarifies Sokol.  

    She also added that there is no framework for monitoring indirect, hidden owners, the origins of capital and connected interests in the media, which makes hidden ownership and hidden interests in media organizations completely possible, and additionally, on the other hand, concentration of media ownership in the land is completely unregulated.

    With regards to media financing, amidst the drop in revenues from advertisers, the media in BiH are ever more dependent on funds from public budgets. The state and its institutions spend tens of millions of KMs every year on various forms of media financing, but this public money is being awarded without clear criteria and non-transparently which raises doubts that through the awarding of public funds, the editorial policy is being influenced and the favor of media is being bought.  

    Through these studies, the Consortium strives to draw the public’s attention to these problems, as well as to start initiatives for resolving the issues of ownership transparency and media financing as soon as possible, which would positively influence the development of media freedom in BiH.  

    The biggest problem in the world of advanced technologies is posed by new media, namely the portals whose main task is, as it appears, to be the first to publish a news, without precise verification of accuracy, and allowing comments that often abound in hate speech regardless of what the article is about.

    All this would be more regulated if it were known to whom to address a complaint, because a large number of online media does not have a cite notice, and even an email address is often hard to find. Even though there are mechanisms for submitting complaints about inaccurate and manipulative articles and published radio and TV content, the sanctioning of breaches is not harmonized.  

    The Communications Regulatory Agency of BiH, CRA, which regulates the work of electronic media (TV and radio), has the authority to impose penalties for hate speech and drastic breaches of ethics standards in audio-visual programs, while the Press Council in BiH, the self-regulatory body for the press and online media does not have the authority to impose penalties, but relies on self-regulatory journalistic methods of correcting false statements, publishing reactions and denials or apologies.

    On the other hand, if BiH, a post-conflict society where the events of the nineties still represent the main topics, was to have laws that adequately prevent hate speech, this would be additionally significant for the progress of society as a whole. The fact that hate speech law suits often end up dismissed, get liberating verdicts or probation sentences does not contribute to the reduction of hate speech, nor the increase of responsibility of the media for what is said/written. If laws were passed that would have more severe penalties for hate speech or false news, the number of which is increasing, the courts could implement punishments that would be publically known and serve as examples that the media or person that spreads hate speech would be held accountable for the committed crime.    

    For professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Sarajevo, Lejla Turčilo, the situation in BiH with regards to media is worrisome because she feels that the media market is “unregulated in view of legislation and available data on owners and ownership shares.” She points that the advertising market in BiH is very small and the number of media very big, which points that the media are being financed by other means, such as public budgets and donations, which influences the objectivity and quality of their work. “Many media are political projects, crated for election campaigns or for daily political purposes and are shut down when certain goals are fulfilled. The citizens cannot see this because there is no transparent data on ownership and financing. Issues of hate speech and false news are directly  related to ethics standards and journalism deontology which are increasingly rare in the BH media, and it is important to work on returning the journalism ethics in the media in addition to the normative. The issue of media ethics is becoming increasingly important, while certain parties are referring to freedom of speech about all topics, it is evident that hate speech does not represent the freedom of speech but falls under criminal liability.”

    Mission Chief, Mr. Bruce G. Berton, also finds the fact that there is no law regulating transparency of media ownership problematic, especially with respect to online media that are often not registered as media business subjects. He adds that “in the past years, there were no concrete attempts by the government to solve this issue, while every citizen should have the opportunity to easily access the information on ownership structure, editors, journalists and contact information of any media house.”  

    On the other hand, he says that preventing concentration of ownership over a media subject and full transparency in this regard are important preconditions of media pluralism and freedom of speech in a democratic state, and that any amendments to the law  should be carefully developed and considered. “New legislation should ensure that concentration of public information means into the hands of political elites is prevented, because it can prevent journalists from fulfilling their duties. The initiative by the group of NGOs ‘Media and Public Credibility’ is a positive example of efforts pushing for the establishment of legislative frameworks for transparency over media ownership, financing and advertising in BiH,” states Berton. “The Las on Transparency of Media Ownership will enable the citizens to identify  media owners and news authors, which will enable them to hold them accountable for the content they publish, which will consequently increase the accountability of journalists and provide a legal basis for processing and sanctioning in cases of eventual breaches of provisions of the law on media ownership.”

    Since 2015, a group of authors, Anja Gengo, Elma Bešlić and Borislav Vukojević performed an analysis of media ownership in BiH that pointed to, amongst else, all the consequences of non-transparency of ownership over portals. Still, as the authors  Elma Bešlić and Borislav Vukojević point, amidst the efforts of NGOs and bodies responsible for media regulation, as well as numerous conferences and panel discussions on this topic, nothing significant has changed, while the number of online media and users of their content is constantly increasing.  

     “The biggest challenge for such a law is establishing a modern environment for new media, while simultaneously avoiding limiting media freedom,” feels Vukojević. “I think that the investigative organs are hampered by the fact that it is hard to prove that a certain person is the creator of a certain message, because the identification of IP addresses does not guarantee the identification of a perpetrator, while another problem is posed by owners of such media who do not reside in BIH, whose identification is even more difficult.”

    The existence of a unique registry for online media would improve the chaotic situation in the online sphere in BiH, because currently the ownership structure is scattered across 15 different court registries all around BiH, while a large number of existing online media is not registered at all. An additional advantage of the existence of such a registry would be free access to information about media ownership, considering that currently BiH is one of the rare countries where such information must be paid for.

    Transparency of media ownership is not a problem just in BiH. According to available information, even in the EU, where there are proper regulation in this regard, there are cases of owners stated in the cite notice not being the real owners.

    Croatia and Serbia are far ahead of BiH in this respect. Croatia, through amendments to the Law on Media (2011) and the Law on Electronic Media (2012), stipulates that the media must publish enough data on the owners as individuals and not just state the data on the company that owns the media.

    The laws adopted by Serbia make a legislative framework for the exit of the state and other public entities from media ownerships, namely by finalizing the privatization process, implementation of project co-financing and establishing the media register as well as passing new regulation for inadmissible media concentration. The stance of the EU in this regards is that all media must accept the obligation of reporting information ownership to nationally regulated agencies, and so is the case, because it is impossible to speak of democratic media without their basic ownership and editorial structure transparency. The Austrian model turned out to be one of the better models and it offers the broadest legislative framework for regulation, while not breaching the issues of freedom of speech, media freedoms and human rights.  

    When the politicians one day decide to tackle this problem, ensuring proper implementation of these legislative solutions will be of exceptional importance, because we are witnesses that we have laws from various fields which are essentially good, but the problem arises in their application and consistency of implementation.

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