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| THE MEDIA OF EASTERN EUROPE AND THE FORMER SOVIET UNION: REPORTING ON INTERETHNIC RELATIONS |
The rise of ethnonationalism and the eruption of ethnic conflict are themost urgent problems on the agendas of many of the newly emerging states ofeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Prominent among the forces thatshape public opinion, and thus the growth or containment ofethnonationalism, are the media of mass communication. Observers have beenstruck by the often destructive part the media play in creating orexacerbating interethnic tensions. The nearly total absence of objective andreliable information on government-controlled television in Serbia andCroatia is rightly cited as an example of the catastrophic damage that canbe wrought by irresponsible reporting. Indeed, the media in the formerYugoslavia began a war of words and images that set the stage for violentconflict months before open hostilities commenced.
It is also impossible to disassociate the media from the political conflictsin eastern Europe and Eurasia. Elites battling for supremacy view control ofthe media as a cornerstone of their bid for, or retention of, power. Someleaders in the region have had journalists fired or have pressured,manipulated, and taken over media outlets that criticize nationalisticappeals or that suggest ethnic conflict may be artificially created todivert attention from failed policies. The government and the opposition inmany east European countries struggle over control of television and radio,only a small fraction of which has been deregulated. Independent print mediain many parts of eastern Europe are severely hampered by rising costs and ablase reading public. Censorship remains an ever-present threat in manycountries, including Russia, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, and Poland.
For democracy to take root successfully in eastern Europe, the media of theregion must begin to act as a neutral forum to air opposing political viewson ethnicity and nationalism. How can the media be helped to perform thatfunction? How do the media contribute to ethnic tensions? How canjournalists become more sensitive to ethnic issues? Are guidelines onreporting ethnic issues necessary? How can the quality and depth of coverageof ethnic issues be improved?
The Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) and the Independent JournalismFoundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote independentjournalism in eastern Europe, convened a meeting of prominent journalists ineastern Europe and Russia in Prague from March 3 to March 6, 1994, toexamine these and other questions on the role of the media in coveringethnic problems. The countries represented were Bulgaria, Croatia, the CzechRepublic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Slovakia.Governmental and private observers also attended. At the meeting, thejournalists present formed the Media Council on Ethnic Relations as anadvisory body to PER that will recommend programs and strategies forimproving coverage of ethnic issues in eastern Europe.
This report of the meeting, which was prepared by Elizabeth Tucker, aconsultant to PER, has not been reviewed by the participants and is the soleresponsibility of PER. While every effort was made to reflect accurately allof the contributions, we ask the understanding of participants whose remarksmay not have been fully captured in this brief document.
The director of PER, Dr. Allen H. Kassof, welcomed and introduced theparticipants. He observed that, in the afterglow of the east Europeanrevolutions of 1989 and 1990, it became clear that ethnic issues in theregion would not be solved quickly or smoothly. New institutions were neededto cope with ethnonationalism, and the media would play a critical role inthe building of those institutions. Unfortunately, there are many problemswith the media's coverage of ethnic issues, including lack of experience andof knowledge, unprofessional behavior, and the use and abuse of the media bygovernments. One purpose of the Prague meeting, Kassof said, was to create astanding body that would meet from time to time to identify problems,recommend programs, speak out on the media's role in ethnic conflict, andcontribute to a new set of professional standards on reporting of ethnicissues.
James L. Greenfield, president of the Independent Journalism Foundation,presented U.S. press materials on hate speech. American journalists andeditors remain concerned and confused about how to handle hate speech inlight of the U.S. constitution's guarantee of the right of free speech. Themedia's coverage of ethnic issues and conflicts is a complicated issue inwestern democracies as well as in eastern Europe. Greenfield said thatstandards for reporting on interethnic relations must come from within thejournalistic community itself. Politicians who exploit nationalist feelingswill not change their behavior until they see that it is politicallyexpeditious to do so. The media can play a role in this process.
CAUSES OF BIASED REPORTING ON INTERETHNIC RELATIONS
The participants agreed that the media, especially the government-ownedtelevision networks, played a negative role in the fanning of nationalismand ethnic hatred. Whether the media merely reflected the broader society'sbeliefs and attitudes about ethnicity or were deliberately manipulated bypolitical elites was a matter of debate. The participating journalists,representatives of the liberal and independent media, said they had noformal system of networking or institutions to link them with colleagues inneighboring countries to monitor ethnically biased reporting across theregion.
According to Dragoljub Zarkovich, editor in chief of the independentBelgrade weekly Vreme, journalists working for official and semi-officialSerbian and Croatian publications willingly became partisan actors in thepolitical disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. However, the Croatian andSerbian governments did fire and physically threaten some journalists whodid not echo nationalistic political views. Zarkovich himself, and his wifeand children, are subject to frequent anonymous threats of violence.
A study of the press by Vreme in March 1991 found that a media "war" hadalready begun well before the outbreak of hostilities between Serbs andCroats. In the Serbian press, the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic wasportrayed as steady, wise, resolute, dignified, and democratic, a modernpolitician who truly represented the Serbian people. The Croatian presscharacterized him as hysterical, a Stalinist and even an illegitimate son ofStalin, a bank robber and destroyer, a second Saddam Hussein, a Communistand a dictator. On the other hand, the Serbian press characterized Croatianleader Franjo Tudjman as a fascist, a traitor to the Croats, and a leader ofthe infamous Ustashe, while he was hailed in the Croatian press as adignified teacher, a fighter, a modern democrat, a great patriot, and a truerepresentative of the Croatian people. The official Serbian media labeledall Croats "Ustashe" and the official Croatian media labeled all Serbs"Chetniks," evoking memories of atrocities committed during World War II.Jan Urban of the Czech Republic said the same technique of whipping upantipathy by playing on ethnic stereotypes was used by both the Czech andthe Slovak press before the breakup of Czechoslovakia.
Participants attributed much of this type of journalism to decades ofCommunist journalistic training, which taught partisanship, editorializedreporting for purposes of "education" rather than the impartial reporting offacts, and an aversion to anybody "different" from the society at large.According to Kalina Bozeva of Bulgaria, a large percentage of printjournalists are still influenced by Communist propaganda. One sign of this,she said, is that many journalists still feel threatened by religious andethnic differences. Another, related problem is a lack of "moral criteria."For example, in the 1980s, under Communism, many Bulgarian journalistscondoned the forced assimilation of ethnic Turks, yet after the fall ofCommunism, these journalists did not reopen the issue for public discussion.
Ownership of the media in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is alsoa major factor in what people see in newspapers and on television screens.Governments in eastern Europe are especially loath to let go of a monopolyover television. Television is the most powerful medium for influencinglarge segments of the population and the main vehicle for stirring up ethnichatred, said Jasmina Kuzmanovic of the Zagreb bureau of the AssociatedPress. The construction of successful democracies in the region requires thedevelopment of independent electronic media. Print media are hampered byrising costs and a collapsing market, while three million people viewprime-time television every evening in Serbia and Montenegro.
Konstanty Gebert of Poland said that in his reporting from Bosnia heinterviewed Croatian refugees about a rumor that a Croatian child had beenhacked to death by Serbs; none of his interviewees could say they had seenthe incident with their own eyes. A story on television about Croatianshaving been locked in a barn and burned to death was believed by everyperson in the group. Zarkovich said that the manipulation of television andprint journalism by political elites has tended to create a black and whitepicture of the world outside Serbia and to sharply increase xenophobiathroughout the region in the last two years.
Political elites have a vested interest in promoting ethnic divisions andnationalism through subtle messages and pressure on the media, which theydirectly or indirectly control, said Radu Nicolau of Romania. The creationof panic among ethnic groups inflames relations between the majority and theminorities and yields political gain by diverting attention from realeconomic and political problems. At the same time, editors often discouragereporters from doing in-depth reporting on the underlying reasons for ethnicconflicts or tensions, he said.
Another legacy of the Communist system is a reading public that is slow toreact, prone to believe the official press, and less critical of governmentpolicies than is the Western reading public. A few years ago, saidZarkovich, Slobodan Milosevic used the media to welcome internationalsanctions as a way to create a new Serbian community. This approach helpedhim come to power. Then, several months ago, on the eve of new elections, heused the media to lambast the sanctions for "killing our unborn children."Once again, the public rallied behind him, and he won the elections.
A low level of professionalism, inexperience, lack of knowledge about ethnicgroups, and a strong inclination toward self-censorship among workingjournalists also contribute to a poor job of covering interethnic relations,participants agreed. According to Urban, the worst and least educatedjournalists work in television and are willing to play the government's tuneon issues such as nationalism and ethnicity.
In Slovakia, said Daniel Butora, journalists provide little or no contextfor stories about ethnic groups or nationalism, nor do they know whatquestions to ask, or how. For example, when Slovakia's former leader,Vladimir Meciar, said Slovakia should be a "nation-state" and not a civilstate, no journalists asked why. Similarly, Meciar would often makestatements to the effect that ethnic Hungarians were pressuring Slovaks tomove out of southern Hungary; these allegations were printed but neverinvestigated by journalists. Even those journalists from media consideredmoderate by Slovak standards would simply not write about ethnic problems,arguing that they did not want to damage Slovakia's image abroad or itschances for acceptance into various international bodies. Participantsagreed that it would take some time for moral and professional standards inthe journalistic community to evolve and improve.
CHECKS AND BALANCES IN THE MEDIA
Kassof cautioned that it would take another generation for the media ineastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to develop methods and habits ofobjective reportage on interethnic relations and to evolve as effectivegovernment watchdogs. Greenfield made the point that reporting about racialissues in the United States was for a long time highly subjective and ofteninciting, and it took many decades to change, beginning with thecivil-rights movement of the 1960s. Twenty-five years ago, it was common forthe U.S. press to report the race of an alleged criminal. The greatestchange in reporting on race relations came, surprisingly, not from northerneditors but from southern editors, who understood that society was in themidst of a turbulent transformation and that journalism had a vital,positive role to play as a means for resolving rather than exacerbatingethnic tensions.
Over time, specific standards and rules of conduct evolved about how toreport ethnic issues, conflicts, and hate speech. Anonymous pejorativequotes are no longer printed in the New York Times, for example. On theother hand, attributed hate speech is not suppressed but is published, sothat it can be answered in letters to the editor, editorial columns, andradio and television talk shows. If hate speech is not answered, a newspaperoften will criticize those individuals or institutions it believes shouldhave responded, said Greenfield. The print media also serve as a constantcritic of television.
At this time, the practice of printing letters to the editor is not aswidespread in eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union asit is in the West, and there is no clear division between straight, factualreporting and editorializing in the news columns, Greenfield said. Printingletters that are critical of the newspaper's own coverage is also still notas widely practiced as it is in the United States. The sort of"self-correcting" mechanisms developed in the United States media do notexist in eastern Europe and Russia, and hate speech thus cannot beeffectively neutralized.
STRATEGIES FOR CHANGE
The Prague meeting considered a number of options for improving the qualityof coverage of interethnic relations.
One of the most important forces in interethnic relations in eastern Europeand the former Soviet Union is the media, which have the power to exacerbateor ease ethnic tensions. The major issue confronting the media is how tochange the behavior of the people who own and work for this vital means ofcommunication so that fair, comprehensive, and accurate information onminorities and interethnic relations is brought before the public.
Kassof asked, how is this change to be facilitated. Is it enough to provideeditors and reporters with information? Should they be lobbied, invited tospecial seminars on interethnic relations, shamed or embarrassed about theircoverage? Are they acting out of ignorance or with malevolent intent? Issueshaving to do with group identity, nationalism, and politics intersect withthose concerning the use and abuse of information in a world undergoingrapid change--and a more complex intersection is hard to imagine. The Praguemeeting was a first step in internationalizing the discussion of theseissues.
Participants agreed to form a Media Council on Ethnic Relations, which wouldwork to improve the coverage of ethnic issues in the region. Its first stepwould be to gain access to electronic mail systems, so that members couldreadily communicate with one another. The next priorities would be toidentify key individuals and media institutions whose behavior needschanging and to collect pertinent and already existing information onethnicity and nationalism that could be disseminated among journalists inthe region. Subsections of the council could make site visits to neighboringcountries and publish critical evaluations of the media's coverage of ethnicissues. Lastly, certain council members, such as Bozeva, could be asked toshare their methods of covering ethnic issues and lobbying the media withother journalists in the region. Participants agreed to study theseproposals and to meet again within a year.
Kalina Bozeva, writer, International Center for Minority Studies andIntercultural Relations, Sofia, Bulgaria
Daniel Butora, c orrespondent, Radio Free Europe, Bratislava, Slovakia
Konstanty Gebert, columnist and foreign correspondent, Gazeta Wyborca,Warsaw, Poland
Helena Klimova, psychotherapist, director of the civic group "Tolerance,"Prague, Czech Republic
Daniel Kumermann, Editor, Lidove Noviny, Prague, Czech Republic
Jasmina Kuzmanovic, correspondent, Associated Press, Zagreb, Croatia
Ewa Letowska, Director, Polish Helsinki Foundation Human Rights PressCenter, Warsaw, Poland
Radu Nicolau, producer, Romanian Television, Bucharest, Romania
Stanislav Tenc, member of the civic group "Citizen Solidarity and ToleranceMovement," Prague, Czech Republic
Vitaly Portnikov, correspondent, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, Russia
Jan Urban, writer, Prague, Czech Republic
Julia Vasarhelyi, journalist, Heti Vilaggazdasag, Budapest, Hungary
Dragoljub Zarkovich, Editor-in-Chief, Vreme, Belgrade, Serbia
FOR THE PROJECT ON ETHNIC RELATIONS
Allen H. Kassof, Director
Livia B. Plaks, Associate Director
Elizabeth Tucker, Consultant
FOR THE INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM FOUNDATION
James L. Greenfield, President; member of The New York Times editorial board
Edward J. Baumeister, Vice President; Managing Editor of The Times, Trenton,N. J.
Josephine Schmidt, Deputy Director, Center for Independent Journalism,Prague, Czech Republic
Katarina Vajdova, Director, Center for Independent Journalism, Bratislava,Slovakia
FOR THE CARNEGIE CORPORATION OF NEW YORK
David Speedie, Program Officer
FOR THE AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL GROUP, INC.
Mujib Khan, Manager, general insurance, First American Czech InsuranceCompany, Prague
FOR THE OFFICE OF THE CZECH PRESIDENT
Helena Dluhosova, Department of Domestic Policy
Pavel Novak, Department of Domestic Policy