PER Home Page
About PER
Board and Staff
Council for Ethnic Accord
The Kona Statement
PER in the Balkans
Russia and the Baltics
PER in Hungary
PER in Slovakia
PER in Romania
Central European Series
Euro-Atlantic Series
PER and the Roma
PER and the Media
PER Bulletins

Project on Ethnic Relations PER Logo

March 3-6, 1994


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.


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.


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.


The Prague meeting considered a number of options for improving the qualityof coverage of interethnic relations.

  1. Some participants said that it would be helpful to have guidelines forreporting on ethnic relations. Others disputed the need for guidelines,saying that common sense and personal moral standards were the onlyprerequisites for covering interethnic issues in an objective andconstructive manner. Rules would not necessarily fix the problem. Instead, aset of journalistic values had to evolve in the region.
  2. Participants agreed that journalists had to be trained in nonpoliticalprofessionalism. Ewa Letowska, former ombudsman of the Polish parliament,said that it was essential that journalists learn how to present straightfacts and how to give minorities access to and use of the major mediawithout alienating or inflaming the majority population through innocentmistakes. For example, Polish television allowed a Ukrainian bishop to makea Christmas address to the Ukrainian minority in their native language. Thestation wanted to provide Polish subtitles for its viewers, but the bishopwould not permit that. Instead of televising a Polish summary before orafter the bishop spoke, the station made the statement that the bishoprefused to have the speech broadcast in Polish. This only made the Polishmajority suspicious of the bishop's intentions with respect to the Ukrainianminority.
    Letowska is now director of the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human RightsPress Center, and she described a weekly bulletin published by thefoundation and disseminated to journalists and judges. The bulletin providesinformation on human rights and freedom of speech; calls attention to errorsin the press and on television, as well as in politicians' statements;points out linguistic stigmatization of minorities, HIV patients, etc., inthe media; and provides digestible information on the most important highercourt decisions concerning human rights and constitutionality. Thefoundation also holds bimonthly, informal "salons" for journalists andjudges and invites experts to lecture, and it keeps a database of pressmaterials on human rights and legal culture.
    Minority problems are related to the problem of democracy itself, saidLetowska. The task of the journalist is to make the straightforwardcommunication of opinions possible without playing a partisan role in thedelivery of factual information. Much of democracy involves abstract ideasthat are hard to put into practice. Such ideas can and should be explainedto the public in small and digestible pieces.
  3. Participants also discussed strategies for helping minorities and civicand academic groups "lobby" the media on ethnic issues. Bozeva described herwork for the nonprofit International Center for Minority Studies andIntercultural Relations. She is one of a small group of journalists at thecenter who accompany experts on field trips. Stories on ethnic communitiesand issues are then written and sold to the major media through a network ofinformal contacts. Their work has brought about a change for the better inat least one major Bulgarian daily newspaper that had been printing stronglyprejudiced articles and headlines. Journalists at the center are creating avideo library of international films on minorities and are negotiating tohave them shown on domestic television, and they are trying to raise moneyto produce television documentaries on minorities.
    Urban made the point that it was essential for journalists to identify andcontact civic groups that both study minorities and defend their rights. Heintroduced Stanislav Tenc, a member of the Citizen Solidarity and ToleranceMovement, a civic group based in Prague. Tenc said that his organizationmonitors interethnic violence, discrimination against minorities, organizedextremism, and fascism. The Czech Interior Ministry has asked the group formore information on fascist organizations. The group will continue to gatherinformation on cases of violence and discrimination and will continue tomake efforts to keep these issues in the public eye. Urban said that groupslike this are springing up all across eastern Europe. It is essential, headded, to identify these groups and to help them understand how to reach themedia with their information.
  4. Several participants argued that it was imperative to produce morein-depth analyses and comparative coverage of the issues in the region.Kassof urged that interethnic relations be portrayed in the context of aEuropean civilization undergoing rapid social change. Participants agreedthat problems of interethnic relations were not only country-specific.Nicolau said that it would advance the situation considerably if televisionnetworks were to broadcast segments on how different countries are dealingwith interethnic problems, in order to identify the common causes of some ofthese problems and to relate them to the former Communist regimes.
    Julia Vasarhelyi of Hungary argued that such comparisons would have to behighly sophisticated. It would be misleading, for example, to compare poorRoma minorities with the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, which is viewed bythe majority as representative of former Hungarian "oppressors." The issueis further complicated by the presence of many minorities that were once"majorities" but are now living on territory that has changed hands manytimes in the last few centuries. Nevertheless, said Urban, it would bepossible to compare the policies of different countries toward the sameethnic minorities--for example, the Hungarian minority in Slovakia,Transylvania, and Ukraine. Collaborative reporting would be useful towardthat end.
    At the same time, it would be important for journalists to show not just howone minority is treated in different countries, but how one country treatsdifferent minorities (for example, how Hungary treats Roma and Jews), saidVasarhelyi. While Hungary may demand fair treatment of Hungarians outsideits borders, its treatment of minorities inside its own borders may not meetthe same criteria of fairness.
    The end goal, said Daniel Kumermann, editor of a Czech newspaper, should beto show majority populations where underlying prejudices come from, wherenationalism and fascist movements can lead, and what options exist forsolving problems constructively. Keeping track of news stories on ethnicissues and incidents that were not reported would also be useful tojournalists, in order to allow for the identification of trends anddevelopments that might warn of impending trouble, said Gebert.
  5. Journalists cannot cover interethnic relations more thoroughly withoutbetter information, participants said. However, the type of informationrequired, and how to distribute it, was a matter of intense debate. Urbansuggested using the Independent Journalism Foundation's centers in Pragueand Bratislava (which train Czech and Slovak journalists) as sources fordistributing to the media, via electronic means, facts on ethnic groups ineastern Europe; articles on ethnic relations and violence from around theregion; and a list of existing institutions dealing with minority andinterethnic issues. He proposed that, initially, a comparative six-monthstudy be undertaken of:
    1. minorities in the countries of eastern Europe and their numbers,organizations, employment situation, language preference, geographicaldistribution, prejudices against them, interethnic conflicts involving them,human-rights abuses, and instances of racially motivated violence;
    2. existing institutions, governmental and nongovernmental, dealing with orstudying interethnic problems; the legal and judicial situation pertainingto minority groups; the level of awareness of minority issues on the part oflegislators; government mechanisms to ensure fair treatment of minorities inall legislation; and minority representation in the institutions dealingwith their problems;
    3. journalists' awareness of interethnic relations and problems, what ispublished and what is omitted in stories about ethnic groups and ethnicallybased violence, the percentage of news dealing with interethnic relations,linguistic usages in stories about ethnic groups, and minority access to themedia.

    Ultimately, the media of all the countries of eastern Europe and the formerSoviet Union must help to combat the psychological isolationism anddisinterest that majority populations display in the region as a whole,participants agreed. Vitaly Portnikov, a correspondent for the Moscownewspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said that the journalistic elite in Moscowand St. Petersburg, for example, had no interest in the situation of theapproximately twenty-five million Russians living in other republics, norwere minority issues inside Russia well covered in the domestic press.Gebert added that the media should cover conflicts that might have happenedbut did not, and they should explore the factors that lead to stability.
  6. Participants differed as to the benefits of bringing internationalpressure to bear on the quality of reportage on ethnic issues. Butora saidthat it might be helpful if a team of Western experts evaluated the Slovakmedia's coverage of interethnic relations and then publicly presented anddiscussed their findings. According to Gebert, the Polish press began totone down anti-Semitic reports because of international condemnation.However, Urban argued that international pressure might not work in everycase and that each country required its own approach to the problem. Forexample, the more the international community criticizes Slobodan Milosevicfor his nationalistic policies, the more adroitly the official press usesthis criticism to Milosevic's advantage.


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


Allen H. Kassof,  Director

Livia B. Plaks,  Associate Director

Elizabeth Tucker,  Consultant


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


David Speedie,  Program Officer


Mujib Khan,  Manager, general insurance, First American Czech InsuranceCompany, Prague


Helena Dluhosova,  Department of Domestic Policy

Pavel Novak,  Department of Domestic Policy