Launched in 2017 by the European Commission, the EU – Western Balkans Media Days aim to ensure that media freedom remains a priority while tackling the complexity of pressing political, economic and social issues the region experience at present. Moreover, the forum has reached out to the professional challenges of journalists and media: their need to adapt to a rapidly changing media environment. The conference aims at having result-oriented discussions that could afterwards be reflected in adjusted assistance approaches to media related issues within the European enlargement policy.
This year’s edition intends to take stock of what has been achieved since the first edition, including a launch of some new EU funded initiatives. Business models, regional cooperation but also challenges caused by the increasing manipulation of the information space, will also be discussed during the event. For the first time, the EU Western Balkans Media Days, will also involve political representatives in the region directly in charge of information and media for a “Policy meets media” discussion.
The conference will be opened by Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, and Duško Marković, Prime Minister of Montenegro. This will be followed by a grand panel focusing on “Ensuring media freedom and sustainability of independent media in the Western Balkans”.
In the afternoon, discussions will be framed around three parallel workshops.
The second day will feature the presentation of conclusions from the workshops and a panel discussion “Policy meets media”.
How to cope with the manipulation of information space
By polarising public views and interfering in democratic decision-making processes, disinformation can have long-term adverse effects on the democratic development of our societies, and it requires a whole-of-society response. According to 2018 Flash Eurobarometer on this topic, most of the Europeans consider journalists to be at the first front of defense against fake news. The workshop will be the place to discuss how impactful professional journalism is in the era of information manipulation. What are the most recent trends in this field, and what are the best ways forward to deal with disinformation and build societal resilience in the Western Balkans?
Overcoming nationalist narratives
As the long-awaited reconciliation in the Western Balkans remains to be achieved, the communication space is still dominated by “black and white”, often simplistic and nationalistic rhetoric which is echoed by media organisations and reflects a fragmented, politically polarised media landscape. Media outlets are often recruited by political establishments to perpetuate conflicts in the region.
While the European Commission relentlessly continues to raise the issue among its institutional counterparts, efforts also need to be made towards the media communities to encourage them to refuse politically imposed narratives.
Joint unbiased productions would counterbalance oligarch backed and state sponsored media organisations. The EU is keen to promote and support bottom-up initiatives that contribute to reconciliation and regional cooperation.
Listening to the feedback from the media organisations
The 2018 edition of Media Days covered the needs of media organisations to reach a new level of sustainability for journalistic production. It is now time to carry out a “reality check” and hear directly from the media professionals themselves which concepts work and how new and innovative business models could be supported. Continued undue political interference jeopardises the very existence of independent journalism. This is further undermined by both the increased contamination of the information space by opaque media ownership and by manipulated narratives and disinformation.
These phenomena need political attention and creative rethinking of existing strategies.
Among the subjects to be examined:
Why the EU needs to provide sustained long-term assistance to public broadcasters?
Since February 2018, the EU regional program has helped six national broadcasters to improve the political and financial independence of public media. The program includes plans for integrated newsrooms, editorial guidelines and long-term strategies. This assistance program has also managed to expand cooperation on investigative journalism, co-producing youth programs and regional exchange of archive materials.
The initial results are encouraging, the feedback is positive, but still requires sustained, long term effort. Public broadcasting has to provide a platform for dialogue to improve social cohesion in often divided societies.
The Technical Assistance to Public Service Media in the Western Balkans is a Service Contract of the European Commission that has been awarded to the consortium of six reputable international partners (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia).
Other stakeholders include the parliamentary committees responsible for media, the media regulatory bodies, public service media governing bodies and relevant NGOs. The implementation is planned to last until July 2020.
 International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the Austrian Public Broadcaster (ORF), the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Eurovision News Exchange for South-East Europe (ERNO).
*This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244 (1999) and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
How can media self-regulation and Media and information literacy contribute to rebuild trust in media?
Support from civil society to protect and defend the media are fundamental for press freedom.
Yet, this support very much depends on the climate of trust in the media.
To address the decline in civil society’s trust in media in South East Europe, UNESCO together with partners implemented an EU funded project developed around three aspects of the media ecosystem:
1 – reinforcing media self-regulation mechanism
2 – strengthening internal media accountability
3 – promoting media and information literacy
The project was implemented from 2016 to 2019. It supported press and media councils of the region to improve their functioning, outreach and sustainability. It introduced the idea to work directly with media outlets to increase their commitments to transparency, ethics and labour rights. It also introduced media and information literacy policy and strategies for the region and built a coalition for media and information users.
The presentation will focus on opportunities and grants for journalists, provided by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and its partners. They have created and managed subsidies such as BIRN Summer School of Investigative Reporting, Reporting Democracy grants, CEU regional program for investigative journalism. These incentives help provide structural support to media operators to enhance freedom and media integrity in the Western Balkans and in the other countries where the network is active. The objective of the grants is to contribute to independent journalistic activity covering regional and local topics of public interest in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe.
Consequences and prevention
Whilst in some of the Western Balkans countries, physical crimes against journalists and media operators are declining, the impunity of offenders remains a serious issue due to an inability to conclude investigations and a lack of political will.
The associations of journalists from the Western Balkans are joining forces to fight this situation together. They speak out against infringements of the rights of journalists, a precondition for freedom and democracy.
The joint European Commission and journalists’ associations project, launched in 2016, resulted in a decrease in the number of attacks on journalists.
It also achieved the aim of boosting solidarity among professionals of the media sector. We need to unite and continue to develop tools and mechanisms to protect journalists.
The wine cellar is situated 8km southeast of Podgorica and it is operated by Plantaže, Montenegro’s largest wine company. It occupies a 356m-long tunnel which was once a secret underground passage for military planes.
Partially destroyed in 1999 and abandoned immediately afterward, the revamped hangar now houses millions of liters of wine, aging gently in oak barrels and bottles.
The event will be hosted by Deputy Prime Minister for Political system, Interior and Foreign Policy Zoran Pažin.