Comment: Balkan Media Should be More Probing

There is plenty for investigative journalists to do in the Balkans, but few media outlets where their voices can be heard.

Comment: Balkan Media Should be More Probing

There is plenty for investigative journalists to do in the Balkans, but few media outlets where their voices can be heard.

It was while searching for some fresh ideas on the subject of investigative journalism that I recently picked up a copy of "Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs" at my local bookshop.

This is a selection of some of the best pieces of this and the last century's investigative journalism, including Martha Gellhorn's report from a just-liberated Nazi death camp in 1945, Seymour Hersh's revelation of the 1969 My Lai massacre in North Vietnam and many others.

It wasn't these famous articles that I was interested in so much as editor John Pilger's introduction, in which he outlined his thoughts on why investigative journalism remains so important to the well being of a healthy democracy.

Pilger opened with a line from Oscar Wilde, "Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue." This really sums up much of what investigative reporting is about. The difference between true investigative journalism and journalism of the government variety lies in the willingness of the journalist to put the critical faculty that we all possess into action. That is the nature of his or her disobedience.

And as Pilger adds, the importance of this craft lies in the fact that secretive powers have always loathed and feared journalists who push back screens, peer behind facades and lift rocks. At the same time, journalism offers the means by which injustice can be not only exposed but also articulated. As he put it, “Without it, our sense of injustice would lose its vocabulary and people would not be armed with the information they need to fight it.”

Flipping through this book, it is easy to feel nostalgic for the great age of what people once called “the fourth estate". In that pre-TV age, when newspapers were ready by virtually every literate person, they had the power - by virtue of their vast circulations - to hold executive power to account.

Gellhorn was given to reflecting that journalism - her own and others' - had little effect on what happened, but she underestimated herself. Her writing on life behind Republican lines in the Spanish Civil War, for example, shaped popular perceptions of the conflict far more than the official sources of information. It helped to form international viewpoints on regimes like Franco's and articulate a growing rejection of fascism as a legitimate model of government.

Pilger's own articles in the British Daily Mirror on Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia, which later became the TV documentary Year Zero, so embarrassed the British government that it was forced to "de-recognise" the Phnom Penh government.

If relatively well run, long-established democracies like the United States or Britain still need probing, delving disobedient journalists, the need is that much greater in eastern and south-eastern Europe, where democracy is a recent import and executive power enjoys far greater control over the dissemination of information than it does further west.

Here, the disobedient journalist faces greater physical dangers and has far fewer potential protectors when trying to hold irresponsible and arbitrary government to account.

I think of Zeljko Kopanja, editor of Banja Luka's Nezavisne Novine. His willingness to probe Serbian war crimes in his native Bosnia left him without his legs – both amputated by a bomb placed under his car in 1999. One of his offending articles was a groundbreaking story on how a group of paramilitary thugs called the “Mice” terrorised the central Bosnian town of Doboj in 1992, after being trained by a special unit of Serbia's state security service called the Red Berets.

On the internet, I chanced on this contribution from Clyde Mueller, an American photographer who worked with Kopanja in 1999. He wrote, “Many of us have never faced the decisions or consequences Kopanja faced. How many times has your publisher made a decision to publish a story knowing that publishing it could very well cost her or his life? How many times do you drive to work knowing someone wants to kill you because of the stories your newspaper publishes?”

He added, “I learned first hand through Zeljko Kopanja what consequences can arise from the pursuit of and reporting of the truth.”

This case is at least quite well known. Many others are not. Reading an article put out by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on journalism in Romania last year, I was reminded of the regular physical harassment of difficult, disobedient journalists in this European Union candidate state, which is expected to join that exclusive club in 2007.

My IWPR colleague in Romania reported that 16 journalists had suffered physical attacks in 2003 after writing reports about corrupt officials or about the local mafia. Many more were on the receiving end of anonymous death threats.

The report referred to Ino Ardelean, editor of the daily newspaper, Evenimentul Zilei, beaten up in Timisoara after writing articles drawing links between ruling Social Democratic Party officials and corrupt business practices. He had to undergo several operations and almost two months of medical care before going home.

Florin Kovacs, his lawyer, said police inaction after the assault on his client was part of a familiar pattern. It is regrettable that no police inquiries into cases of violent attacks on journalists last year have identified the perpetrators of these assaults. He added, “Unfortunately being a journalist is one of the riskiest professions in Romania.”

Some reporters have paid for their investigations with their lives. Iosif Costinas, a reporter who was writing a book on organised crime in the Timisoara region, mysteriously disappeared from the city in June 2002. His body was found almost a year later in a nearby forest.

Nicolae Ceausescu's autocratic regime in Romania was overthrown 15 years ago, so the fact that harassment continues against investigative journalists shows that the advent of multiparty democracy in itself has not ended the pressure on independent-minded journalists.

Secretive power, in other words, has not gone away but has merely changed its form. It is no longer the state that in most cases terrorises a genuinely investigative media, but the barons of big business.

Many of these are former criminals and mafia bosses who have moved to legitimise their business interests. Buying up the media and turning them into personal mouthpieces has been a conspicuous feature of this process in several Balkan countries.

The pressures on the media nowadays can also be more subtle than they were and thus less easy to identify, let alone confront. In the new market environment, newspapers increasingly depend on advertising revenue. Threats to withdraw government adverts for jobs and tenders have turned into a first-class weapon in the hands of the authorities, and many editors do not dare risk a confrontation.

Given the tone of these remarks, you may not be surprised to hear that I am not altogether optimistic about the immediate future of investigative journalism in south-east Europe, for the intensifying struggle between a growing number of media outlets over a static or shrinking market has locked many of them into a diet of sensationalist scandal-mongering. This obsession with so-called scandals has nothing to do with real investigative journalism, which doesn't even deserve the name if it isn't based on rigorous fact-checking and an honest relationship between reader and writer.

Take Serbia, to which I returned last year to teach journalism. After a decade of absence from the country, the change in the media scene amazed me. Before, there was one set of newspapers clearly identifiable as mouthpieces for government propaganda, and another much smaller group that clearly set out to try to tell the truth. I returned to find a cacophony of new voices, most purveying a similar diet of lurid sensationalism mixed up with plugs for the paper's business and political patrons. There is not much room for disobedient journalism in this environment.

That makes more independent, networking organisations such as IWPR - but not just IWPR, of course – into increasingly important actors on the media stage. Funded by a wide range of donors, they can offer a platform to voices that are not getting much of a hearing in the local market-driven, tabloid media.

Because they are international, they link journalists across national and ethnic frontiers, improving the flow of information and providing a regional context for stories on such phenomena as smuggling or corruption that the local media don't have the means or the appetite to explore.

None of this would be of much use if the local media did not pick up on and reprint the output of organisations such as IWPR, but in recent years they have begun doing so. In some cases this has led to demonstrable changes to national and international policy. Investigative journalism, in other words, does still "work". It can change things, perhaps not sensationally, but incrementally.

What are the examples of this? Here are three, picked pretty much at random from the IWPR files.

One investigation I edited last year revealed that a Bosnian Serb police raid on the home of indicted war crimes suspect Milan Lukic was not - as the Serb authorities claimed and as Lord Ashdown concurred - a welcome attempt by the Serb authorities to arrest an indicted war criminal. It was, in fact, a botched attempt by police to silence Lukic by shooting him dead in the course of his arrest, so that he would never divulge the whereabouts of the two leading indictees from the Bosnian war, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic (see BCR 495).

Nerma Jelacic, who was in charge of that story, later wrote, “Our investigation into the police killing of an indicted war criminal's relative really had an effect in Bosnia. Its findings were used by an EU police inquiry, which led to questions being asked in the Bosnian Serb parliament and statements from the US ambassador and Lord Ashdown's office. It led to the sacking of the Bosnian Serb interior minister.”

An earlier investigation into Operation Sabre (BCR 435) - the police dragnet that rounded up thousands of suspects after the murder of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic - uncovered the fact that ill-treatment of detainees had been far more widespread than statements from the Serbian government and from the United Nations and OSCE suggested. That led to Amnesty International taking up the issue and including parts of the report in a subsequent report on human rights in the region. Arguably, it has helped to prevent or at least limit the chances of the Serbian police using such tactics again in future.

A final example from last April (BCR 494) came from a journalistic newcomer, Tanja Vujisic, a Kosovo Serb living in the town of Mitrovica. She wrote a report for IWPR on how aid sent from Serbia to help Kosovo Serbs was ending up on sale in open-air markets. This fairly simple piece of reportage did not involve months of detective work - it was simply a case of reporting what was right before her eyes - but it forced the Red Cross in Serbia to conduct a re-examination of the way aid was being allocated and distributed in the region.

None of these articles brought down a government. But each in its own way forced the authorities to be that little bit more transparent in their dealings than they had been before. Each taught power to be a little less secretive and a little less arrogant. Not bad, in an age when the print media is widely thought to have lost most of its muscle-power, vis-a-vis the all-conquering television.

There is no shortage in the Balkans of journalists who have something to tell, as I found while running several training courses throughout the region last year. What they are short of - ironically, given the boom in the number of media outlets - is places where they can do their telling.

Marcus Tanner, IWPR’s editor/trainer in Belgrade, gave this presentation at a workshop organised by the Atlantic Council of Serbia and Montenegro and the Fund for Peace, held in Belgrade on April 11.

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