Ljiljana Zurovac on truth and media

03 May 2016


Ljiljana Zurovac

"I am alarmed when I read the biographies of the World Press Freedom Prize candidates we receive each year," says Ljiljana Zurovac, President of the Jury in 2016. "These journalists are abused, tortured or even killed for trying to make the truth known." In this interview Ljiljana Zurovac, Executive Director of the Independent Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina, puts particular emphasis on ethics of journalism, media responsibility, and media environment in Southeast Europe.

The UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2016 is awarded during the celebration of World Press Freedom Day, on 3 May, in Helsinki, Finland. 

Ljiljana Zurovac answers Jasmina Šopova´s questions.

"Khadija Ismayilova fully deserves the Prize and I am happy to see that her courage and professionalism are being recognized." These are the words with which you welcomed the winner of the 2016 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. What makes the professionalism of a journalist, according to you?

For the past three years I have been member of the Jury that I have the honor to chair this year, and I must say that I am alarmed when I read the biographies of the candidates for the Prize. We receive about 20 proposals each year. These journalists work under extremely difficult conditions, they get arrested, some of them are imprisoned for years, they are being abused, tortured or killed for trying to disclose the truth.

This situation has reinforced my belief that we, journalists who enjoy freedom of expression, are indeed really fortunate and must preserve that chance. Even though we have to face obstacles, and suffer daily pressures, it is not much in comparison to the fate of our colleagues who don´t have free access to information and are being convicted for investigating certain issues.

In Southeast Europe, where I live and work, no one will go to jail for writing the truth. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, we have decriminalized defamation.

How would you describe media environment in your region?

What is lacking in this region is precisely what I just mentioned: courage, professionalism the sense of responsibility, but also curiosity and passion.

Theoretically, journalists have excellent working conditions, but in reality, we are facing a lot of political pressure, which makes some of us practice self-censorship: better to withhold information and keep your job, rather than get into trouble.

Lobbying often comes from inside. Most editors-in-chiefs have to report to the media owners, who themselves are frequently linked to political parties.

For each journalist it is a matter of choice: either he will ignore the ethical principles to comply with the requirements of the boss or he will act following his own conscience and ethical principles.

Photo: World Press Freedom Day in Sarajevo

Are journalists who accept compromises a majority or minority?

I wouldn´t say that they are a majority, but it is quite often the case. Yet accepting to hide or manipulate the truth remains extremely dangerous. In my view, half-truths are more dangerous than untruths.

This goes especially for regions such as Southeast Europe, more particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina, which remains politically fragile. Nationalist conflicts persist to this day. It is still a powder keg. All manipulation of information that aims at serving - or damaging - a community can be very harmful.

This is what happened in the 1990s. A media war preceded the real war in the former Yugoslavia.

And how does the public react?

Today, we are no longer confined to one central radio-television station with six large centers belonging to the six republics of the former Yugoslavia. The rapid growth of websites and social networks, together with standard audiovisual and written media whose number increases, makes the public literally bombarded with wide variety of information from hundreds, if not thousands of different sources of information. It is quite an art to manage to extract a valid - meaning true - information, or to identify a reliable source.

People are confused. They cannot always distinguish the professional sources of information from the personal profiles in social media, for example. We receive, at the Independent Press Council in Sarajevo, complaints from readers regarding statements published on a personal page on Facebook, or on a website without signature, as there are so many in the country. They don´t understand that these are not professional media and that we cannot react. At the same time, it shows that the public is aware of what is being published and is able to make the distinction between information and “intoxication”. 

Photo: Survey on independent media in Sarajevo

What is the Independent Press Council?

It is a media self-regulatory body that allows them to control professional standards by themselves and to better resist political pressures. The Council that I head for the last twelve years in Sarajevo is the first of its kind in the Balkans, and if I'm not wrong, the first out of all post-communist countries. It was founded in 2000.

It is a member of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE), which brings together most of the European countries and many other observers from other continents. We organize annual meetings, and this year we’ll meet in Stockholm to mark the centenary of media self-regulation in Sweden. Through the Alliance we keep contact with each other and discuss daily on many problems we encounter in our work. The experience of others helps us to solve our dilemmas.

What is the role of the Council?

One of its main mandates is to handle complaints from the public. Thus, it empowers the readership to react on what has been published and, consequently, to improve the information released in the media.

But we try to meet the needs of the public through other means as well. Four years ago, for example, we launched a great radio program that I produce with young reporters throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is called ‘Zoom: Your voice in the media’. In each episode we talk with experts as well as with citizens. 

Photo: 'Zoom: Your Voice in the Media'

Produced by the Council, the program is broadcast on several private and public radio stations, in different regions of the country, and it is podcast on their websites, ensuring its wide dissemination. In addition, we post the episodes on the Facebook page of the Council. There are over one hundred so far. We have more and more success and radio channels keep asking us for permission to broadcast the program. We are being very responsive to these demands because the more media visibility we get, the more chance we have for our message to reach the greatest number.

What themes do you generally tackle in ‘Zoom’?

These are mainly issues related to freedom of expression, human rights and media self-regulation, etc. One of the questions that repeats frequently is "What do you think about the hate speech in the media? "The answer is by definition:" I do not want to hear about it. I'm tired of hatred. I want to live normally. "

Yet hate speech is still very present, isn´t it?

It is, unfortunately, and not just in the media. It comes from public figures too. Undoubtedly, it affects people in one way or another. It is pure poison which can easily provoke a reaction of revolt ("Why do I need to hear this!"), or influence the way of thinking ("Who knows, this guy is perhaps telling the truth... ").

The reaction depends on the level of public awareness. We should not forget that people still bear the wounds of the last war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It´s been 20 years since the war has ended, but the memory is still lively. We might think that this war was so violent that people have learned the lessons. But the problem is that people do not always draw the right lessons from such experiences. Otherwise, the war would be long gone from the face of the Earth.

This is why I don´t stop repeating that the role of journalists is extremely important, both for keeping the peace in the country and for the reconciliation in the whole region. A journalist is a person that the public trusts. He must think twice before he speaks. 

Does the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina train the journalists to fight this kind of speech?

Within the Press Council several types of training are provided. In 2008, we created the School of Media Ethics that has a double purpose: to educate and to create networks of young journalists throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. We also organize workshops and seminars.

Photo: Media School of Ethics, December 2015

Before I was leading the Council, I worked as a journalist for the public radio service and, in parallel, as program director of the High School of Journalism in Sarajevo. This is the first regional school on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, established after the last war. The program runs for one year and we teach the practice of journalism. At the same time, I was organizing workshops with six universities scattered across the country and realized that the students from different cities and regions were not communicating between each other at all. These are people who are twenty years old: they were born during and after the war. They live in xenophobic environments, isolated one from another.

It seemed to me mandatory to create a training course that would bring together young people who lack awareness of each other. It was a success from the very beginning! Each year, we gather around 50 students for short (one-week), but very intense courses, in a spirit of conviviality. Students are delighted, according to the feedback that we get from them.

We have also helped the development of academic curricula, so that professors now teach the Press Code and the media self-regulation, which was unthinkable before.

In addition, we are currently developing an online course project which will be available on the Council website.

Our teachers are well-trained specialists from the region but also from Europe, who address various topics, including investigative journalism, dangerous situations, terrorism, Islamism... They teach young journalists how to overcome difficulties on the ground and how not to commit professional errors, when they report, because they need work quickly, and produce information that is accurate, without provoking panic. Rushing is one of the greatest enemies of professionalism and ethics.

Our experience with this training is very encouraging and I count a lot on young people to change the media landscape in the region.

Do you charge the students for these courses?

All the courses are free of charge for students. They are mainly sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany, OSCE and the Council of Europe.

Last year we started to organize a summer school for the entire region of Southeast Europe with the Konrad Adeauer Foundation (KAS Media Program South East Europe). The experience is, once again, encouraging.

Photo: Summer school 2015

How do you see the cooperation between the media in the region?

The cooperation within the region is of outmost importance, because we basically share the same problems and most of us live in the same language speaking area. Our print and audio-visual media are accessible across borders, not to mention the internet that is available to all.

Given that the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the oldest in the region, we have helped our colleagues from neighboring countries to establish similar bodies. Even further: I was personally involved in a project which resulted last year in the establishment of a Press Council in Myanmar and Mongolia. I'm very proud of that.

Most countries in the region have established an Independent Press Council. Only the one from Croatia did not survive, but their Association of Journalists founded an Ethics Board that, although not having quite the same functions, is very useful. We are all interconnected, we have already met twice, but the regional cooperation will further intensify especially with a new project that has been set up recently by UNESCO, in collaboration with the European Commission.

Tell us more about this project?

This is a project for self-regulatory media accountability in South-East Europe and Turkey, which aims to strengthen the ethical and professional standards in journalism. We promote it in Helsinki, on 2 May, as a side event organized on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day 2016. And already in June this year, we organize the first regional master class in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Ljiljana Zurovac, Executive Director of the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina, since 2005, is a bachelor in Dramaturgy and Theatrology, and bachelor in Comparative literature. Apart from her journalistic career, she works as theatre play writer and TV screenwriter. She works regularly as lecturer for Media Ethics and Self-regulation, Conflict Resolution, Radio journalism, and PR. From 1980 till 2009 she worked as an active Radio and TV journalist, as editor and host of live RTV programs at JRT, BiH PBS and Radio FERN. She worked for 6 years as the Program Director at the High College of Journalism in Sarajevo (1999-2005).