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Serbia: Serbs Seek Refuge from Politics and Tabloid News in Citizen Journalism

In Serbia, people will often speak of the lack of transparency, trivial subjectivity, badly hidden political messages in the mainstream media that citizens are to swallow as “news” – as well as the all-around lack of real reporting and investigative journalism. People speak of it. And then diligently return to the trials and tribulations of everyday life in the Balkans. We are “in the know.” We just don’t know where to begin doing something about it.

Serbia’s bloggers seem to be looking into finding a solution, however. More often than ever, blog posts on the state of the media and journalism seem to be popping up in the local blogosphere. Their tone is mostly sarcastic, condescending, derogatory, even latently angry – and with reason.

Among the first of these recent blog posts are those by Milko Grmusa from Republika Srpska, who authors Thesis-antithesis-synthesis, a blog that is meant to spark discussion and elaboration on several subjects. The post below – titled Media and Journalists In This Region Are Impotent and Illiterate, and That’s That [sr] – seems to have done that:

We are now referring particularly to the media from our region. This includes web portals, print and electronic media. In fact, we are referring to the traditional media (television, print, radio), supported by [respective] web portals. Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, including blogs, are to be left aside for now, as we need to focus on those who do (or should be doing) this kind of work professionally. […]

I am entirely convinced that a good portion of the problem within the regional political communities lies in the lack of quality media. There is no tranference of (political) messages in an appropriate manner. And where there is no exchange of relevant information, and at the right time, there can simply be no quality political, economic or any other socially significant process. The absolutely unprofessional and poor-quality local media have caused this “break in connection” between social institutions, thus making society itself entirely inefficient. Of course, bad media aren’t to blame for everything, but they are to blame for much and too much.

One of the online responses to Grmusa’s post was by a blogger known as exxx of www.exxxperiment.net, titled Revolution of Consciousness [sr]:

First of all, the media are the central wheel in the mechanism of the ruling political system. Its main support, right hand, pipeline and guardian of power. Political systems and ruling administrations may change, but the media remain, always in the service of those in power…

I would just like to add [to Milko Grmusa’s post] and say that the purpose of mass media isn’t to be the catalyst in changing social processes, but to keep the masses under control for the longer survival on the throne of the ruling administration, i.e. political option…

The catalysts in that sense can only be books, films, music and, I’ll dare to say, blogs. Twitter and Facebook have, in North Africa, proven to be very efficient and effective tools in starting revolutions. The goal is to invoke a revolution in the consciousness of the people.

@Mahlat, a Serbian blogger and author rather well-known for her highly opinionated, uncensored and colloquial view on matters, penned a critique just days ago on the involvement of politics in and the general state of journalism in Serbia. Unabashedly written and equally titled On My Knees I Beg the “Journalists” of the Land of Serbia, the post addresses Serbia’s “journalists” [sr]:

Since [the Serbian President Boris Tadić] has stated that the crisis is to blame for the lay-offs and general madness in the country, tell us where that crisis is so we can wring its throat…

Declare the above-mentioned gentleman the greatest son of the people and general patriotism of the Serbian nation since the first Belo-Serbs crossed whichever mountain, don’t pussyfoot around it any more…

And, while he’s in question, inform us as to his decision on which year is historic to Serbs, the one in which he was born, in which he learned to walk, became emperor or stood in front of a mirror and figured out which facial expression best suits him. So our souls can be at ease…

Regularly inform us of the scanning of Ada [Ada Ciganlija, an island on a large man-made lake on the Sava river and popular summer spot in Belgrade], perhaps someone else’s bones will be found beside those of [Draža Mihailović]. Or perhaps it might prove that those first humans didn’t originate from African territory but from right here…

Suggest that every school in Serbia bear the name of [tennis player Novak Djokovic] and, instead of [Saint Sava]’s, hang a picture of Novak’s dad on the walls, he did make him and the nation is in debt to him after all…

Do explain who your editors are when you serve up the inaugurations of lightposts, planting of petunias and whether the Avala Tower has topped the Empire State as the news of the day. And will Serbia be declared the land of the greatest innovation in building bridges over rivers, a leader in the battle against piracy and a great respecter of animal rights.

And explain how Pippa Middleton going topless is news and in the Culture section of the news at that.

If this is too tough for you, then f*** it!

Mahlat signs her bold post with “Shamed citizen of Serbia.”

To be fair, the media and journalists in Serbia have much more freedom than in some other countries, where atrocities, prison and death sentences will encounter any journalist or even citizen who might state even the mildest opinion that counters that of the country’s regime. And on the flip-side of the above-represented bloggers’ opinions of journalism are the journalists themselves: they often lack the necessary tools and financing to do their jobs properly and, thus, often desist from doing their jobs entirely and dedicate themselves to headlines that will sell (note that Serbia has more tabloid editions per capita than any other country in the world). All this, however, is no reason to ignore the obvious lack of variety of information and opinions in the local and even regional mass media here.

Two months ago, UNESCO’s International Press Freedom Day was marked in Serbia. At the time and at a more recent event of the European Federation of Journalists in Belgrade, journalists took the opportunity to appeal to the public and the authorities for protection from certain elements that so obviously threaten their position in Serbia. The online edition of Serbia’s daily Blic quotes President Tadic [sr] in regards to this matter as well as on several yet-unsolved cases of murdered Serbian journalists:

“I completely understand your plea and pressure, but, as is the case with the Hague Tribunal, this pressure is futile. I understand this as my mission and my duty and I am confident that the representatives of the Government who are responsible for this matter do as well.”

The Serbian Media Research Center also published a post on their site [sr] on the subject of what represents a threat to members of the media in Serbia:

The media in Serbia are not only in a bad position due to the economic crisis, but also because their rights are threatened by the owners [of media] and the state […].

Another report on the European Federation of Journalists event can be found on a Belgrade news portal, titled The Unfreedom of Media in Serbia [sr]. The article tells a similar tale:

The state of freedom of the media in Serbia is not satisfactory and most of those employed in the media have very low salaries and are exposed to pressure from various forms of formal and informal centers of power…

There are, of course, two sides to every story and the truth is never found on either of those sides. The truth, ironically, is what true journalism should be in pursuit of. The only truth visible to the plain-clothed citizen here is: something just ain’t right with the Serbian media. On either side. On top of that, the fact that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are less repressed here than in some other countries, yet not quite as well established and safe as in some others doesn’t help. In fact, the in-between is often the hardest place to be.

As a blogger, this Global Voices author may be somewhat subjective when in comes to this subject, but there does seem to be an in-between solution rising in this case – citizen media. Or bloggers, if you will. Other than expressing their opinions vividly and regularly online, Serbia’s bloggers have opened doors to a few institutions and are talking to the people in charge.

Just yesterday, one of Serbia’s most popular bloggers, lovingly known as Deda Bor (Grandpa Bor), organized a Tweetup, or a gathering of Twitter users, bloggers and other online personas, that had the goal of not only allowing members of the community to get to know each other better, but also to promote blogs as a significant medium. A few government officials and top-level executives from large Serbian corporations were present and the event got coverage in at least one of today’s dailies.

"Twitterers at Usce", photo by Irena Posin (@iposin), used with permission

Ivan Minic, founder and manager of Serbia's most popular online forum, Burek, that numbers over 1.2 million registered users, was at the event and had this to say for Global Voices:

It is amazing to see so many people from different social circles gather around one idea […]. Watching all of them having such a good time both online and offline triggers a warm feeling for all of us who have spent most of our lives trying to help people connect, and spread the good Internet as a channel for communication. From the deepest underground, in just a couple of years we made it to the mainstream – where we belong.

Thumbnail image shows Serbian newspaper by Flickr user Limbic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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