Violation of the Journalists’ Code of Ethics – The ethical plummeting of media

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BELGRADE, 22.12.2017. – The trend of ethical plummeting in media continues in 2017, as shown by the Press Council report. It that states that from 1 January to 31 August Press Council received 65 complaints against media contents. It is true that the number of complaints is by 23 less than in the same period in 2016, but the Press Council also points the fact that the monitoring of the code of journalism compliance concluded that the number of infringements is still growing.

Out of the total number of complaints filed, the Press Council Complaints Commission deliberated 43. As many as 16 complaints were rejected for formal shortcomings, four were resolved through mediation prior to deliberation at a Commission session, while two complaints were still in procedures. As many as 31 complaints were filed by civil society organisations – the first time since the beginning of work of the Press Council that the number of complaints filed by organizations surpasses the number of complaints filed by citizens, who in the first 8 months complained to this independent self-regulatory body for 26 times. As many as four complaints were filed by media outlets against other media outlets, while members of the Complaints Commission, institutions, and companies filed two complaints each.

The Complaints Commission decided that the Code had not been violated on only three occasions, while in six cases it did not manage to harmonize the final decision due to lack of necessary 8 votes. Breaches of the Code were found in 35 cases, out of which, 15 decisions were passed about media outlets that recognize the Press Council authority, while 20 public reprimands were pronounced to media outlets which have not accepted self-regulation yet.

Out of the mentioned 15 decisions, media that violated the Code published only four, even though by accepting competence of the Council they also accepted the obligation to publish decisions passed by it. Media outlets which are not in the self-regulation system do not have the obligation to publish public reprimands.

The largest number of decisions that the publishing of media content violated the Code was passed against the Politika daily – five. However, Politika failed to publish them. In the same period, the Code was broken by the Alo and Blic three times, and once by the Kurir, Večernje novosti, Telegraf.rs, and Pančevac. The most public reprimands were addressed to Informer daily – 6, followed by the Srpski telegraf ‒ 4, the Tabloid ‒ two, while one was sent respectively to Kraljevo online, Žig info, Glas Zapadne Srbije, the Dnevni žurnal, ePodunavlje, Ekspres, Afera, PP Media, Gradski portal 018, and Peščanik.

Provisions violated most frequently are those from the chapter Veracity of reporting (16 times), Journalistic attention (15 infringements), while there were 13 violations of provisions related to prohibition of discrimination, which is, as assessed in the report, a result of a larger engagement on part of CSOs in filing of complaints. In nine cases it was established that the title did not match the content of the article; the right to privacy was violated six times, while the right to reply was violated four times.

There is an interesting example of Pero Simić, the advisor of the president of the Republic of Srpska, who filed a complaint against the Danas daily. Simić addressed the Press Council because Danas failed to publish his response to the column of a journalist from the paper. It started with Danas publishing an article about Simić, followed by Simić’s reaction. The journalist responded by publishing another article, continuing the discussion. However, Danas refused to publish Simić new reply, finding it offensive for the journalist, and requested of him to adapt the response so it can be published. Instead of Simić, the reply was sent by the president of Republika Srpska, and published by the paper; however, advisor Simić complained to the Complaints Commission because Danas hadn’t published his response. The Commission did not manage to harmonize the decision, as it could not resolve the dilemma whether the right to reply should be observed if the reply is offensive, i.e. if it should be published.

Particular attention of the profession and public was drawn to the case of “phantom commentators” in the Politika daily. This is about two allegedly author’s articles of non-existing individuals, with phantom titles, stating discriminatory attitudes to women. It turned out that the authors of the articles did not exist; one of the articles also included a photo of a German actor. In addition to actor, a complaint was filed by an organization dealing with protection of women’s rights. The Commission decided the Code was violated in both cases.

There is an interesting case of complaint against the Blic daily, which published a story about a German national who suffered a heart attack on an Air Serbia flight. The article praised the company and the doctor who assisted the passenger; however, the Blic also published the name of the passenger, and a photo which was downloaded from his Facebook account without approval. This was all done despite the request of the passenger not to be mentioned in papers. The Commission decided that the Blic violated his right to privacy.

One of the conclusions of the Press Council report is that media outlets are increasingly less likely to respond to complaints and also increasingly less likely to publish decisions of the Complaints Commission.

Media smear campaigns against journalists

Wars among journalists and persecution of individual journalists in certain media are certainly not new to Serbian public scene. On contrary – for decades, serious political conflicts have been accompanied with likewise serious harangues, targeting, and ad hoc accusations against this or that journalist who was not to someone’s liking.

Nowadays, however, the matter is so pervasive that it is difficult to even list all attacks, accusations, and campaigns, insane constructs which persons nominally defined as journalists addressed to their colleagues. Certainly, this surpasses the level of usual clashes within a profession: these conflicts are far more serious than conflicts in any other profession as they put targeted journalists in physical danger and expose them to risk of continual defamation and discrediting, which affects not only them personally, but their family members as well.

Assassins and conspirators

As of recently, journalists are most frequently attacked as traitors and mercenaries in the Informer, Srpski telegraf, and on TV Pink – the champions of pro-regime media engagement. This list comprises primarily editors and journalists of CINS, BIRN, and KRIK, but also journalists from N1, Vreme weekly, and other media which won funds at legal and transparent competitions of international organizations and institutions.

The favourite personality of tabloid media is certainly Vukašin Obradović, who was targeted as a conspirator, person of suspicious ethical qualities, or person “who is not opposed to assassination of Aleksandar Vučić” several times. Following Obradović’s hunger strike and announced closure of Vranjske weekly, tabloids competed in stories of millions and trillions dinars he had “received from the state”, all in an attempt to explain that he had no reason at all to go on a hunger strike. This case, however, is the best illustration that attacks against journalists in tabloids are not driven by journalists, but by those who regularly feed them with half-information and various constructs. The story about the paid millions (from which key data were conveniently omitted) was first launched by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, her theses being additionally developed by agile tabloid reporters. This case also shows how serious media attacks are and how much they affect not only the person they directly relate to, but his or her nearest and dearest as well. At a hearing within Obradović’s claim against the Informer on 30 November this year, he testified that, as the tabloid had published that he worked “to the benefit of Albanians”, a number of people in his environment were “under the delusion” that he really worked in the interest of Albanians, that is, “against Serbia”.

Although worrying, such statements do not seem to be of much concern to Serbian judiciary. Unlike lawsuits for violation of honour and reputation, lawsuits based on situations of physical or any other danger in which the targeted individual is put are rejected as a rule, or this dimension is not taken into consideration at all. When Obradović and a group of activists, actors, and journalists labelled as persons involved into conspiracy to murder Aleksandar Vučić filed criminal charges against the editor of the Informer and several other media outlets, the prosecution dismissed the charges with the justification that “there was no reasonable suspicion that the charged persons had perpetrated the said criminal offences”. Even though the alleged “conspirators” testified in person and explained what problems they encountered for having been put a media target on the forehead, this was simply not enough for the prosecution. “Printing our photos and names under the headline ʼKILLING OF VUČIĆ BEGINS!ʽ and ‘CONSPIRACY AGAINST AUTHORITIES IN SERBIAʽ  the Informer actually printed our wanted warrants. Also, the thesis on conspiracy was widely discussed, while the wanted warrants were multiplied within the broad network of pro-regime media, including TV Pink, website of the unknown nationalist organization Zavetnici, the Pravda daily, and others”, explained the claimants. “Positive that freedom of expression and freedom of media end where someone’s persecution begins, as public figures, journalists, and activists, we took the obligation of pointing to the responsibility of media and journalists for marking us targets, or anyone else who is covered on front pages of so-called tabloid papers. The decision on dismissal of our criminal charges once again shows that those who ‘think differently’ and react publicly in Serbia cannot count on justice, fairness, and equality, and that anyone can accuse them of whatever without bearing any consequences “.

Cases which are more likely to have an outcome in court, and to the benefit of the claimant too, are those in which data from claimant’s private lives is used, abused, or forged, so as to disqualify their professional work. In these terms, there is a telling example of Stevan Dojčinović, who was accused of various things by pro-regime media (without any grounds or sense, certainly), while in March last year the Informer placed a particular emphasis on his alleged hobbies; thus, a whole article is dedicated to the thesis that “Dojčinović is at best a suspicious person who should not be taken for granted” having in mind his “sadomasochistic” inclinations. Blurred photos were published allegedly showing the journalist hanging from the ceiling, on some sports apparatus, or the procedure of perforation of his skin “without anaesthesia” with hooks so as to hank him up on a jenny; it was mockingly stated that Dojčinović himself explained this as an extreme sport.

In the context of other accusations of pro-regime media, the KRIK editor is faced with (that he is an associate of narco bosses, drug addict, etc.), this detail does not seem so important at first, primarily because sports do include hooks and ceilings. However, when we consider what an average reader of the Informerpoisoned with hatred towards everything which is in any manner “different” – may think of someone who hangs from the ceiling and allegedly delights in pain.

If they have really nothing “saucy” to (ab)use against journalists whose work is not up to the taste of the current regime, state newsletters in the form of daily papers and TV stations are always glad to publish off-hand accusations on income or affiliation to a political party of persecuted colleagues. Thus, numerous RTS journalists were accused of being “yellow hypocrites”; there is also the case of a group of journalists who in the case of the presidential campaign supported the wife of candidate Vuk Jeremić ‒ former journalist Nataša Jeremić, who was at the time accused of being connected to drug cartels. The alleged “hypocrisy” of the colleagues was in a specific manner repeated following the attack of a member of Dveri against two journalists from TV Pink*: this is when colleagues Nataša Mijušković, Antonela Riha, and Jelena Obućina were criticized in the harshest words for having supported one colleague, not supporting two others (?!).

Elegantly and with style

A separate type of attacks against journalists comprises those professional ones which are considerably more elegant than the mentioned tabloid ones, which are addressed to different or other media audience, but which bear long-term danger for journalists they are targeted against. In these terms, there is the memorable several month long chase of the Politika against the Press Council’s Complaints Commission, that is, its individual members – including a signatory of this text. When the Commission passed the decision that the Politika violated the Journalists’ Code of Ethics in the article on financial income of certain media outlets and CSOs, at least one article a week was dedicated to professional capacities of behaviour of individuals who participated in the passing of this decision. These articles were unlike those published in the Informer, far from that, but they did undermine the image of the Press Council and criticized individuals.

This also includes a recent analysis of Ljiljana Smajlović in Nedeljnik weekly, dedicated to the participation of the Group for Media Freedom at the regional media conference at Tirana, held on 9 and 10 November. This is where the participants in the conference were called “posers in black t-shirts”, which some readers must have found amusing; however, at the same time, they were placed in the context of flattering the EU (while they were doing exactly the opposite in Tirana) and foreign forces in general.

It is legitimate and, for freedom of expression, very desirable that there are different attitudes on certain phenomena and events in the public sphere, but one must not forget important facts, context, and the whole picture; at the same time, the colleagues were addressed serious accusations and qualifications.

The story about media chases against journalists contains a very interesting fact that there always some new and so-far unprecedented reasons for persecution. Thus, currently, in the absence of new theories on conspirators, assassins, drug addicts, traitors, mercenaries, it happened that N1 journalist Marija Antić was harassed for the questions she asked humanitarian worker and right-wing supporter Arnaud Gouillon. Gouillon himself, as then tabloids too, pointed a finger to the journalist because she insisted he explained his political ultra-rightist biography. The first media outlet which reacted was portal Telegraf.rs which published the headline “A SHAMEFUL INTERVIEW: JOURNALIST WANTS TO PRESENT THE GREATEST HUMANITARIAN WORKER AS A FASCIST” followed by the Informer with the statement that the French humanitarian worker is “TARGET OF AMERICAN MERCENARIES!! CIA TV N1 ATTACKS A FRIEND OF SERBS!“

This is all garnished with saucy comments of readers, which – together with the steaming campaign on social networks – presents a most serious threat to safety of journalist Antić.

It is clear that there is political will behind chases against journalists, or the wish of the ruling elite to label, exhaust, and intimidate colleagues who dare ask a question, write, report, and act differently than pro-regime media. It is also clear that in the time of considerable media tensions, each such attack results in concrete, physical danger for all the labelled and criticized journalists, or at least jeopardizes their further work and integrity.

Thanks to all this, media smearing may be readily placed among the gravest issues facing journalists and journalism in Serbia. They no longer present individual incidents, or something that happens occasionally. On contrary, smear campaigns belong to everyday life and permanent threat hanging over each and every journalist. At least, as long as there are journalists who are willing to defend their positions regardless of what kind of media notoriety this might earn them.

*Attacked on 18.09.2017 during protests in front of TV Pink by supporters of the right-wing parliamentary party Dveri

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This article has been produced as a part of the project Western Balkan’s Regional Platform for advocating media freedom and journalists’ safety with the financial assistance of the European Union. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia and its authors, and can in no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.