Serbian Media During COVID-19 Pandemic

World Press Freedom Day 2020
News03.05.2020The questions for FNF Western Balkans were asked by Edita Barac-Savic and Michael Roick
FNF, World Press Freedom Day 2020

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Journalism without Fear or Favour - this year’s theme of World Press Freedom Day 2020. The International Press Freedom Day is celebrated every year on 3 May to highlight violations of press freedom and the importance of free and independent reporting.

As the Covid19 pandemic has also caused an infodemic or pandemic of misinformation, this year's World Press Freedom Day is more important than ever.

We have asked Nikola Tomić to answer some questions on how media and journalists are coping with the new challenge of reporting on Covid19 in Serbia.

Nikola Tomić is an independent media consultant with 20 years of experience with some of the most prominent Serbian and international media. Nikola has been a senior editor at Blic, NIN, Danas; journalist and news editor at Radio B92; media trainer for the BBC Media Trust; correspondent for RFI, among other roles.

The COVID-19 pandemic also poses major challenges for journalism worldwide. Is there a difference from 'normal' times in everyday journalism in Serbia?

There are certainly important additional challenges. Journalists, as well as the public, are confronted with a topic that is not well known and it takes huge impact on everyday lives and health of citizens and a society. The scientific community and healthcare professionals are fighting the virus while learning about it in the same time. Scientific research, experiments, analyzes, which otherwise take a long time, even years, are now done at a rapid rate, and that inevitably leads to sometimes contradictory and changing results, while the public expects clear, unambiguous answers about everything. Different governments around the world have taken different approaches, harder” or softer”, to combat the pandemic; also there are no standardized approaches to calculating the number of sick and dead, so some confusion is inevitable.  Quarantine measures, so called lockdowns, are something that most of the world, including Serbia, has faced for the first time since World War II. So, more generations now experiencing them for the first time in their lives. These are all challenges for journalism in Serbia as well. A specific problem for Serbia, comparing to the developed Western democracies, is the low level of implementation of professional standards in the media, the poor quality of most media, and the associated high level of political influence. Unfortunately, presence of all these problems could be seen in the period of fight against COVID-19 also.

"Independent, critical, committed to the truth", this is - in short form - the credo for quality journalism. What do you think: can it still meet this requirement under the current conditions in Serbia?

The question is to what extent this credo is respected even in the "regular" situation in Serbia, let alone in a state of emergency.  There are media outlets that strive to be true to the truth, to report with the "all things considered" approach, to portray events and phenomena as they usually are, which is not a black and white picture of reality - on the contrary, reality is complex, layered - and from the position of critical observer who reassess and controls decision makers. But, there are few of these media. Even, there are fewer of them than before. Certain, I would call it, the tribalisation of the media scene in Serbia, which we had before the pandemic and the state of emergency, has now become even more pronounced.  And when you are primarily fighting for your tribe, the pursuit of truth is a secondary priority, if at all. Facts fall victim to often distorted interpretations. And the interpretations are "deviated" because they come primarily from a view of the interests of a particular tribe. Unfortunately, most media in Serbia are pursuing a political agenda, either their own or imposed. The public interest, the well-being of the individual citizen and the entire community, is something that is not adequately taken into account. This is how it was before the pandemic, so it is now.

"Information is fast, truth takes time," said network philosopher Peter Glaser. How would you comment this from your point of view regarding to media or journalism in Serbia?

This is an issue of global media trends. The news cycle is no longer 24 hours long, the attention of information consumers is getting shorter, and the abundance of information of dubious quality (their accuracy, precision) overwhelms people minute by minute. As a rule, the media feels an obligation to be part of that speed race.  The race to quality, however, is an exception. And quality requires time. Quality requires knowledge, expertise. Quality requires resources. Quality, above all, requires the awareness of media professionals that the audience as such needs quality. All this is in deficit in Serbia. Unfortunately, even the public service broadcaster RTS loses its role. Examples of good journalism can be found, in the mainstream media and especially in independent organizations, but in the overall media scene, in the aggregate, quality is an exception.

From the official side, the extensive restrictions in social life are defended as necessary measures for successful crisis management in the fight against the pandemic. What is your assessment of the scope and justification of these measures?

On this topic, I can only give so-called informed opinion”.  Experts, above all epidemiologists, are much more called for this. Serbia has gone through radically restrictive measures, for which I, as a citizen, had a great deal of understanding. The government wanted to minimize the risk. The oldest population is protected, as shown by the figures. The number of patients, as well as mortality, are under control. The health system did not experience overload. The basis is laid for an even much better readiness for eventual  new wave of pandemic, possibly estimated in the late fall - winter. I wish that Serbs and Serbia are in regular circumstances more like the Germans and Germany, or the Dutch and the Netherlands, so that we could be like them in extraordinary, potentially catastrophic conditions, too. Unfortunately, that is not a case. Strict lockdown was inevitable. Whether some particular measure could have been differently implemented, that could be discussed, of course. Also, there were some mistakes, lapses, however the vast majority of them are not specific to Serbia, they were the same or similar to many other, richer and more developed, countries. Certainly, there will be some negative consequences for the population, psychological and economic. Hopefully, about psychological will be taken care of as much as about economic ones.

Authorities made a few serious mistakes in their relations with the media, by attempting to introduce censorship in the reporting on the pandemic, and there was a police arrest of a critically oriented journalist. Fortunately, both mistakes were quickly fixed. In addition, the government relatively quickly dropped its ban on journalists from attending news conferences. However, some bad after-taste is still present.

Large parts of the media landscape are also in economic crisis. Advertisements break away, local newspapers are fading and journalists fired. Do you think a revival or recovery in this area is possible in the medium and long term?

Media freedom is one of the basic prerequisites for a high quality and successful media market. Nevertheless, not the only one. Serbia is a small and rather poor economy, which is a huge problem for the present and future situation with the media. Also, the quality of professionals, especially at the editorial level, is problematic. Then there are habits and interests of the audience. The pandemic and the state of emergency have primarily had a dramatic negative impact on the print media market, circulation and advertising are halved. As print media has a long-term negative trend, even if there is a more serious recovery after this pandemic it will only be temporary, the decline will continue. Unlike Germany, for example, Serbia does not have a developed regional and local media market.  I am afraid that even those who are still in existence will collapse, sooner or later, the ways of financing them are with a political background, simply, they are not market-sustainable. The future is brightest for a TV stations with so-called national frequencies, and for successful innovative digital media. Everyone else has many justifiable reasons for serious concern.

In the past, crises and disasters have often proved to be "highlights" of information and reporting. From this perspective, one last question: Which journalistic contribution have you liked most recently?

Generally, mainstream media were not at the height of the task during this period. However, there were a number of good examples in the so-called alternative scene. On this occasion, I would single out the project Disclosure” (Raskrikavanje) by the investigative reporting organization KRIK. From the beginning of the pandemic, their journalists - consistently, systematically, persistently, highly professionally - fight against misinformation about COVID-19 in the media and on social networks, check facts, investigate, deny fake news and conspiracy theories that have flooded the media, especially in digital area. That is an effort worthy of attention and all praise.