From State Media Monopoly to Private Media Monopoly
Remzi Lani, 27 November 2013
During the panel on the role of media in times of transition and the lessons for the Arab countries at this year's Sofia Platform, the Albanian media expert Remzi Lani made a very detailed analysis of the media environment in the Balkan countries. He gave several pieces of advice to his Arab colleagues. We are offering you herewith his entire statement in the pane, moderated by this website, because we believe that it is completely valid for the contemporary media situation in Bulgaria and could serve as a starting diagnosis for the finding of a remedy.
I remember that in the first night of the student protests in Albania in 1990, 23 years ago, I was in a meeting of students with the last communist president, Ramiz Alia, and the first thing they asked was free press. Actually, they were quite confused in their demands, but one thing was clear 'We want free press'. And actually this was the first thing we achieved in Albania. And, may be, the biggest thing we achieved in the perspective of 23 years. And the entire region. After more than 20 years in Albania and in the Balkans we have vibrant, vivid, overcrowded, chaotic, defragmented, non-transparent and generally free media scenes. Long and a very complex transition. On the positive side, I have to mention that in all the region we have pluralistic media systems. We have good legislative framework for the media. For example, the Balkans is the region where trends toward decriminalisation of defamation is the strongest in the world and actually laws are better than in Western Europe.
We have an increasing role of media as a watchdog. If you are prime minster, president, politician in my country you cannot sleep well. And this is good. First of all because of media. They are following you, they are behind. We have good laws and some good practises in access to information and, again, the strongest trend worldwide in access to information is in the Balkans and three of our countries are among the ten best performers in the world. And freedom of expression is recognised as a non-negotiable value of democracy. So far so good. On the negative side, we have to mention the failure to build public media, the so called public televisions basically looks more like ministries of propaganda. The failure to bring functional media markets and on the other hand strong clientelism, partisanship, polarisation and, in the end, very divided media scenes. To cut it short a failure of independence.
I described media as free but not independent and as pluralistic but not independent. Yesterday was mentioned the transition from euphoria to disappointment [it was said about the transition in the Arab world]. In the media we have seen a transition from censorship to self-censorship. Of course there are no more red lines of the past, but there are grey lines of today, where you have to have some self control because 'we will fire you' and because of many reasons. We shifted also from repression to pressure. Sounds better in Spanish: represión and presión. There is no repression in the Balkans, there are no journalists in jail. There is one exception - in Macedonia - but there are no journalists beaten and attacked, but the pressure is so strong. It is invisible, financial and more than that.
We also shifted from control to influence. For countries moving towards the EU control is too much. It's also counterproductive. Influence is more elegant and politicians and business people have found ways to influence media in our region. We shifted from state media sector monopoly to private media sector monopoly. So, from the dictate of the state to the dictate of the private. We failed building what is called public media again. Media in the Balkans is sandwiched very much between business and politics and we have a non-sacred, unholy alliance between business and politics, actually. Ownership is unclear. We don't know who owns what and, actually, we don't know also who pays whom. And we don't know who owns the owners. So, this is quite opaque.
And another tendency that I would like to mention is that in the Balkans you can speak as much you want but generally no one cares. So, we have the right to speak, but we don't have the right to be listened to. What can we tell to our Middle East colleagues? First, we have to mention some differences. 25 years ago in our region we had system change. In the Middle East, I believe, we have regime change. So, we had revolutions, which were negotiated revolutions but anyway were revolutions which changed the system. What we have in the Middle East is, I don't want to go into the debate of the previous sections, we have a mixture of revolutions, revolts, uprisings, reforms, queues and I don't know what else. As Pavol [Pavol Demes Board member of the European Endowment for Democracy, Slovakia] mentioned, we don't have the religious factor, present in our countries, but also didn't have 25 years ago the social media factor, which is an important factor for the Middle East.
Lessons learnt and not to repeat I think, first, is avoid copy-paste approach when you do your legislation. 22 years ago Albania did the first media law and it was a copy-paste of the Westphalia media law in Germany, a democratic country. And the law said that the fines have to be between 20 000 marks and 50 000 marks [Deutsche Mark]. In that time the salary of an Albanian journalist was 20 marks and the salary of the Albanian president was then 200 marks. So, we just copied even figures and the law became very restrictive. So, do your laws, of course referring to international standards. I think it is also good to avoid the mystification of 'democratic approach' when we talk on the media. Usually talk of media as a pillar of democracy, that's fine, but wе forgot that also media is an industry of capitalism, a sector of capitalism. We don't talk about media markets, we talk only about media as one of the freedoms.
And what is the result? Now in the Balkans journalists are missionaries of democracy on the one hand and proletarians of capitalism on the other hand, who can be fired with an SMS and paid very badly. So, we failed to have functional markets in our countries, so it's important also to focus on market rules. Third, I think it is important to have critical approach when it comes to foreign assistance. I can imagine how many media experts are now in Egypt, Tunisia, in Libya, I have been also myself in Yemen. We tried to reform a few years ago the media institute, government-controlled, in Yemen, based on the model of the media institute in Tirana or in Sarajevo. And we failed miserably. It was a project supported by Denmark and Holland. Simply because what works in Tirana does not necessarily work in Sana'a.
And not because we are better and they are worse, but simply because the framework was completely different. It's different to build an NGO, a different story to build an NGO and a different story to build a government institution. So, I think, it's important to be critical. And the last thing. Don't forget that things are reversible and some restoration is always possible. Look at Hungary today. And look at Macedonia - our neighbour between Albania and Bulgaria - a country which is living very dark days. A journalist is in prison and Mr Gruevski is controlling media with an iron hand, unfortunately. And no one thought 15 years ago that things will go like this in Macedonia, Croatia and in Hungary, but it happens.