Gordana Igric has been active in journalism for 34 years, starting as a journalist in 1981.for Belgrade based Politika and Borba dailies, covering the whole territory of former Yugoslavia. During the war years she reported on the fighting and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia in places such as Banja Luka, Zvornik and Foca. Marked as a traitor, during 1999 she was forced to leave Serbia traveling in secret to Sarajevo and then on to London where she began working as an editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and manager of the Balkans project. The need for continued impact in the Balkans inspired Gordana Igric to localize the IWPR Balkans Project in 2005. establishing new regional organisation - Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. Ten years later, BIRN, with a pool of close to 500 journalists, has offices in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia, with editorial presence in Bulgaria, Croatia, and Montenegro, is one of the biggest media networks in the South Eastern Europe.
SEEMO: How often BIRN journalists are target of a threat? Can you give us some examples, please?
BIRN is celebrating decade of its existence and occasionally our investigations were cause for attacks, mostly threatening emails or phone calls. Some of the attacks were seriously vicious. Our editor in BIRN Albania, Besar Likmeta has been physically attacked by an Albanian politician, while the director of BIRN Kosovo, Jeta Xharra, has had several government campaigns orchestrated against her, branding her as “Serbian spy”. Currently, against BIRN Serbia, the government and allied media have launched smear campaign, branding us as liars, spies, mercenaries and lobbyists for some companies. The main accusation is that we are trying to overthrow the Government, being paid for that by the EU. All that for raising legitimate concerns about public interest and validity of Government spending. The proportion of latest smear campaign is beyond anything seen on media scene in Serbia.
SEEMO: It is very hard to be an investigative journalist...
Professional investigative reporting rarely receives plaudits from politicians or states, since in most cases it exposes corruption or malfunctioning of the state institutions. In its ten years of work, BIRN was exposed to different kind of reactions from the states in the Balkans. Control over the media is such that investigative reporting is limited mainly to non-governmental organisations, with rare access to mainstream media. Usually, this means the media, deeply dependent financially and politically on authorities are forbidden to carry sensitive stories, compromising for the governments.
SEEMO: How you see the media situation in the region BIRN covers?
Macedonia is for years a trouble spot, with the closure of independent media, arrest and conviction of investigative journalist Tomislav Kezarovski while the Government is one of the main media advertisers. The situation in Serbia is quickly deteriorating, with numerous complains about censorship and self-censorship. Shutting down of programmes, and increased government pressure on media outlets, with some TV stations and tabloids tasked to perform smear campaigns against political opponents, or anyone with different opinion is happening as we speak.
SEEMO: Your comment about the critics from the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic - he spoke about BIRN.
How does one respond to allegations that we are liars, undermining Serbian reforms on EU orders, lobbying for some international companies, etc? The prime minister keeps going out on TV and repeating outrageous accusations against BIRN. This in turn is then carried on all media in the country without anyone even approaching BIRN for response. We have no intention to get into a shouting match with the ones screaming “traitors!” but rather participate in a quality debate about the issues have raised on misuse of public spending.
The unprecedented reaction of the Serbian government to our latest story sends two fold message, both to the journalists in Serbia and to the EU. One, that anyone who dares to dig into the topics the Government deems inappropriate will have end up in a similar fashion. At the same time, the PM has used this case to test the limits of EU’s patience, in a situation when Brussels is rarely interested in developments beyond relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
Dunja Mijatović is a media expert from Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2010 she succeeded Miklós Haraszti as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RfoM) and in March 2013 she was reappointed for a second three-year term.
SEEMO: What are the main press freedom problems today in OSCE member states?
I see two major trends challenging media freedom in the OSCE region; the increasing number of attacks on journalists and the attempts to filter and block access to the Internet.
Journalists’ safety must be ensured at all times, not just for the sake of justice also for the sake of democracy. And the fact is that we see more attacks on journalists today than we did five or ten years ago, this trend has to be reversed. And when I say attacks, I include a whole host of actions taken – just not physical assaults. Reporters/bloggers are jailed on dubious charges or held under house arrest simply for not toeing the government’s line.
The Internet is frequently under attack in parts of the OSCE region. There are definitely forces in motion that seeks to hinder the advancement of human rights online, making the Internet the new front line in the fight for freedom of expression and media freedom worldwide.
SEEMO: How you see especially the situation in two OSCE member countries: Turkey and Belarus?
In Turkey there are overarching issues with regard to free media and free speech; imprisonment of journalists and limitations on freedom of expression online.
Although the number of imprisoned journalists is significantly less today than it was only a few years ago, the much needed reform of the laws that allow for imprisonment for journalistic work - especially the Anti-Terror Law and certain provisions of the Criminal Code - has still not taken place.
Limitations of freed speech online continue and in 2014 the restrictive Internet Law, also known as Law No. 5651, was turned even more limiting. The estimated number of blocked websites is above 40,000 and we see accounts in social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube being silenced on a daily basis.
My Office also follow cases, in Turkey and elsewhere in the OSCE region, where individual female journalists are targeted for their work, this is an important issue that I plan to raise in more details in the coming months.
Although some positive steps have been taken in the past, free media are facing serious challenges in Belarus. The authorities need to show more political will to comply with international standards on free expression and free media. Areas of particular concern is the need for an immediate reform of the restrictive media law, changing the accreditation requirements for journalists, and intruding more effective ways to access information.
SEEMO: Do you have contacts with the officials in Ankara and if you look the situation in 2015 and some years ago - what is different in Turkey?
I have an ongoing dialogue with the authorities in Ankara and with the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the OSCE here in Vienna. Although we have different views on a number of issues with regard to freedom of expression and media freedom, we have a fruitful dialogue and a good co-operation. I trust that open communications about all issues, including sensitive ones, is the only mutually useful way forward.
SEEMO: What is the future of media in Europe after Charlie Hebdo attack?
The attack on the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo was an unprecedented attack on free speech and free media and I think we will be dealing with the fallouts from this horrific attack for quite some time.
The future of media depends on many different factors and it is not my role to try to predict it. Despite the emotional impact that the events in Paris may have had in journalists and media professionals around Europe and the rest of the world, I believe that the best reaction should be to continue exercising the right to freedom of expression without any form of constraint or self-censorship. On their side, governments should also facilitate the conditions for a pluralistic speech and media environment as well as adopt measures aimed at enriching discussions and influencing emotions in order to avoid all forms of aggression.
SEEMO: How can OSCE and your office of Freedom of Media help journalists who have problems, especially if journalists are arrested by a state authority?
My office is tasked to monitor media freedom developments in all 57 OSCE participating States. We assume an early-warning function on media freedom violations in the OSCE region and intervene on breaches of the OSCE commitments with regards to free media and free speech, like attacks and imprisonment of journalists.
In cases of imprisonment of journalists for what they say or write, my office raises these cases directly with the participating States. Voicing our concern about these cases, also with public statements, raises awareness and puts international pressure on the authorities to honor their international commitments on free speech and free media. This is one tool of many we use to help journalists deprived of their freedom.
SEEMO: Your comment to the Tomislav Kezarovski case?
I have been following this case very closely and I have raised it with the authorities on many occasions. Although I welcomed the latest decision to release him from prison, on probation, this does not negate the fact that the conviction sets a dangerous precedent for free media and investigative journalism, regardless of the fact that his sentence was reduced from 4.5 to 2 years in prison. It is high time for the authorities in the country to send a clear signal, ease the pressure on media, and respect free and critical voices.
SEEMO: How you see the media situation in Hungary in 2015.
Since the restructuring of the Hungarian media landscape in 2010, I have continuously voiced concerns about the restrictive elements of the media laws. Despite minor adjustments, the laws can still be used to restrict free expression and pluralistic discourse in the society.
My Office follows their implementation as we do with additional issues that have the potential to curb critical voices; including economic pressure by authorities on certain media outlets, libel suits initiated by public figures against critical journalists, or police raids against and investigations of NGOs using foreign funding.
SEEMO: How you see the role of SEEMO?
NGOs dealing with media freedom issues are crucial for the work of my office. SEEMO is a longstanding partner of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and it plays an important role for the development of free media in South Eastern Europe.
Ferai Tınç worked for Hürriyet newspaper, one of the leading Turkish dailies, from 1982 to 2012. Tınç worked first in the foreign news department as a correspondent, then as Head of Foreign News Desk and later as Foreign News Editor. She also worked as a foreign news columnist and senior political correspondent from 1998 to 2012. From 2000 until 2010, Tınç lectured at Marmara University on Current Foreign Political I issues, European Union and Turkey, Turkey and Middle East. She is a founding member of Turkish-Greek women's Peace Initiative, and has worked for women's liberation initiatives. Tınç received the Turkish Journalists Association Press Freedom Award in 2012.
SEEMO. How you see the media situation in Turkey today?
Ferai Tınç: Freedom of the press in Turkey is not an issue any more. It does not exist. Even if there are opposition newspapers, they are under strong pressure. The journalists and media outlets are facing drastic legal penalties. A large amount of mainstream media has changed hands, and most of them were bought by investors who are under the government control. The rest face political pressure.
A year ago Turkey was on top of the list of countries which have had largest number of journalists in prison. But because the government gave priority to fight against the Gulenist movement and negotiates with Kurdish PKK, secularist journalists as well pro-PKK Kurdish journalists who were imprisoned were released. Now pro-Gulenist media is under attack. But it is certainly not only them. All journalists are under scrutiny. They are sued because of what they write in their tweets. We face internet bans very often. It is ten years now that the Turkish press has been under pressure. Self-censorship throughout the years caused the loss of journalistic reflections, eroding the quality of Turkish journalism.
SEEMO. If you look back in the past 40 years - as you are a journalist with long experience - was there a period in Turkey when it was possible to work free and independent as a journalist?
Ferai Tınç: In Turkey we never enjoyed a real freedom of the press. The mainstream media, opposition newspapers or television channels included, all shared the same limited press freedom. But the critical approach to the government was never as dangerous as it is today. Then press freedom was more problematic for Kurdish and leftist media outlets.
SEEMO: How strong is the influence of politics and the state on the media in Turkey today?
Ferai Tınç: As I said, today the party in power controls and shapes the media. They have so-called journalists that function as the government's mouthpieces. And they act together in political lynching campaigns against this or that journalist who the government targets.
SEEMO: What are the main safety issues facing journalists in Turkey?
Ferai Tınç: Journalists lost their trade unions years before this government. A media mogul in the 80s bought most of the influential mainstream newspapers and forced the journalists to leave trade unions. The safety of journalists is not secured by their media outlets. There are journalists sent to war scenes even without adequate money or helmets for protection.
SEEMO: Did you personally experience pressure during your work as journalist?
Ferai Tınç: When you work in a climate where press freedom is under pressure, you feel already limited. When your colleagues go to prison, when your boss is rebuked by the prime minister, when press freedom can be legally violated, every journalist feel the risk. But personally I also faced interventions on the editorial level, and indirect serious pressures throughout my career.
SEEMO: Why we do not have solidarity between media and journalists in Turkey?
Ferai Tınç: Solidarity is a social feeling. It is more difficult when people feel hopeless. But this is not endless, it changes.
SEEMO: Why did you choose to retire from journalism?
Ferai Tınç: When I realised that I could not exercise my profession properly, and felt that self-censorship was thickening around me, I decided to retire. It was a sudden and very painful decision for me to make. After retirement I continue on working for press freedom on a voluntary basis, and to work on a book.