During XII South East Europe Media ForuM (SEEMF) 2018 in Tirana, Albania, our discussions were about key issues, such as: the business of news; influences of propaganda on media business; sustainability and credibility of media outlets; media ownership and transparency. A special session was devoted to media and politics in Albania.

SEEMF 2018 took place in hotel Tirana International on 15th and 16th November 2018.

SEEMF as the biggest annual media conference in South East anc Central Europe brought more than 300 journalists, media owners, publishers, politicians and NGO representatives to Albania.

The event was organised in cooperation between Central European Initiative (CEI) from Trieste, the German KAS Media Programme South East Europe and South East European Media Organisation (SEEMO), as also in partnership with South East and Central Europe PR Organisation (SECEPRO) in Vienna, International Institute – International Media Center (II-IMC) in Vienna, Albanian Media Institute in Tirana and International Academy in Belgrade.

Traditionally SEEMF is opened by the president or prime minister of the host country. A welcome address was delivered by Albanian President Ilir Meta. He underlined in his speech the meaning of an independent press, especially in times when press freedom also declines inside the European Union. “Politics won’t take the freedom of the press,” promised Meta during his speech. Afterwards he answered various questions by national and international media representatives.

The participants welcomed warmly Oliver Vujovic, SEEMO Secretary General, Hendrik Sittig, Head of the KAS Media Programme South East Europe, Walter Glos, Head of the KAS country office Albania and Ilir Melo, CEI coordinator for Albania and the Director for the Region and Neighbouring Countries at the Albanian Foreign Ministry.

“The main aim of the forum is bringing together people from different countries, with different backgrounds and help them to face common difficulties and challenges, offering networking opportunities for discussing about relevant media issues”, explained Oliver Vujovic, SEEMO Secretary General. He also emphasised that “for SEEMO the partnership with the CEI and KAS is very important”.

Ilir Melo stressed the importance of the forum for the promotion of pluralistic media and quality journalism. He underlining that cooperation in the field of media remains a priority for the CEI, as highlighted in the Plan of Action 2018-2020, with a focus on promoting media pluralism, transparency and independence as well as enhancing quality journalism.

Concerning the media situation in the South East Europe region, Hendrik Sittig from KAS said: “Journalists need to be aware of their role, their task in a democracy as watchdog over the situation in the society.” He also expressed the challenges which the media sector has to face.

During the first evening SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic moderated a discussion on the relationship between media and politics in Albania. Lutfi Dervishi, from the Albanian public broadcaster RTSH, explained that there is a lack of critical and investigative journalism, fact-checking as well as solidarity among the journalists. Aleksander Cipa, President of the Union of Albanian Journalists, referred to the fact that many journalists in Albania are working without an employment contract and unfortunately they also wouldn’t work in a collective, to change the situation. Jonila Godole, Director of the Institute for Democracy, Media and Culture in Tirana, spoke about the changes in the Albanian media market in the last 25 years. Klodiana Lala, journalist at News 24 TV, reported that unknown perpetrators had fired at her family home after her investigations.

In spite of this attempt at intimidation, where fortunately nobody was hurt, she is assured to continue her journalistic work. Furthermore, Lala criticised that journalism is being destroyed by self-censorship. Ilva Tare, News Director at Euronews Albania, criticised that mainstream media only report about politicians and do not talk anymore with the “normal” citizens. Alfred Lela, Founder of the online news portal “Politiko.al“, illustrated that it is not necessary for Albanian journalists to think out of the box, but it is rather important to go back to the basic rules.

During the opening event the annual “CEI-SEEMO Award for Outstanding Merits in Investigative Journalism” was awarded. The 2018 winners were Stevan Dojčinović and Dragana Pećo from the Serbian investigative journalism centre KRIK for their contribution to the investigative journalism in Serbia and for the impact of their courageous stories on the society in one very challenging environment. Nino Bilajac from the Center for Investigative Journalism in Sarajevo (CIN) won the award in the category “Young Journalist“ for his report on financial misuse in public procurement and public funds.

The second day started with a panel on „Power in our pockets: the business of news – What to do to ensure independent reporting?“ Lars Radau, freelance journalist at the German newspaper der Sächsische Zeitung, moderated the discussion. “Many newsportals are financially dependent on international donors,“ explained Goran Mihajlovski, Founder of the Macedonian online news portal “SDK web”. This is the consequence of the retraction of many publishing houses like the WAZ media group from the South East European market. His news portal for example was only financed 10 percent by advertisements; the rest came from international donors, he said. Boro Kontić, Director of the Media Centar Sarajevo, noticed that the competition on the media market is fierce because everybody can publish news on the internet nowadays. Nataliya Gumenyuk, Founder and Head of Hromadske TV from Ukraine, said that it is important for journalists not only to know their craft, but also to understand how to run a company. They have to explain donors and audiences good journalism in order to protect their brand. Adelheid Feilcke, Head of the Department Europe at Deutsche Welle, explained that for independent reporting the internal structures are important. Thus, it needs a diverse board and a legal department to act when mistakes are made. “Pluralism secures independence. More voices build the truth,” said Francesco de Filippo from the Italian news agency. Sabina Castelfranco, Italian correspondent for CBS News, said that future lies in the digital market as the youth is getting the news from there. Moreover, she underlined the importance of control mechanisms. For example, CBS news never publishes an article before at least two sources were quoted and two editors have edited the text.

Ognian Zlatev, Head of the Representation of the European Commission in Bulgaria, held a keynote on the importance of an independent media landscape. “Only then progress in the Balkan countries is achievable,” he said.

The second panel was about the influence of disinformation on media companies and journalists. The session was moderated by Christian Mihr, Executive Director of “Reporters without Borders“ in Germany. Eric Chamberland from the Think Tank NATO Stratcom CoE in Riga presented various examples on false news. He said that disinformation often was spread in the form of very credible videos. According to him nowadays it is very easy to edit video content in a very trustworthy way. The political analyst and editor of the online portal „@theEUpos“, based in Trieste and Brussels, Marco Gombacci reported about his experience in the Syrian war. He explained how disinformation and propaganda was spread through social media and how the citizens immediately believed it. Gombacci criticised the editorial offices since they often do not give journalists in war zones enough time to analyse the situation and thus mistakes in the reporting would occur. He presented also his movie from war. The Russian journalist and human rights activist Oksana Chelysheva who is living in exile in Helsinki talked about the practice of journalists writing false news. In her opinion this is happening in parts due to self-censorship among the journalists. Overcoming this issue would be a question of the political will. Alina Radu, Director of the Moldovan daily „Ziarul de Gardă“ from Chisinau, said during the discussion that rules are needed in order to punish the donors of media which are spreading disinformation . Zoran Sekulić, founder and CEO of the Serbian News Agency „Fonet“ expressed his concern that journalists who write and spread fake news could not be called journalists.

After this panel, media expert Nico Pitrelli presented the relationship between media and science. His key message was that the media should spread knowledge in order to strengthen the development of the democratic societies.

The third panel focused on the question how the influence of advertisers, investors and donors could be minimised. Stevan Dojčinović, founder and Editor-in-Chief of the investigative online portal KRIK, said that crowdfunding campaigns are working well for his portal and the readers are willing to support independent media projects. However, there are legal restrictions in Serbia which limit crowdfunding, e.g. the online payment service PayPal is illegal. Florian Nehm, Head of Corporate Sustainability and EU affairs at Ringier Axel Springer Media, appealed that also advertisers need to take responsibility for which media and content they pay. Furthermore, he said that he supports more media pluralism in South East Europe and welcomes the work of investigative journalists in the region. Silvio Pedrazzi, CEO of Intesa Sanpaolo Bank Albania and Board Member of the Foreign Investors Association Albania (FIAA) in Tirana, said that as a bank there are three types of cooperation with media: as advertiser, in direct communication and as loan provider. However, he also remarked that from an ethical point of view it is not advised to give loans to media, due to independence reasons. Elena Popović, General Counsel at the Media Development Investment Fund in New York, explained her work and reported about the requirements for investments in media projects. One possibility for more transparency she sees in the regulation of the media market. Moreover, Popović gave examples for independent media companies and their business models. Klaus Schweighofer from Austria, Chairman of the Management Board of Styria Media International based in Graz, was convinced that it is possible to earn money with good digital content, and to secure the own existence and independent reporting. “Content which comes from advertisers should not be excluded, however it must be labelled as such,“ said Schweighofer. The PR-expert Samra Lučkin from Boram in Sarajevo moderated the discussion.

During a new panel Katerina Sinadinovska, President of the Council of Media Ethics Macedonia, criticised that media ownership is unknown in many South East European countries. Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin, Researcher at the Peace Institute in Ljubljana, added that non-transparent media ownership structures are a danger for the public opinion building. According to Željko Ivanović, CEO of the Montenegrin daily “Vijesti”, political elites in South East Europe do not have an interest in independent media. He told the example of Finland. The media situation is better there because politics supports media and sees journalists as watchdogs of democracy. Besar Likmeta, Editor-in-Chief of the “Balkan Investigative Reporting Network“ (BIRN) in Albania, said about the media situation that a lot of people were trying to address the problem, but only few would be heard by political actors. In his opinion, the legal framework and its implementation need improvement in order to achieve progress. Ricardo Gutierrez, Secretary General of the European Journalism Association in Brussels, moderated the panel.

In the end the organisers Barbara Fabro, Hendrik Sittig and Oliver Vujovic announced that the next South East Europe Media Forum will take place in Zagreb in autumn 2019.