Episode 21

Is There Such a thing as Independent Media in the Western Balkans

Published on: 10th September, 2023

In this episode of we're delving into a topic that holds immense significance in the region: independent media in the Balkans. Joining me to discuss this is seasoned journalist, media analyst, and Balkans expert, Bojan Stojkovski.

Bojan and I embark on a thought-provoking journey through the complex landscape of media independence in the Balkans. We delve deep into the challenges, triumphs, and unique circumstances that shape the media environment in this diverse and historically rich region.

Bojan, who has spent years closely observing and reporting on media trends, begins by shedding light on the historical context that has contributed to the media landscape we see today. From the remnants of state-controlled media during the era of communism to the struggles faced during the Yugoslav Wars, Bojan paints a vivid picture of how the Balkan media sphere has evolved over the years.

But what truly captures our attention is the exploration of independent media outlets that have emerged against all odds. Bojan shares inspiring stories of journalists, citizen reporters, and brave individuals who have defied challenges like censorship, political pressures, and economic instability to create platforms that voice the realities of their communities. We discuss how these outlets have tackled sensitive topics, bridging ethnic and cultural divides through their work.

As we navigate through this conversation, we analyse the current state of independent media. Bojan brings to light the delicate balance between being truly independent and the financial constraints that often dictate the narratives. We discuss the dichotomy between traditional forms of media and the digital revolution, exploring whether the latter has truly democratised information or if it's just a new battleground for influence.

Of course, no discussion about media independence is complete without addressing the role of social media in the Balkans. Bojan shares intriguing insights into how platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have become both catalysts for change and breeding grounds for misinformation. We delve into the phenomenon of echo chambers and how they impact public opinion, drawing parallels to similar trends on a global scale.

Bojan also takes a moment to analyse the influence of foreign media in the region. We discuss the potential pros and cons of international media outlets' involvement in Balkan affairs, examining how they might contribute to a diverse media landscape or inadvertently amplify certain biases.

But it's not all challenges and complexities. Bojan leaves us with stories of hope and innovation that demonstrate the resilience of Balkan journalists. From collaborative cross-border investigations to grassroots initiatives that empower local voices, we gain a glimpse into the bright spots that remind us of the potential for positive change.

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It's an Englishman in the Balkans podcast. In the 10 years that this podcast has been going, I've been talking about what I would say and I have no disrespect to this, the fluffy things of the Balkans. In other words, speaking to people, we're looking at positive stories and trying to encourage as many people to find out more about this region, but more importantly to come and visit this region so they can experience it and get a better grasp of it. But like everything else in life,


Not everything is fluffy. Not everything is rosy. Not everything is good and positive. There's negativity all over the place. And so I'm starting the occasional episode now where we're going to talk about things like that. And today I'd like to ask some questions. I think I know the answers already, but who am I? I've got an expert today and we're going to find out about independent media in the Balkans. Now, as a backgrounder.


I was talking on a course in Skopje in North Macedonia and I came across somebody who I've kept in contact with since. He's a freelance journalist. I think he's still a freelance journalist. He's been involved in a lot of different sorts of investigations and reporting about independent media in the region where he comes from and in particular his own home country. He has a project going with another good friend of mine.


That's the full transparency. We're talking today to Bojan Stojkovski, as I say, at the moment, joining us from Skopje in North Macedonia, Bojan, if you followed the podcast and people say that they've got used to this introduction, I could read your bio, but it would never do it as much justice as you. So who is, this is the first question, who is Bojan Stojkovski? Thank you, David, for this intro. So.


Yeah, like I said, I can give a short introduction to what I'm currently doing and what I have been doing for the past decade. So yeah, as you said, I'm a freelance journalist. I'm based here in Scotland, Macedonia. Nowadays, mostly I'm reporting about technology. So before I was more focused on foreign policy, on business in the Balkans, but like now, since the past few years, I am.


mostly covering this tech topics about startups, about the ecosystems from the whole region. Let's say if you talk about tech media, it is a part of independent media that we have here, the Balkans. But I can get into more details during the interview as far as the rest of the things that I have been doing. So I'm also working with BIRN, the Balkan Investigative Reporting


It's also, this is one web portal that is covering the whole region. We are reporting in English there and it is also a kind of independent media that is trying to raise issues on topics that, as you said, are not as fluffy and topics that are also relevant for most of the countries in the Balkan region. How does the historical and the political and the social...


how can I say, ecosystems within the Western Balkans impact the establishment of independent media here. I think I live in, you might disagree, but I think I live in the most dysfunctional of the countries of the former Yugoslavia in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And you cannot divorce the history, the politics, or the social culture from anything. And what is the real impact of


on independent media, if at all there is such a thing as independent media here in the region? Yeah, from my experience, when you work for local media, most of the media here, yes, they will proclaim that they are independent, but it's really rarely the case because the political context is very strong here. So most media do depend on the support they are getting


political parties or political sides or their owners that are businessmen, but they have some corrections with politics. This is most of the time, this is the case and there is basically no way around it. I mean, you might start to want to investigate and write some stories that are, let's say that want to have an impact on uncovering these issues.


societal issues or different issues, economic issues in the countries, but then you will most likely stumble upon this block because those issues are either affecting or have a certain type of influence coming from these large political structures. Yeah, I would say that there isn't really independent media. When you talk about, when we talk mostly about local media, that is...


established in different countries here, I think that there isn't any really strong independent media that is going around. The context here is politics. Fortunately, politics gets into everything. We all hear that corruption and all of those issues, but yeah, it's really true. The same goes for media as well. I think over the years, media has become a part of this whole political structure.


is often used by the politicians and the parties to achieve their own goals. Yeah, I would say that there isn't really an independent media when you compare it to the Western countries or some other place. When these, when journalists get trained in university, I'm assuming, and I know you should never assume because it makes an asset of you and me, but let me just assume for the minute that when somebody is learning their craft at university, at faculty,


Most will have this dream of being an independent reporter, doing some good for their society. But when they leave that formal training for their first job, it must be a completely different vision in front of them from what they had dreamt of. What challenges do journalists these days face if at all they try to maintain any form of independence? So in other words, any form of criticism of what


politicians wish to tolerate. So what are their challenges today? Yeah. As you said, this was also true, like when I was beginning my career in local media, I had this ambition that you could really cover these issues that are important for the country, for the citizens, but yeah, then again, you will stumble sooner or later with these obstacles and at the moment, I would say that


The landscape is changing a bit. So now young people don't really want to become journalists anymore. So this is, I think, one major issue that is affecting the whole profession. Because if there isn't anyone that is willing to do the reporting, then so what can you count on? I mean, the older generations are here, but you can't really count on them to support the whole system. The profession is also.


In most of the countries, I think from the region isn't very well paid. So this is another obstacle that most journalists are facing. And I had lots of friends throughout my career that started with me. We went on the same faculty. We started in local media, but most of them, they changed their professions over time. But as far as the reporting part goes, yeah.


you encounter different types of issues. If you're reporting on something which is sensitive, then there is no way that you would get access to all of the information that you're after. I believe that also people are afraid even to report on some topics because they are scared of the backlash that they're going to get. Because of this, many people now have also lost their


when they tried to report on something that didn't suit either their owners of the media that they were working in or different types of structures that are behind these media. Yeah, these are some of the issues, but I think the biggest one is definitely that there is also, if you're trying to start your own independent media, then there is definitely the lack of funding. So it's not so easy.


To get financing, it's not so easy to get support if you're trying to go through organizations or companies within the countries. The best way I think that you could get this type of support is maybe from international NGOs that are supportive of this cause of independent journalism. And this is the best way. But then again, most countries here aren't a part of the EU, so it also makes it very difficult.


to get access to that bigger type of funding. And you just have to rely on whatever you can find. It seems a pretty depressing sort of environment for journalists at the moment in the region. In fact, yeah, it is. I speak to the occasional journalist here in Bosnia, Herzegovina, and they've now got to the point, and I'd like you to react to this in just a second. It's come to the point where I've never been brave enough, courageous enough to say to them.


I don't want to insult them because I think at least they're trying. But they're in a stage of self-censorship now. They don't have to be told what to do. They just refuse to do it in the first place. Two parts to the next question, Bojan. One is how bad is self-censorship becoming in the region? And secondly, at the other end, 180 degrees away from that, are there?


any instances that you particularly know of that we could class as successful independent media projects? Yeah. When talking about self-censorship, definitely this is the issue. And I believe that you can find it elsewhere around the region as well. Serbia, for example, have lots of colleagues there. It's unimaginable there.


think of some topic that goes against the government there. So I think that we also have this issue here. Think now maybe not so much as it was the case before with the previous government. So I think that the level of freedom is a bit bigger now, but still it isn't at that level that we are aspiring to do as a part of the EU.


countries that want to join the EU, because there are certain standards that we have to achieve in order to do this. But it is becoming. It's not only becoming, but it has been a big issue, I think, during the past decade. And yeah, almost every journalist, I think, in the region has this type of self-centred


When you even think about it, you just know that it's only possible to go there to investigate that type of stories. And so as for the second part of your question, I believe, yeah, that's one project that I'm doing now. It's with my Bulgarian colleagues and also Romanian colleagues. So we are reporting on technology and innovation in the region. We are an independent media. We are here. I think I have seen lots of progress because.


I'm just guessing that tech is this different sphere that doesn't come under this political influences so here you cannot manipulate the tech industry with this type of interests, political and other type of spheres. So I believe that yes, it is possible. Like on some, let's say, different subjects, yes.


is definitely possible to go there to do your investigations, do your reporting. And you can actually see the positive outcome of it, the positive change that this is bringing. With tech, we have seen lots of companies, lots of startups evolving in the region. We recently also had a success story from Bosnia as well. This is this startup called Rolla. It's a fitness app.


raised quite a bit of money. It was supported also from other investors across the region. So yes, I believe that these types of stories can have an impact and can give some type of hope for the rest in the whole region. I know I heard about the fitness app from Bosnia Herzegovina and somebody also told me that Croatia is about to explode as far as becoming a leader in the regional tech industry.


Digital platforms and the technology that goes with it, it seems to me is harder for governments to control. A TV station or a radio station, you can drive your car, you can take your police, you can shut it down. But with tech now, with servers being established in countries outside where that target audience or that tribe of interest is, that is not so easy. So


Do you think, and now with your digital reporter hat on, do you think digital and technology could be the savior, maybe not today, but in the future for independent journalism and independent media? Yeah, certainly. I believe in this. That's why I'm a part of this project here. And we're just trying to do this type of, let's say, to have this type of impact.


on the local media market. We can also see that how others are reacting. And yeah, this type of reporting, I believe that it can make a change. But only this can only be done if you also have journalists that are willing to support this cause to learn about this type of reporting, about this type of different methods and techniques that are being used. And


Yes, I have to admit that not a lot of people that I've known are really like open to learning. So this is also one of the issues here. If you're talking about journalism, like most people tend to just follow the basics. They don't really want to go beyond it. But if we can maybe adopt this mindset and see what the rest of the world is doing when it comes to digital reporting, you have this.


all of the different formats, different ways of reaching your audience and different ways of making an impact. Yes. I believe that it can become the severe, not only here in the Balkans, but on a global level as well. This rolls nicely into the next thing I want to chat to you about is media literacy. From my experience in this one country.


in the middle of the region. It disappoints me so much how many people, how many normal people no longer, I don't know whether they ever did, Bojan, but it seems to me they no longer question anything. They'll watch, and I'm going to name it today, they watch happy TV from Serbia, which causes me to want to put my head in the oven and commit suicide. I cannot believe.


that anybody can watch a TV station with journalists, so-called journalists, offering up TikTok clips as fundamental balanced reporting of a story and then sit there in a studio and have the audacity to back up things that are clearly untrue. For example, yet showing something.


that was supposed to be happening in the Ukraine, a military thing. And I said, no, that's over 50 years old. That's from the Vietnam war. Those soldiers are American soldiers. And yet when you discuss that with people that I know, they say, no, it's because you're Western, David. You don't see the truth. We know the truth. So the level of media literacy, I have to say is appalling. Um, how can we address that?


Is it at all possible to get some sort of, I don't know, some sort of mindset back into normal people that question things, otherwise fake, disinformation, misinformation ruins the whole thing, doesn't it? What's the point of having news if it's never going to be true? Exactly. Yeah, yeah. I think there was also this case with this Happy. I remember they used the video clip for one game, I think it was, and they said, oh, this is happening in Ukraine. It was so funny.


But yeah, like people didn't really catch up on it. And I'm amazed also, we have also seen like examples here. You can also see it on social media networks on different platforms. Yeah, like people just, they don't even question the source where this comes from. They will just click it. They will read, they will share it and the image is already done. But yeah, here the parts is also like.


I would put a part of this blame on journalists as well because oftentimes it happens even they don't check their sources so they will publish something that is utterly disinformation or fake news, difficult, viral and yeah, you have an issue here. So media literacy, I think definitely like people, journalists, especially if you're


professional you really need to up your game, especially seeing how this information is basically spreading everywhere. You have it not only on the news but as you said on different TV shows, on debates. It's trying to affect our lives even more and more, goes even deeper on every level. I would say media literacy.


And as I mentioned before, I think that each of us, we need to constantly upgrade our knowledge, our skills to be able to detect this type of disinformation that is coming to us. And you always have for myself, it has happened. I've always had like different sources reaching out to me.


And you always need to double check their stories, their background, what are their interests over this. Because often it also happens like this, an ordinary source will try to somehow give you this information, they will try to present it as a credible story or credible, with credible data, with credible info. But you always need to check.


too sure. From the technology aspect, I would say that also now with AI and with these deep peaks and all of that technology, it even makes it even more confusing. The advice that I would give is that, yes, you always need to double check or even triple check your sources, the information that you're getting. And this is the only way to stop this information from spreading even more and more.


Do you think it would be beneficial to teach this skill in normal schools, in a normal school curriculum? When I was a young man, and this is decades ago, I always believed back then, and I know that Britain is hardly to be held up as the shining example, but we always had journalists that would do that checking for us. It was assumed. It was a given.


Now that no longer happens, maybe one of the answers is to teach it in schools. I know that some young people that I've been in contact will turn around and say, oh, what I just saw on TikTok was fake. It's wrong. And when I've said, how do you know that? And then they go through this wonderful explanation of how they've self-checked online. So young people are not stupid. I think they really do know, not what their mothers and fathers or grandfathers know.


but they're starting to check it out themselves. I'm wondering whether we should just leave young people to do that on their own and hope, or maybe for that to be taught in schools. Do you think a silly idea like that might actually work? I think so, yeah. Like I said, this type of skill is beginning to become a necessity, so yeah, yeah, definitely. It can become a part of the educational process and especially if...


for this region, I think that yes, this is very much needed. And it would give the effects that can become pretty important in the long run. Because as you said, you can not rely on journalists anymore. It's becoming very much clear that you cannot become dependent on journalists anymore to do this checking for you. So this would mean that you're creating.


all new generation that are able to have this type of skill to tell what is true from false. And it can have a big impact on the countries. Finally, Bojan, earlier on, you made mention of the fact that to do anything involving independent media, you have to be away from government interference, if at all possible.


and governments normally control the money side of things to go to local sponsors or to local supporters. I've always been a firm believer from my experiences in the region that the best people to sort the region out are the people from their region themselves. Sometimes the interference of foreign governments and foreign NGOs can sometimes do more harm than good. Would you say now is not the time?


the international community to quit and maybe for more money, more resources, in other words, hardware, training and salary support, life support, if I can use that phrase. It's too early, I think, for the international community to go. How important is that support, in your view, and how can people express that support in such a way that


Local governments can't say, here they go again, it's the English getting involved, or here it goes again, it's the Americans sticking their fingers in. How do you think we could possibly solve that dilemma? Yeah, I totally agree that this type of support is very much needed. Personally, I have had this training with Reuters and with different news outlets, global news outlets that have helped me throughout my career. So I have learned.


so much about, let's say, digital journalism, new type of technology that are used in the profession and basically other courses that I am using now in my work thing. So it is quite beneficial. If there wasn't that type of support, yeah, I can only imagine. If you just stayed on this...


local media level and you're just following the advices from the professionals that are working here. Sometimes these advices were good, but I think that most of the time, no, much of the things that is being taught here, it's pretty much outdated. This doesn't change. The curricula also doesn't really change whether you're talking about companies or institutional organizations


The support from international organizations is indeed critical to sustain or no, to sustain no but to create this new level of independent media that will properly function and that can really address the issue that we talked about before. On the other hand, yeah, nowadays, I mean, you can also see this with...


war in Ukraine, people are really starting to react more and more like, oh, the international community is doing this, the international community is doing that. And this is how they basically justify what Russia is doing in Ukraine, which is crazy from the perspective that what all of these countries have been through the past years and everything that has happened. But the way to go ahead and...


to go into the future is just to try to make the most out of this support. If you are really willing to learn and to adopt these type of skills and that you can later on implement them in your profession, in your reporting, in your life as a journalist, I believe yes, then it is possible to make the best out of it. How do you see the future then? You've gone through all this.


You've battled your way through. You've found, you've trained yourself. You are very well respected in what you're doing. What advice would you give to any young person, whether that is somebody who is watching or listening to this from the region, or even somebody outside the region that wanted to be a journalist. What advice would you give them? Would you just say maybe I wouldn't bother?


you're never going to do it or is it, yeah, get stuck in and, but it's going to be hard. What sort of tips would you give a young girl or boy that is thinking, yeah, I want to do this? Yeah, definitely. I love my profession. I really, yeah, I can work hard up until now and I will continue to do that. That's the key from everything that I have been through. And I can say that's.


You have to work hard, there isn't any way around it and you have to constantly learn. So upgrade yourself, learn different skills, learn about different skills, different industries. The main mistake that I think that most journalists in the region nowadays are doing it, they're just focused on one area like foreign policy or politics or...


those types of topics, but if you just broaden your horizon a bit, if you're willing to learn more, to go into different fields, this will all prove very much useful for yourself. You will learn a lot, you will meet a lot of contacts and it will result in you pursuing those story and topics that you want to. And thanks a lot for giving me the time today.


and your excellent overview of the media landscape in the region. I still, after all these decades being here, I still think we can get out of this dark tunnel into the light. But I think it's going to take a bit longer than what I initially thought when I first arrived. Well, thanks very much indeed and good luck with doing the tech and digital reporting. I'm following you on Instagram. I try and follow you.


wherever, and I think what you're doing is absolutely superb. So thanks for joining us on the podcast today. Thank you. Thank you, David. Once again, my pleasure to be able to share all of my insights and thanks again for covering these topics and diving into like you said, not as fluffy things in the Balkans and I agree with you. Maybe we thought that it would take a while, but no, it's definitely going to take longer to be there to get.


It's get out of the tunnel and just see the light that is out there.

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An Englishman in the Balkans
Find out more about Bosnia and Herzegovina
Encouraging people to find out more about Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"Welcome to "An Englishman in the Balkans" podcast, hosted by David Pejčinović-Bailey.
In this podcast, you'll get a unique look at life in Bosnia and Herzegovina through the eyes of an immigrant. Each episode, David shares his experiences living in this often misunderstood country, and introduces you to some of the interesting people he's met along the way.
From exploring the rich culture and history, to discussing the challenges and joys of immigrating to a new country, this podcast offers a thoughtful and engaging look at life in the Balkans.
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David Pejčinović-Bailey

I am a podcaster, living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and sharing my experiences of living in this often misunderstood country.