Supported by OSCE Mission in Kosovo, August 17th’s DokuTalk panel discussion focused on the critical state of media in the Balkans, which turned into an in-depth analysis of investigative journalism, its challenges and threats, as well as its dynamics to the audience and other social bodies. DokuFest had the pleasure to welcome Petrit Sarachini who also moderated the talk, Marija Ristić, Saranda Ramaj, Milan Antonijević, and Lindita Tahiri.

The discussion’s theme was motivated by the current global situation, which more than ever has witnessed the complicated relationship existing between information and social media. Starting from the importance of receiving the correct information, Petrit Sarachini’s main concern is for independent journalism to extend the impact of its work thus appropriately serving the public opinion, as opposed to the content produced by propaganda media that is used to distort the truth and serve specific centers of power. He precisely addressed the problem of clientelism in media, as one of the main factors that are modifying the media landscape, therefore making it difficult to survive as a professional. Knowing that this situation could only benefit the propaganda, it is the culture of impunity that eventually takes its roots from this handicapped fight for corruption and social justice.

Calling out on social polarization, Petrit Sarachini directs the panel’s attention towards the role- reversal between professionals of the field, and those who just want to ignite discussion without taking interest on fact-checking and writing filters, including writing with correct grammar. To Sarachini’s perspective, there are a few steps that, if followed, might lead to enjoyable consequences: starting from the education system, a solidarity network between journalists and newsrooms should be built, following alliances with civil society organizations and constant advocating against the current political setting, the culture of impunity that has taken place, as well as the work of institutions and public bodies.

Marija Ristić’s take on the matter is that, first and foremost, there exists a hostile environment in the Balkans, not only for independent media but also for critical thinking. According to her, despite the obstacles and frustration that comes with it, social media is the only free space for investigative journalism. This is conditioned by the difficulty to access sources, growing bigger every day, while there is work being done to create distrust in the media (in Serbia, journalists are being called “traitors” and “spies”). However, the impact of one’s investigative work does not depend only on the media, the next step should be taken from the concerned authorities (such as prosecution or the police, depending on the case). Rule of law, Ristić states, not journalism, is in crisis. In Western Balkans, publishing articles from investigative journalists causes frustration more than actual action (which is the opposite behavior in Western Europe, for example), thus making it difficult to even speak about impact. One possible exit from this situation would be for journalists to rethink what is considered as impact, and also to focus on the main audience and how to reach that audience. There is an urgent need to get back to the communities, to reach them “offline”, which could be perceived as a new way forward in captured societies.

To Milan Antonijević, social media, however safe it is, does not help in wanting to reach more audience than the people who are already following online. Thus, Milan reaffirms that there is a need to expand to offline communities while simultaneously working in regaining the audience’s trust, as well as insisting on those who are responsible for particular situations (state, security apparatus). The offspring of this discussion, he says, should be to work on how journalists can support each other; and also trusting other parts of society, such as civil society organizations, knowing that the intentions of both parties are similar.

Lindita Tahiri’s keenness on media literacy could be resumed in the one rule she always mentions to her students: “Always take 20 seconds to fact-check, and stay skeptical”. New media, the professor says, is creating a global mentality, but the problem with investigative journalism (as she calls it, “an endangered species in Kosovo”), is that it does not call for long-term actions. The only way for the audience to get influenced by media is if the decision-making elite is willing to allow it. Hence, the only reliable effect that investigative journalism could have is as catharsis for the public, which can also be dangerous, precisely because it does not call for action.

Saranda Ramaj brings to everyone’s attention that yellow journalism is gradually taking investigative journalism’s place. One of the reasons is because it peacefully exists with the justice system, whereas the relations between investigation and justice is always antagonistic. While online publications are shifting the attention to less important issues, financial instability and the lack of journalism profiling are directly damaging the conditions of existence for quality journalism.

The turn of the discussion redirected Petrit’s attention to the basics, therefore he questions how, in times of pandemic, the quality of media could be prioritized over the means of survival.

Ristić’s idea is that the citizens are being blamed too much. If stories matter to people, they impact them. The question should be raised on how to read the audience, she says. If poor trust is linked with poor media literacy, it is because it has not been paid attention to media literacy.

Antonijević sees the pandemic through an optimistic lens, considering that it has clarified the understanding between ties connecting to human lives, true information, and fake news. However problematic, social media could be seen as a reliable medium to initiate discussion and downsize fake news.

It is important to choose the representatives, says Tahiri. Comparing quality and means of survival cannot be done, since poverty is not the cause of the situation, but literacy is. The only solution that could help find a way out of the current crisis, is to use intellectual power to make life better. If before it was enough to know how to read and write, while nowadays the understanding of functional illiteracy is crucial. Education is the best tool to not blindly trust the media, and instead, get the habit of asking questions.

Ramaj suggests that there needs to be a review of how journalistic work is being done. The citizens are sensitive to the content that touches them directly, however, the attention is always given to politicians and their daily activities. If social subjects were to be reported first in order, she says, there could be a shift in the audience’s conception of what matters and what does not. Besides information, journalism could be used to raise social awareness.

At the end of the discussion, Petrit Sarachini repeats the necessary steps to survive the current state of crises: education and better cooperation of the media, CSOs, public institutions. DokuFest’s Eroll Bilibani sees the cooperation as the needed way to not succumb to hate speech as the norm, whereas OSCE Mission in Kosovo’s Kaltrina Hoxha puts the emphasis on media education; teaching news consumers on how to be critical thinkers.

This panel discussion was part of DokuFest’s extended online program, which includes special film programs, panels, and music performances. It is up for viewing here.

By Enxhi Noni