PressWise in the Balkans

Bulletin No 39, 9 March 2001

What happens when you bring together journalists from countries in the Balkans which were shooting at each other until recently (and in some cases still are)? That was the problem facing PressWise director Mike Jempson and freelance journalist Lotte Hughes when they conducted a three-day workshop on Reporting on Children Affected by Violence in Skopje, Macedonia, from 11-13 February.

The problem was unexpected: initial plans had been for a course confined to journalists from post-conflict Kosovo, with the venue in a neutral country for political and security reasons. In the event Jempson and Hughes found themselves facing 15 participants from Serbia and Montenegro, in addition to Kosovo. It was a delicate situation, and UNICEF officials, PressWise’s local partners, scented a potentially explosive mix. The atmosphere was not helped by the arrest and detention of a Montenegran driver en route to the conference by Serbian border guards, and a fraught passage through unstable south Serbia for both Montenegrans and Serbians.

Understandably, the course got off to a slow start, and discussion about the status of children in society was complicated by the disparate nature of the three societies and legal codes all undergoing painful transition, one under the auspices of UN administration. As the day wore on the participants became more relaxed and engaged, especially when faced with ‘newsroom’ exercises. Perhaps surprisingly, given the recent history of the area, there was little discussion of the impact of war on children and more concern about the more everyday deprivations and difficulties faced by children.

By day three the journalists were working well together grouped according to their journalistic disciplines rather than the entities they came from. Following on from Lotte Hughes’ presentation about interviewing children – based on her co-authored booklet which was distributed to all present – the various exercises, and critical evaluation of their own presentations of feature ideas, everyone contributed ideas for a Balkan code of practice for reporting on children (which does not exist within the current media codes.) Participants were very enthusiastic about implementing it – not only because it would be good for children and media, but also because, in jointly creating it, they had proved that professionalism can over-ride ethnic tensions and rivalry. Some continued to discuss their projects long into the night, which gave our team considerable satisfaction after the tensions of the first day.

Evaluations from participants revealed an extremely positive response, despite earlier misgivings about the workshop style of training and tensions within the group.

They were particularly pleased with the ‘balanced’ and practical, story-led approach to training from trainers whom they recognised as journalistic colleagues. It had helped them to consider new ways to approach and involve children in the media.

Apart from ambivalence about the long sessions on the status of children, the main complaint was that there had been insufficient time and not enough attention paid to TV. This is the most powerful form of media in the region, as the many newspapers have small circulations and distinctive ideological policies.

Perhaps the two most positive outcomes of the training were the discovery that the participants were building their own ‘cross-border’ networks, with some obtaining stringer-ships for publications they would not normally write for, and the enthusiasm for their joint code which it is to be hoped would be promulgated among colleagues once they returned home.

Talking with the participants in social settings we could not help but be impressed by the bravery and tenacity of some of our colleagues, especially the younger ones who had witnessed dreadful horrors which had affected them both personally and professionally.

In the post-Milosevic era, journalists are clearly struggling to deal with the new media climate and real or potential pluralism as more independent media organisations break free of state control. In some cases, they are in the middle of a total makeover of their newspaper/TV/radio station. While excited by these challenges, many are not equipped to deal with them. Some lack basic journalistic training which our brief training course cannot and does not pretend to provide, although we always lay stress on the first principles of journalism – checking facts and seeking balance.

Perhaps the two most positive outcomes of the training were the discovery that the participants were building their own ‘cross-border’ networks, with some obtaining stringer-ships for publications they would not normally write for, and the enthusiasm for their joint code which it is to be hoped would be promulgated among colleagues once they returned home.

Overall, a course for which we had to admit we were not as fully prepared as we might have liked turned out to be a rewarding and positive experience which gave hope that a new generation of journalists is emerging form whom both the rights and visibility of children, and concern for professional ethics will be high on their personal agendas.

The most experienced journalist present admitted that she had never really thought in detail about her responsibility for the personal consequences of her writing, while one former journalist, now a UNICEF communications officer commented: “(The course) was very useful for me too. I was so long on the other side, reporting on things. This is the first time I got this kind of training – it clarified some issues. I wish I knew these things when I was a reporter. I did learn a lot. I regret learning it too late for my journalistic career…”

Revisiting Macedonia
A PressWise team of three had run a similar course for Macedonian journalists at the same hotel in Skopje in April 2000. I took the opportunity to meet with some of them and discuss with UNICEF the impact of the earlier training.

Edmond McLoughney, Head of Office, UNICEF Skopje and Deputy Representative, UNICEF Area Office reported that UNICEF had an excellent relationship with the main media outlets, and was confident that it could always obtain a ‘good press’ which was currently being used to promote ‘The Global Movement for Children’.

Monique Thormann, UNICEF Communications Officer and Irina Ivanovska, Communications Assistant said that several of the journalists had moved on to new jobs which had taken them away from front-line journalism, but others had remained in touch. They now have an expanding contact list of reliable journalists who had formed their own networks through which a wide range of stories about children and their problems had reached the public. There had been a growth of interest in children’s participation in the media especially after a team of children had interviewed the Macedonia President on prime-time TV, in December 2000.

Lotte Hughes’ booklet has been translated for use by police and security forces who are having to deal with young people involved in crime and human trafficking, and our advice was asked about model interrogation formats which we found to be heavy-handed and crude.

Comment was passed about the fact that the trafficking of young women from the Balkans and Eastern Europe which Arjum Wajid and I had followed up on their earlier visit had now become a major issue in local and international media. One local journalist who had assisted us said that he had taken PressWise training material back to his home town and run a session for members of the local journalists union.

We also learned that the Roma families we had interviewed had now been moved from the holding centre into enclaves closer to Skopje, but their future remains uncertain.

Although instability in the region, which has heightened since we left, means that more pressing immediate problems may become the focus of journalistic activity, the particular needs of children does appear to be receiving more attention from the media professionals. However it will take a long time before we can be certain that our modest efforts have had a lasting impact.

Mike Jempson

Coming soon: 60 journalists get the PressWise treatment in Romania, 12-17 March 2001

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