Al Jazeera Balkans is an island of media professionalism in the region; building bridges between peoples, fostering a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation, and challenging the ‘Us’ and ‘Others’ narrative of many public broadcasters.
By Dusan Babic
“Al jazeera” in Arabic means “the island”; an abbreviation of the Arabic name for the Arabian peninsula. In addition, the name refers to a television network established in 1996 with a generous grant from the Emir of Qatar. Its headquarters is located in Doha, the capital of a small but oil-rich country. From its very beginning, Al Jazeera was the most watched television network broadcast in Arabic – rivalling even the BBC and CNN – with a viewership estimated at one hundred million, stretching from Morocco to the Persian Gulf. Al Jazeera revolutionized television news coverage across the Arab world.
Despite some controversies over its reporting, Al Jazeera is playing an important role in awakening the Arab political mind and in shaping a vivid and vital political debate in the region. It is already recognized for opening the door to democracy and free speech in the Arab world, whilst banishing the monopoly held by Arab governments on television news. Its decision made to open its bureaus in Israel was a shock to many. What is most important, however, is that Arabic audiences were finally able to get reliable and independent information from an Arab rather than a Western – and usually biased and misleading – perspective.
Al Jazeera’s specific style of media coverage led to conflicts with many foreign governments, in particular the United States; mostly over reporting from Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. This trend significantly changed following its reporting of the Arab Spring.
In 2005, Al Jazeera English was launched; quickly attracting Western audiences across the globe. Currently, two billion people watch Al Jazeera.
In November 2011, Al Jazeera Balkans started broadcasting in South Slavic languages; aimed at a potential viewership of over 20 million people, plus diaspora scattered all around the world. Preparatory works for launching Al Jazeera Balkans were accompanied by much, often nasty, speculation in the media, such as – why choose Sarajevo as the seat of the network, given that it is today a predominantly Muslim city?
Goran Milic, Al Jazeera Balkans’ program director, has offered a very simple explanation; “first, it had nothing to do with politics, but with cost benefit reasons. Namely, renting premises is much cheaper in Sarajevo when compared to Belgrade or Zagreb. Second, Sarajevo is geographically the center of the Balkans.”
Besides, I would add, an aura of Yutel was still alive. Mr. Milic did not say it, but he certainly meant it too.To remind, Yutel was a desperate move – more precisely, a project initiated by Ante Markovic, the last prime minister of Yugoslavia – to launch a pan-Yugoslav flagship news (TV Dnevnik) in 1991, broadcast from Sarajevo, which aimed to prevent the country from collapse. Mr. Milic was – in tandem with Gordana Susa – its editor-in-chief. Despite their expressed enthusiasm and proved skilfulness, they did not manage to preserve this short lasting media project.
Although an integral part of the Al Jazeera network, Al Jazeera Balkans enjoys full managerial autonomy and editorial independence. Such a position implies huge joint technical resources, including to broadcast reports from London, Melbourne, Cairo, Lagos, Buenos Aires and many other world capitals, countries and regions. Besides programming in South Slavic languages, Al Jazeera Balkans is broadcasting excerpts from Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Turk and Al Jazeera Kaswahili, providing reliable translations. The same goes in the opposite directions – Al Jazeera Balkans offers its programs to sister companies operating in the aforementioned languages. That is what is known as a media synergy. Potentially, Al Jazeera Balkans’ programs are available for 2 billion viewers across the globe.
This region – which was for years symbolized war destruction and violence – is now offered a much brighter picture by Al Jazeera Balkans. Generally speaking, Al Jazeera’s greatest advantage is its unique status and position. Formally, it is a private company, yet not dependent upon advertising and commercials. Indeed,, Al Jazeera might be regarded as a crypto-public broadcaster; but, of course, it is not.
Sarajevo-based, Mediacentar – an education and research institution, owned by the Open Society Fund of Bosnia-Herzegovina – recently organized a panel session on how to report diversity in the region. One of panelists was Goran Milic. Although in his opening remarks he did not mention Al Jazeera at all, the debate that followed was almost entirely focused on Al Jazeera Balkans and its paradigmatic programming for public broadcasting.
Obviously, Mr.Milic was unprepared to comment on it. Instead, he was trying to emphasize some basic editorial guidelines which should be respected by any media outlet striving to be professional and credible. These guidelines include truth and accuracy, fairness and accountability, impartiality and diversity of opinion, editorial integrity and independence. He only did not mention “serving the public interest” as a basic element of an authentic public broadcasting service.
Probably not by motive but by its deeds, Al Jazeera Balkans is widely regarded as a substitute for public broadcasters in the region; most of which are poorly-equipped, organized and staffed, financially weak and under strong political influence and control, which is typical of state-owned media.
In post-war periods, public broadcasting service (PBS) has a particular responsibility to provide accurate information and to foster spirit of tolerance and reconciliation; in brief, to play a role of social cohesion. This is largely missing today, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite having media laws in accordance with European media standards, public broadcasters – in particular, FTV, which operates in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but can be viewed countrywide – are disseminating biased information and using inflammatory rhetoric, and sometimes even hate speech.
The ‘Us’ and ‘Others’ matrix prevails, whilst portraying the ‘Others’ as enemies with inherently bad or evil intentions, responsible for the suffering of ‘Us’, even for centuries. Post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina is deeply-divided – both as a society and as a state itself – and the media is simply mirroring this divide.
How can things change? A first and crucial step should be to separate facts from comments. Unfortunately, this tenet of the profession does not exist; not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but in the region too. Al Jazeera Balkans, however, strongly respects it. Their news presenters cannot be or act as editors, and additionally, assigned editors cannot edit material written even by lower editorial staff. That is one of their formulas, explained Mr. Milic. Thanks to his great popularity and credibility, he managed to create a reliable team of editors, jornalists, reporters, cameramen, technicians and related staff from all parts of the former Yugoslavia. True, financial incentives should not be ignored too, bearing in mind how poorly paid journalists are.
Aside from breaking news, many interesting stories, reports or similar journalistic genres can be viewed on Al Jazeera Balkans. My attention in particular was attracted by ‘Context’; a daily magazine, always dedicated to political, social, cultural, environmental developments and many other topics, such as illegal armament, organ donor networks, national minorities, poverty, the brain drain, air pollution, climate change, hate speech via the Internet, piracy by web sites, freedom of expression, the state of print media and controversies over the movie, “In the Land of Blood and Honey”, Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut.
A responsible and accountable media should build bridges between peoples, linking them together for a common future in peace and prosperitiy. And that is what Al Jazeera Balkans is doing best. That is why I call Al Jazeera Balkans an island of media professionalism in the region.
Dusan Babic is a Sarajevo-based media researcher and analyst
This article is published as part of TransConflict’s Understanding Extremism initiative, further information about which is available by clicking here.