Representatives of self-regulatory bodies from Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Skopje, Tirana, Pristina and Belgrade at a regional meeting held on November 20 and 21 in Belgrade, exchanged experiences on current ethical dilemmas and improvement of professional standards. This event was held with the support of the OSCE Mission to Serbia.

The meeting, among other things, assessed that there is a global trend of growing distrust in the media and that media and press councils, as guardians of journalistic ethics, play a key role in upholding journalistic standards and serve as a reminder to both the media industry and journalists that it is in the interest of society, but also of journalists themselves, to self-regulate and build trust with the audience.

It was also pointed out that regional cooperation is very important, because it can enable a collective and quick response to ethical challenges that are specific to the region of Southeast Europe.

The participants of the gathering were particularly concerned with hate speech in the media, violation of the right to the presumption of innocence, protection of privacy and private data, reporting on violence and mass crimes, as well as on particularly sensitive categories, such as women and children, but also on ethical aspects of the use of artificial intelligence in journalism.

It is estimated that hate speech, unfortunately, has become very prevalent in the region. As a rule, it is generated by politicians, and the media takes over and transmits it. However, more than through traditional media, hate speech is spread through social networks, but also through comments from readers in the media, which often do not have good mechanisms for moderation. Journalists of the media who do not favor the authorities are often exposed to hate speech, as are female journalists who are a frequent target of misogynistic comments. Representatives of self-regulatory bodies pointed out that a mechanism should be found to establish cooperation with representatives of companies that own social networks as it exists in, for example, in relation to reporting fake news, in order to enable self-regulatory bodies or media organizations to report hate speech.

Reporting on court proceedings is, according to the assessment of the participants of the gathering, problematic on several levels. In all countries of the region there are not enough, or a complete lack of journalists specializing in reporting on the judiciary. Neither journalists nor editors are sufficiently educated in this area and often violate the right to the presumption of innocence.

This phenomenon is especially contributed to by politicians, primarily representatives of the authorities, who very often pass judgement in advance (of a court ruling), usually against political dissenters, but also other suspects, find them guilty and impose penalties on them, while, on the other hand, they often protect people suspected of serious crimes. In this way, pressure is exerted on both the judiciary and the media. Some of the participants said public prosecutors would have to react whenever politicians abuse the media in this way.

Special attention was paid to the ethical challenges associated with the use of artificial intelligence, which can pose a major challenge in the future and no one at this time can accurately predict all possible abuses of this tool. The media in the region already use artificial intelligence more than they publicly admit, and it is necessary to develop rules and self-regulating mechanisms for their application as soon as possible. This would also avoid abuses in the media, but also the need for this area to be regulated by the state. For now, there is a consensus in the media community that these contents must be labeled, and that AI must be under human supervision. The use of AI also raises a number of questions regarding the copyright protection, but also the labor rights of journalists, which the media community will have to answer in the near future. Given that the Guidelines for the implementation of the Code of Journalists of Serbia in the online environment, drafted by the Press Council of Serbia, contain a provision concerning artificial intelligence, which is the only example in the region, the participants of the meeting concluded that it would be useful to consider the possibilities of cooperation in amending the code in this area.

 The mass killings that took place in Serbia at the beginning of May were reported by almost all media in the region, but, like the media in Serbia, as a rule, they did so in violation of professional standards, which is why several self-regulatory bodies in the countries of Southeast Europe reacted. The media, it was assessed at the gathering, report on such events mainly on details that are not of public interest, but also without respecting the elementary ethical rules related to the presumption of innocence, protection of identity, before all of child victims, report on the details of crimes, the mental state of murderers, do not respect the privacy of the families of victims, minimize their emotions, which leads to public disturbance,  glorification of murderers on social networks, and even the danger of copying the crime. What is particularly worrying is that some media are fully aware that they are violating journalistic codes, but they do so believing that this kind of reporting is a good “business model”. A part of the media did not react well to the situation, did not have clear guidelines on how to report, so in the region, mostly American standards were applied, which are significantly different from those applied in European countries. Therefore, it is necessary to draw up precise guideline for this type of reporting and always advise journalists to write about the phenomenon, rather than the details of the event. This area will be another topic of potential cooperation between self-regulatory bodies from the region in the coming period.

Additionally, the media in the region massively violate the rights to privacy, by posting, often from social networks, photos, videos and other very intimate details, which has already led to several suicides of people in question.

The right to be forgotten is another challenge that the media face almost daily, because most of them very often receive requests for deletion of certain texts and very often do not know how to act. When it is necessary to allow deletion of data from the media archive and in what way is not precisely regulated in any of the countries of the region, and in most countries there is no cooperation with internet search engines (primarily with Google), which is necessary if there is a need for some information to “disappear” from the Internet.

The gathering also discussed the problem of leaking information and personal data from state authorities to the media, which is very common, and for which it is almost never determined who is responsible.