(2013) PRESS COUNCIL ANNUAL REPORT
Experience gained in the first year of the Press Council – and especially in the work of the Complaints Commission – was instrumental for making two significant amendments to the Statute of the Council that were adopted in February.
The jurisdiction of the Council has been broadened to include online media, that is news portals without print editions, as well as news agencies, while the Complaints Commission has been authorized to decide whether the Code of Ethics has been breached bymedia that do not accept the jurisdiction of the Council (which was not possible under original Statute). Complaints Commission can now issue public admonishments about violations, and although these media outlets have no obligation to publish them, admonishments are posted on the Council’s website and distributed to all media.
At the same time, the number of print media that do not accept the jurisdiction of the Council is decreasing, astabloids Kurir and Informer recognized the jurisdiction of the Council in 2013. Both of these newspapers had been objects of numerous complaints, but the Commission had been unable to discuss them before. Following Statute amendments, the jurisdiction of the Council was also accepted by web portals Telegraf, Južne vesti and Šumadija press.
Practical experience of the Complaints Commission was used in drafting new articles of the Code of Ethics and guidelines for journalists that were adopted by the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS) and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS). These articles came into force in May.
Expectation that broadening of the Press Council’s jurisdiction would allow more citizens to file complaints turned out to be correct, and in part because of this the number of complaints doubled in 2013 compared to the first year of the Council’s operation.
Work of the Complaints Commission
From January to December 2013 71 complaints were filed with the Press Council, significantly more than in 2012, when the Council took in 35 complaints. Out of the total, 20 complaints were filed by institutions or associations, 5 were media against media, and the rest were filed by individuals, including politicians and celebrities who had filed no complaints in 2012.
Only two complaints were solved by settlement after mediation, which shows that media are still reluctant to admit mistakes. There are currently 6 complaints being processed, and the Commission has so far made decisions in 34 cases. In several cases, plaintiffs gave up on complaints, while others were dismissed as there was no formal ground to discussed them – this was mostly because complaintswere filed by persons not directly affected by published articles.
Out of the 34 complaints that were solved, breaches of the Code were found in 26, and 9 public admonishments were issued, as they were related to media that had not accepted full jurisdistion of the Press Council. Based on decisions taken by the Commission, it can be concluded that media frequently and gravely breach professional ethics. In as many as 20 cases the Commission found violations of several articles of the Code of Ethics. Media mostly breached articles from the Truthfulness in Reporting section (11 times), mainly relating to ban on publishing baseless accusations, libel or rumours, as well as the obligation to differentiate fact from speculation and assumptions. Also, the Journalistic Diligence section was breached 9 times, mainly the article referring to the need for journalists to not blindly trust their sources. Other breaches related to the Responsibility of Journalists section (mainly relating to the obligation to publish corrections) and the Respect for Privacy section (8 times).
The issue of media not publishing decisions relating to them still persists, although to a lot lesser extent than at the start of operation of the Press Council. Ahead in this are Kurir (the newspaper failed to publish as many as 4 decisions by the Commission) and Informer (two), while Večernje novosti failed to do so in one case. Other media tend to sporadically publish only short excerpts of decisions, in inadequate spaces, or in print editions only (and not in their online versions, that as a rule have more readers). This issue will have to be dealt with by the Council to find an effective solution. Managing Board has recently decided to try and overcome the problem by having the Council’s founders publish Commission decisions on their websites, with reference that the media in question failed to publish the decision.
On the other hand, it now extremely rarely happens that media do not respond to a complaint (which used to be common in the beginning), even those media that have not accepted the jurisdiction of the Council. One can get the impression that media feel it is important for them to “defend” themselves in front of the Council, but that later they fail to implement what the Commission had warned them about. It happened in some cases that media breached the same articles of the Code in the same way after they had been warned by the Commission, even though they published the decision by the Commission. Members of the Commission and of the Council in general are aware this is an education process that is certainly far from over.
Seminars for Judiciary Representatives
Since one of the longterm goals of the Press Council is to have the number of court proceedings decreased, more than 100 representatives of the judiciary were acquainted with the work of the Council and especially with the decisions of the Complaints Commission. Council partnered up with the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS), the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) and Lokal press and with the assistance of OSCE Mission in Serbia organized six seminars for judges and prosecutors from all major towns in Serbia.
Seminars were held in Niš and on Mt. Zlatibor in April, in Loznica in October and in Kragujevac, Novi Sad and Belgrade in November. Judges from basic and high courts as well as from courts of appeals attended the seminars together with prosecutors. Journalists from local media outlets also took part and reported about these meetings.
Judges and prosecutors were presented the most interesting cases decided by the Complaints Commission, aswell as cases from the largely uneven judicial practice. Judges were recommended to direct citizens to the Press Council and to take note when deciding about awarding damages whether the plaintiff had asked the media outlet to publish correction and whether the plaintiff had turned to the Press Council. All participants agreed that this sort of cooperation is essential and should be continued.
The most interesting cases that the Complaints Commission decided about in the first year of work were published in a brochure that was distributed to judiciary representatives. Nine decisions by the Commission were presented in the “Guide trough Complaints Commission Practice”. These decisions refer to the need for journalistic diligence, objectivity in reporting, privacy of “common citizens”, criticism of public figures, minority groups rights and protection of authors’ rights from the Code of Ethics of Serbian Journalists.
Round Table Discussion on Online Media Self-Regulation
In cooperation with the OSCE Mission, Press Council organized a big conference in early December entitled “Self-Regulate: Perspectives of Self-Regulation in Online Media”. The conference gathered more than 40 representatives of online media outlets from several towns, and also NGOs that advocate media freedoms. The conference was organized so that web portals can find out more about the broadened jurisdiction of the Press Council, and about the advantages of self-regulation.
The afternoon panel session was dedicated to readers’ comments in online media, as well as to the issues of responsibility, anonymity and the existing models of comments administration.
Cooperation with the Council of Europe
At the end of the year, cooperation was established with the Council of Europe Office in Belgrade. The first joint activity was to organize a meeting between members of the Complaints Commission of the Press Council and colleagues from Norway, Holland and Bosnia and Herzegovina to share experiences in deciding about citizen complaints. The one-day workshop was part of the Council of Europe project “Promoting freedom of expression and information and freedom of the media in South-East Europe”, realized with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Norway. Commission members found experiences of councils with long tradition and rich practice to be extremely valuable. Topics discussed were the protection of privacy, ways to report tragedies or accidents, how much codes of ethics protect public figures and can media be held responsible for online comments by readers.
The Council of Europe is also financing the printing of amended Code of Ethics of Serbian Journalists with addendum listing cases dealt with by the Complaints Commission. 3,000 copies will be printed by the end of January 2014 at the latest.
During 2013 members of the Managing Board and of the Complaints Commission took part in TV debates at 10 local stations in Užice, Novi Pazar, Subotica, Kikinda, Apatin, Šabac, Niš, Pirot, Vranje and Loznica. These activities were planned because the Council received no complaints against local media outlest in the first year. The conclusion was that people in smaller towns did not have enough information about the Press Council. In 2013, the Council took in a dozen complaints against local media, mostly online outlets, which can in part be attributed to these TV debates.
The Council established cooperation with the Republic Broadcasting Agency (RRA). First joint meeting was held in April and it was agreed that all complaints received by RRA from citizens regarding print media are sent to the Press Council. It was also agreed to ask the Ministry of Culture and Information to react in line with its jurisdiction in cases when contents and means of distribution of print media can hurt the moral, intellectual, emotional or social development of minors. By year’s end the Council received three complaints via RRA, but none of them could be formally decided on.
Press Council also established cooperation with UNESCO, and representatives of the Council spoke at two conferences about self-regulation in online media – in Belgrade in May, and in Sarajevo in October.
Representatives of the Council took part in the annual meeting of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe(AIPCE) in October in Tel Aviv, as well as at a regional meeting in Budva in May. Press Council joined AIPCE in its first year. It was agreed that an informal network of self-regulatory bodies of Southeastern Europe will be established to help foster closer cooperation between countries of the region.