There is no place for optimism

The Digital Forensic Center talks with journalist Tamara Skrozza about the media landscape in Serbia and tendentious and deceptive Serbia-based media reporting on the events in both Montenegro and the region. On this occasion, Skrozza says that the Serbian captured institutions have allowed the media outlets to do whatever they want, or rather, what they are told.

Skrozza also says that the media landscape in Serbia, which is characterized by tabloidization and sensationalism, is extremely unfavorable for journalists who are subjected to attacks. With a strong political influence on the judiciary, on one hand, and tense situation in the polarized society, on the other, no one can guarantee security and peace, Skrozza highlights. Therefore, she is not optimistic that Serbia will come out of media darkness anytime soon.

DFC: On the occasion of the adoption of the Resolution on Srebrenica, the Montenegro Media Institute has recently republished your article with the headline “Rezolucija i medijski ponor” (Resolution and media abyss). There, you described the Serbia-based media coverage as uncritical and biased, while the well-known methods of disqualifying political opponents were once again put into use. How can Montenegro and the region-based media, and citizens, as well, protect themselves from these kinds of contents and trends in media reporting coming from Serbia?

T. SKROZZA: If the media situation in Serbia was normal, the response would be simple: the media outlets and citizens in Montenegro, as well as in Serbia, could seek protection before the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) or the Ministry of Culture and Information. However, being completely captured and hence, in the service of the ruling structures, these institutions do not offer protection – the media outlets, in reality, do whatever they want, or rather, what they are told. If someone who was directly affected by such practice appears before the Press Council, it can discuss the case and potentially conclude that the Serbian Journalists’ Code of Ethics was breached. The Press Council, as a self-regulatory body, however, has no authority to impose sanctions.

An average citizen is likely to have a low level of media literacy

DFC: Numerous research findings have confirmed that the Serbian tabloids often spread fake news and disinformation, intentionally misleading the public. At the same time, those media outlets have a high readership in both Serbia and Montenegro. Can you explain to us how did it come to this, and why are people attracted by “yellow journalism”, or, better to ask, why does not an average citizen care about the truth?

T. SKROZZA: An average citizen, both in Montenegro and Serbia, is likely to have a low level of media literacy, while they reluctantly read, are preoccupied with everyday problems, and have neither time, patience, nor necessary knowledge to tell truth from lies, nor what manipulation and what the public interest is. These citizens, which I tend to believe were educated and created by the political elite members, are likely to accept as truth anything if wrapped in easily understandable language, juicy headlines, compelling photos, and at an affordable price. In fact, they represent an ideal electoral body that can be easily manipulated for not only daily political, but also national and state aspirations.

DFC: You participated in the creation of the documentary series “Junaci doba zlog” (Heroes of Evil Times) which strongly resonated in Serbia and the region. In one of the documentaries, you said that tabloids went even after you. In your opinion, how can an individual protect themselves from media persecution, if that is even possible? What is the most challenging thing in such a situation?

T. SKROZZA: They left me mostly unharmed, unlike many of my colleagues, but I still believe that I am not wrong when I say that no one can protect you in such a situation. The reactions of international organizations can be helpful, but with a strong political influence on the judiciary, and a tense situation in the polarized society, no one can guarantee you safety and peace. Private suits against tabloids usually result in small fines, while your reputation will be tarnished forever. No one can guarantee you that someone who believes the tabloids would not attack you in the street. Nor that your child would not be mocked. Nor that your grandchildren and great-grandchildren would not believe everything that they read about you online. Therefore, the biggest challenge is to protect your family from stress and fear, as well as your mental balance and physical health. And that is practically impossible.

Tabloidization emerged after the political changes in 2000

DFC: You were one of the expert consultants engaged in drawing up the Serbian Journalists’ Code of Ethics. To what extent was the profession of journalism degraded by the domination of tabloid reporting, or did that happen much earlier? Where do the roots of this phenomenon lie?

T. SKROZZA: Tabloidization of the Serbian media scene emerged after the political changes in 2000, which, from that moment on, has directly affected all the political developments, including the assassination of Zoran Djindjic. The roots of this phenomenon lie in the political elite’s ambitions to (mis)use the media as a means of accomplishing their own interests, and their lack of understanding of the role and responsibilities that the media have, as well as their total indifference to the fate of our society. Therefore, tabloidization is not a product of the current government’s activities – the government inherited these tabloids from the previous state leaders. This process was, though, finalized by Aleksandar Vucic, to the point where not only the media, but also the whole system, society, and life have been tabloidized, to the point where literally everything is spanned and abused, where there are neither rules nor mercy and where no one can be entirely safe.

DFC: Can we say that Serbia is, except for honest and brave examples, individuals and media outlets, currently at some kind of state of media darkness reigned by sensationalism, aggression, hate speech…? Do these trends portray a new and unavoidable media reality, or, are you rather optimistic that the independent media outlet and critical thinking can be strengthened?

T. SKROZZA: Serbia has been living in these circumstances for several years now; that several journalists, media outlets, and experts have for a long time been warning us about. Our media reality is, therefore, far from being nascent. For years now, we can barely breathe under the political, economic, legal, and security pressures, but no one sees our struggles. Quite the opposite. We are from time to time told off by the representatives of the international communities that we are constantly complaining and that we should speak with the ruling regime, put in more effort, and create good news. It is a rather bizarre situation where journalists can only continue to give their maximum, stay safe and sound, do their job with integrity, and hope for some turn of events. There is no place for optimism.