By: Saša Leković
When news of the pandemic first struck Serbia, Dr. Branislav Nestorovic called the novel Coronavirus “the most hilarious virus” and encouraged Serbian women to go shopping in Milan, due to the steep discounts.
Serbians have the “genetics of a lion” that pulmonologist and allergist, the member of the “anti-corona” National Crisis Headquarters claimed, saying that Italians and French people were more susceptible to fevers. Naturally, Serbian journalists covered his absurd statements—but they didn’t challenge him.
“These doctors have at least one major interview a day,” Vreme reporter Tamara Skrozza told Media Diversity Institute.
“Pro-government media reported about this, and other similar statements without any kind of professional boundaries.”
While this is a particularly extreme example of the types of false statements and conspiracy theories that run rampant across the Balkan region, the media’s response is indicative of the way that journalists often broadcast false—or in some cases, offensive—statements without interrogating them, and their potential impact on society. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been particularly noticeable as journalists republish what officials are doing to handle the crisis, without questioning how these rules will impact the most marginalized members of society.
“In the most influential media, we have witnessed constant breaching of professional standards,” Skrozza continued, saying that while Serbian media covered how the entire region was responding to the pandemic, it was done with a pro-government agenda, instead of an aim to inform the public.
“Pro-government press and TV stations tried to prove that Serbia is anti-Covid leader in the region, although the statistics proved them wrong.”
How did it play out across the Balkan region? A handful of journalists from Bosnia and Herzegovina did an excellent job revealing possible corruption and fraud cases regarding the state supply of respirators and other medical equipment, resulting in the arrests of politicians and other public officials.
On the other hand, many of their media outlets failed to speak to how the pandemic was impacting marginalized groups. Most media echoed the words of politicians, broadcasting the measures that they took to protect citizens and the economy. While journalists asked questions, it was mostly focused on the emergency measures that officials were taking to stop the spread of the virus, namely the strict curfews, quarantines and border closures, but there were almost no reports on how the disease was impacting people on the margins of society.
“The Minister of the Interior openly stated that migrants are a security threat, not a vulnerable group,” said Elvira Jukić-Mujkić, editor in chief on Media.ba web portal operated by Mediacentar Sarajevo, explaining that Bosnian journalists repeated these claims, rather than challenging them.
“Among all other problems, there were repeated claims how migrants pose a threat of spreading of the virus, even though there were no evidence of the group having registered cases,” she continued, adding that local media outlets even used the COVID-19 pandemic to stir tensions regarding migrants and refugees. For example, on the local website in Bihać area published a story claiming that migrants raped a local young woman—a story that turned out not to be true.
It follows a troubling trend in the most of media in Balkan countries that stories about vulnerable groups, such as migrants, Roma, and people with disabilities are often ignored.
“There is hardly any deep and extensive reporting on these matters, at least not in the mainstream media,” Jukić-Mujkić continues, pointing out that outlets like Diskriminacija (focused on discrimination) or Udar , focused on Roma people, are exceptions to the rule.
“Overall, there is insufficient coverage in the media about how to protect the most vulnerable,” she concludes.
In Montenegro, the media has an even weaker record of covering diversity issues. Most media outlets retweeted tweets from the Government and Public Health Institute’s official accounts, while broadcasting and publishing the statements made by officials. With all press conferences suspended by the lockdown, there was no opportunity for journalists to challenge them on how the disease was impacting marginalized communities.
“As time went on, Montenegro media started practicing journalism again,” head of the Trade Union of Media of Montenegro Marijana Camovic Velickovic told Media Diversity Institute.
“Financial support to media was one of the first priorities of the Montenegran government,” she said, explaining that it is a very favourable bank loan with a low interest rate and a two year grace period. “In my opinion, this is the main reason why media in Montenegro forget to do their job not questioning any official decision or statement.”
Meanwhile in Northern Macedonia, diversity plays a relatively important role in the media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally speaking, media demonstrated interest and provided space for articulating the voices of people with disabilities and marginalized communities across the country. Media coverage highlighted disability rights organizations that showed how children with autism, or patients with rare diseases were coping with the pandemic, as well as other marginalized groups.
“I believe this has helped in raising the public awareness about the need for appropriate governmental interventions,” said Biljana Petkovska the Director at Macedonian Institute for Media, showing that highlighting marginalized groups in the media can be a force for good.
“It sped up special measures for people in need,” she continued. “For example, children with autism were allowed to move freely with their parents during the curfew.”
Analysing Balkan media shows that most journalists simply repeat what politicians and officials say, refusing to challenge the official narrative on the COVID-19 pandemic, and other crises. Some even went so far as to help ruling parties gain a political benefit from the pandemic.
The only media that paid attention to marginalized groups are the media outlets who normally focus on these communities—another indication of how mainstream media is only further marginalizing these groups in times of crisis.