December 2, 2021

Inteview with SEEMO Member Ljiljana Zurovac, Journalist and Expert for the media self-regulation (December 2021)

Ms Ljiljana Zurovac

Ms Zurovac is an Independent Media Expert, with expertise in the fields of Media Ethics and Media Self-regulation, Hate Speech vs. Freedom of Speech, and Conflict Resolution.
She is currently providing her services as an Expert Consultant with an extensive field knowledge of the subject.
Apart from her career as an active Radio-TV journalist, she worked for six years as the Headmaster at the Regional High College of Journalism (1999-2005), and for 15 years (2005-2020) she was the Executive director of the Press Council in B&H.
She worked on many projects and missions of promoting and establishing of media self-regulatory bodies in the countries of the new democracy, in Europe, Asia, and MENA countries, providing her services as an Expert Consultant with an extensive field knowledge of the subject, and she regularly participates in the local and international conferences as a panelist, talking about media freedoms and media self-regulation.
Ms Zurovac holds a bachelor degree (four years study) in Dramaturgy, and a degree in Comparative literature.

She is a Member of the Fetisov Journalism Awards International Expert Council Jury, and a former Member of UNESCO Guillermo Cano Jury 2013-2016, World Press Freedom Prize where she served as the President of the Jury for 2016.

You are internationally well known. You worked for many years as a director of the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Can you tell us a little bit more about this period of your life.

These were 15 very intensive years of my professional life, filled with a lot of struggles and fights, new ideas, creativity, development of new skills and quests for new possibilities, meetings with dear colleagues from all around the world and many international travels, exchanges of ideas and experiences, building of new friendships, but also, making some of enemies. It was a very intensive professional life which completely consumed my private life. But it was well worth of it.

I lived to build something completely new in the media field of the Balkan region, something we did not have before and which gave us the opportunity to make things good from the start. Something that could open a road for free and responsible journalism as a crucial base for development of democracy in the Balkans’ society –and that something is the media self-regulation.

It was a bumpy road, a rollercoaster that makes you excited and scared at the same time, but knowing that the final result will be great.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a post-conflict country, and most of the media and institutions are divided according to their affiliation with the entities, cantons or regions – each of which is inhabited by different nationalities. The first thing I had to do was to unite ten of the largest media owners from all sides of such divided country, most of who had no contact among themselves at the time. It took me a year and half to do so, but we successfully finished the job and established a singular self-regulatory body for the whole country, which is one of the rare institutions that covers entire Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was a big success and a very good base for fruitful start of development of the media self-regulation as well as development of professional connections between the media and journalists from all parts of the country.

The next step was to reach as many people as possible by encouraging them to send complaints on inaccurate media reporting. We travelled all around the country, from big cities to small villages, talking to people, explaining them about their human right on accurate and timely information, and how to complain on unprofessional reporting in the media. Journalists from local media have been of a great support in these endeavours.

Later, we’ve spread our wings and started an intensive work with people from judiciary, including judges, prosecutors, and attorneys, providing them with practical knowledge about the application of the Article 10 of the ECHR, application of the media freedoms, freedom of speech and freedom of reporting, and how they can apply this knowledge in practical use of the newly adopted Law for protection against Defamation. After months of negotiations and building of confidence from both sides, we developed an excellent cooperation with representatives of judiciary from both entities and the Brcko District, together with whom we realized almost a hundred of conferences and workshops over the years.

But, the dearest work for me personally was a work with students of journalism from Universities in B&H. I started to manage the Press Council after six years of being the Headmaster of the High College of Journalism, at the Media Plan Institute. This College was a partner school of the famous French École Supérieure de Journalisme de Lille, a practical one-year school for graduate young journalists from Balkan’s region.

This wonderful School gathered young people from all Balkans’ countries to learn, work and build friendships and professional connections that will be precious in their future media works. But, above all, this was a place for reconciliation after the bloody war in the Balkans’ region in 1990-1995.

Having the experience of great results achieved at this School, I established a School for Media Ethics, under the umbrella of the Press Council. In the ten years of the school’s existence, more than 500 students participated in our programs, learning about the media self-regulation and media ethics and how to apply the media ethics in their future work.

Even more, their professors at the Faculties embraced the program of our School, and so, the media ethics, the Press Code and the media self-regulation subjects became a regular subject at the faculties’ curriculum.

With ten of my students I produced a radio show “Your voice in media – ZOOM”, what was broadcast twice a week at a PBS and at many of the local radio stations in B&H, promoting media ethics, media self-regulation and peoples’ right to accurate and ethically published information.

During these 15 years I was able to build something unusual, strong and very good, in a difficult and unstable political and financial environment. It was a small but prolific institution which became a template for other press councils in the Western Balkan region, but also a guiding method for other countries of young democracy in transition, such as Myanmar, Mongolia and Tajikistan, where I had the joy and the honour to be given an opportunity to provide my expertise and insights.

This is not a simply a job, it is a mission, that one can only endure and thrive if one has certain amount of democratic zealotry. It is certainly not for those who simply want to comply.

But, unfortunately, as many great businesses and companies, organisations and ideas, this is also a type of institution and work that rests upon enthusiasm and the back of one person who leads a well-organized team. When such person leaves, the pressures of corrupted media and political games bring these institutions to a stagnation or a decline.

Before you started in the Press Council you had a long year experience as radio and TV journalist. Can you present us a little more what you did and tell us a little more about the start of your career.

I can say that working as a radio-TV journalist, especially in the first decade of my career, was the dearest professional time in my life. That was a free and creative time, time of good rock and roll music, books, fun and excitements, always in a good company. Work was a fun and love. The radio studio was our second home. Work in the field always brought new excitement and adventure. This is a time to which I return in days when I feel desperate and without hope. The time what will never come back again. But I feel so happy to have lived in that time fully, now nurturing these memories as something precious.

As a dramatist, I accepted working at the Radio TV immediately after graduation, because this media gave me a lot of opportunities to apply my knowledge as a dramatist and playwriter in their drama programs.

Back in time, the Yugoslavian public services’ drama programs had a special place and a lot of dramas were produced at both the radio and TV. It was easy for me to participate in creation of these programs, beside my regular journalist’s work. Also, my dramatist’s skills have been very helpful in producing reportages.

Put simply, It was a right place and a right time to be prolific in fantastic creative environment, where a lot of good ideas were born for writing of theatre plays for example, and I remember that period of my life as a joyful beautiful time of a good creative work, entertainments, festivals and awards.

How you spent the war years in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

In darkness.

You are for sure one of the best experts for media ethics and self-regulation in Europe. How you see the situation in South, East and Central Europe in 2021. Do media and journalists respect media ethics?

Not at all, unfortunately. Or, better said, a very small number of the media or journalists respect media ethics. The situation is deteriorating year by year.

There are many reasons for that, such as the greed of the media owners, financial and political pressures on journalists, then there are also people who work as journalists but have no education for this job and do it with complete absence of responsibility, etc.

However, whatever the reason, there is no justification for not respecting professional ethics. A journalist must be a responsible person, first of all towards its highly important profession and then towards the people who consume the information provided by a journalist.

If I am allowed to be perfectly honest, I will answer this trough analogy – if you are an expert ecologist and someone who deeply understands biosphere, then you understand that the swamp is a swamp, no matter how much you try to clean it up or hard you work to structure it into a posh British garden.

This means that this particular eco system has rules of its own and cannot be easily compared with other environments. It also means, that improvements which do happen usually happen deep under a thick layer of scum that forever floats on surface.

The media landscape in the region is a swamp. Even more so with the introduction of new life forms which develop in the microcosmos of social media. But it is an eco-system of its own. To turn in into a lush garden where everyone can enjoy and relax, implies a complete destruction of the swamp.

In the same way, to compare the standards of old democracy countries with the primordial democracy soup of the Balkan’s media environment, is the same as comparing a neatly sorted out pharmacy with the chemical waste disposal disaster.

With the democracy we got freedom. Aside the fact that there are pressures from many sources, mainly political ones, the freedoms of speech and of the media do exist. However, misuse of these freedoms in the Balkan countries is enormous and on expense of the professional and responsible media reporting.

Journalism is not a freedom of speech; journalism is constrained by the ethical rules which must be respected at any time and in any circumstance. Without this, the real journalism will die. And thus, the freedom of society will be jeopardized in the most difficult and dangerous ways. None of us may allow that. We must fight against such outcome. As I said before, this is not a job for those who are simply willing to comply with the status quo or social decline.

Does self-regulation work in the practice. You have your experience from Bosnia and Herzegovina. What is the situation with media who are not recognising the work of a self-regulation body. Has self-regulation also influence on journalists working in this media?

The self-regulation works in practice only there when it is fully accepted.

However, the application of the media self-regulation in Balkans’ region is currently still a great responsibility of the self-regulatory bodies. The media self-regulatory bodies must be alert and oversee the application of the media self-regulation in the practice.

It does not mean that they have to play role of “media police”, but they do need to work with colleagues in the media on regular basis, reminding them why the media ethics is important for them as businesses and individuals as well as for the consumers of their information. And also, to provide them with help if help is needed when their work is under pressure. The self-regulatory body needs to spread information about complaints procedure among people, and to provide mass education for different target groups.

In the well-developed democratic countries, such as most of the EU, things are completely different. The media people, not only the journalists but also the media owners and all other media staff, have a high level of professional respect of the media ethics and their responsibility towards the who consume their information, in addition to respecting the decisions of the self-regulatory bodies.

It is however important to understand the fact that in the most of these countries the media self-regulation exists over thirty, fifty, or even more than a hundred years. We, in the Balkans, are still at the beginning, trying to make proper steps forward. Not only in the filed of the media, but generally in development of a democratic society.

The sad side of Balkans’ story is that many media owners are closely connected to the current political establishment or are even directly and actively involved in the politics themselves. Similar case is with their involvement with corporations, often using their own media outlets and employees as a tool for promotion of their political options or corporate interests. The media ethics does not exist for such media institutions, and they ignore media self-regulatory bodies. More disturbingly, there is no external consequence for such foul media as the acceptance of the media self-regulation is on a voluntary base.

Is there a way to stop the still very strong hate speech in the SEEMO region?

The real question is – is there a way to stop hate speech in any region? The problem of hate speech is a problem of its semantic implications and its colloquial usage. Very often we see that hate speech is nothing more but a way in which people express themselves due to lack of empathy and understanding of the consequences such speech may create.

It is not always about hate as such, but about frustration and violence which became the norm of communication. When Twitter limits your expression to 240 characters, the inevitable result is a decline in ability to explain complex ideas, thus creating a toxic conversation based on misunderstanding.

Similar thing happens when people lose their basic ability for decent conversation, when they don’t nurture a culture of dialog and respectful expression. All their communications eventually end in a quarrel of some kind, mostly based on misunderstanding of what the other person is saying, in the lack of empathy to comprehend where the other side is coming from and in persons own inability to express their own thoughts and views in a coherent manner.

And when you add to this a bloody and horrid past that the Balkans have, then it is easy for these verbal “duelists” to lean on the most deprived and painful aspects of history in order to make their point.

But this is not really any different than in other countries with similar background.

Censorship works, of course, but it is only a suppression and not a solution. The only true way to lower the hate speech in the Balkans or anywhere else for that matter, is to teach people – first how to think, then how to express those thoughts in a civilized manner and in a way that the other side can understand, and then also to teach them to process the information they receive with less emotion and more understanding of why and where such information is coming from.

Put simply – the solution is in empathy, literacy and ability to think and use critical faculties – something that is becoming a bit of a luxury these days.

Over the years I worked with an excellent team of experts on reducing the terrible hate speech in comments of online media. These campaigns were named “STOP! Hate speech”. The priority of these campaigns was not to simply erase hate speech in the comments but to educate and sensitize the public. The cooperation with editors and owners of the chosen online media was excellent. And the results were fantastic.

We learnt that many people are absolutely are not aware that their words are hatred or that such words can hurt someone. Often, we’d receive apologies from the “commentators”, who said that they meant nothing bad and will pay attention in the future.

Of course, there were also plenty of nasty comments toward our campaigns, but not as many as we originally expected. The final result of each campaign was that the hate speech was reduced immensely. And that this reduction was maintained for several months after the active campaign finished, but then, due to a lack of moderation it would burst again. This showed that people need to have someone to guide them constantly, or in other words, that the time of personal responsibility is still far away from our region.

You lived for many years in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now you live in a small town in Serbia. What you are doing today and why you decided to move from a city like Sarajevo to a small town?

I am taking a nice rest / break in a stress-free zone. I eat amazing Thai soups my son prepares. I watch favorite movies and TV series on Netflix, and play video games. I also grow vegetables on my terrace, enjoying beautiful view to the park what surrounds my house, and occasionally complain about the trucks which pass through our street which happens to be a yellow brick road. I read books. And have started writing a new drama.

Also, I continue to work on the promotion and development of the self-regulatory bodies in the development countries. Thanks to my dear colleague and friend with whom I worked a lot in B&H and in Myanmar, Ms. Isabella Kurkowski, I started to share my knowledge with media people in MENA countries. This is a great experience for me, and I am looking forward to every new opportunity to glorify something which is the only solution for free and responsible journalists’ work and the freedom of the media – and that it is a media self-regulation.

Why did I decide to move to a small town? Hm.. I needed peace and silence.

I completed my mission in BIH, and now I am a free-lancer, free to go and work wherever I want. I choose my hometown as a starting point. It was time to go back home, as James W. Riley said in his poem “We Must Get Home”:

“We must get home, for we have been away so long,
It seems forever and a day! And O so very homesick we have grown,
The laughter of the world is like a moan in our tired hearing,
And its song as vain, We must get home — we must get home again!
We must get home: All is so quite there:
The touch of loving hands on brow and hair,
Dim rooms, wherein the sunshine is made mild,
The lost love of the mother and the child
Restored in restful lullabies of rain
We must get home – we must get home again!

We must get home; and unremembering there
All gain of all ambition otherwhere,
Rest from the feverish victory, and the crown
Of conquest whose waste glory weighs us down.
Fame’s fairest gifts we toss back with disdain
We must get home – we must get home again!”

Can you please present your other side – your work for theatre and scenarios you wrote….

Well, I would rather say, my first side instead of the “other side”. Dramaturgy and playwriting are my chosen profession, I graduated as Dramatist and Playwright and that was my first professional engagement, what I continue doing consecutively with my journalistic engagement at the radio television.

This work allowed me to express myself fully as an artist and a spiritual human being. It always gives me a balance to my daily journalist’s work. There are a lot of dramas and scenarios I wrote, but, one of my favorites is the special theater program I produced for children, together with the most popular rock stars back in time. Over several years we have had a tour all over ex-Yugoslavia, bringing joy and festivity atmosphere to the children at the end of each of years. Another one is a TV series, a horror story, what was awarded with the third prize at the International TV festival in Baghdad, Iraq. The BiH public service rerun it even in these days regularly and many nowadays adults who were children at the time of the prime broadcasting, told me that they very much like to watch it again and again.

I am happy that now I have enough time to develop new creative ideas to write something new.