The Cost of Courage

WAZ rewards journalists for their risk in reporting

Mere days after the murder of Croatian newspaper publisher Ivo Pukanic, the German-based WAZ Media Group and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) established an award for courage in journalism, urging reporters not to give in to intimidation.

Announced at the Second South East Europe Media Forum (SEEMF) in Sofia, the €10,000 WAZ Award  “for reporting that has withstood influence and attempts at intimidation” will be given in 2009 to a reporter, or team of reporters, from one of the countries where WAZ has publications. Apart from Germany, the group also publishes papers and magazines in Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Serbia.

Board members of the German media giant WAZ, publishers of the Kronen Zeitung, deliberate their verdict | Photo: Courtesy of WAZ

“In recent times, in an increasingly alarming way, cases of intimidation, repression, and violence against the press have occurred in South-Eastern Europe in particular,” the two organizations stated in announcing the award. “The WAZ Media Group and the IFJ share the view that courage is always the precondition for efficient control of power through the media.”

For most of these countries, the award amounts to more than what the average journalist makes in a year, thus representing a great stimulus for standing up to pressure in the name of journalistic integrity. However, the region also has a very recent history of violence towards journalists, a clear sign that reporting still entails great risks there.

The SEEMF meeting — subtitled “Media and Democracy in South East Europe: Professional Standards and Education of Journalists” — was opened with a brief eulogy for Pukanic, who had been a speaker in the first meeting of the Forum in Zagreb, Croatia in 2007. The event also honored Bulgarian journalist Ognian Stefanov, owner of a news website, who had been badly beaten within an inch of his life just a month and a half before by three men pretending to be policemen. The date of the award’s announcement by WAZ’s managing director Axel Schindler, Nov. 6, was also a day before the anniversary of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s murder.

All these cases, and other similar atrocities in the region, serve to show how necessary such an award is.  “All countries in the region face very serious problems,” said Oliver Vujovic, head of SEEMO, at the event in Sofia. At the same time, they raise the question of the extent to which these societies are ready to reward courageous journalism with anything other than threats and bloodshed. Adreas Rudasch, head of WAZ Holding Vienna, agrees. Increasingly, “political and economic interests try to pressure journalists,” he says, referring to the cases of Pukanic and Stefanov.

Later in the conference, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev surprised dozens of journalists by taking close to an hour and a half to answer questions on his policies, his view of the media and his hopes for his country.

Stanishev’s endurance came as a shocker even for the Forum’s organizers, who had expected him to speak for a much shorter period of time as stated in the preliminary schedule. He had “set a record,” several Bulgarian newspapers commented the next day, withstanding direct questions from the media longer than he had ever done before. The prime minister was expected across town to open the 2nd South East Europe Economic Forum, which was to address “Regional reflections of the global economic challenges.” Bulgaria was hosting this second event at a time when the country’s own economy hangs in a fragile balance between the announced stability of its own banks and the problems international employers face with the financial crisis.

It was not until a week later that Minister of Finance, Plamen Oresharski, finally owned up, admitting that the country could not avoid the repercussions of the crisis.

But Stanishev appeared to hold true to his belief that “a paper can swat a fly, a bank, or a politician,” preferring to work on bettering his relations with the media rather than mulling over the inscrutable problems of the economy.

With only months to go before the battle for the hearts and minds of Bulgarian voters heats up in the upcoming general elections, Stanishev’s move seemed to convince the press of his bona fides as a media-friendly politician.

He also seemed to have earned some bonus points with the forum’s co-organizers, WAZ, a media group often accused of holding monopoly power over the Bulgarian news market: His opening speech was transmitted live on national television and there was no mention of his absence at the economic forum.  In his speech, the Prime Minister shared his concerns for the state of the media in the country, speaking about corruption, pressure, and the country’s image in foreign media.

“I am convinced that no one questions the freedom or objectivity of the media in Bulgaria as a whole,” he said, “and I think I have proved, through my own actions, that I oppose any attempts to manipulate or pressure the media, be it on political or economical basis (…)  Political pressure always exists, especially from MPs who feel they have been slandered, but, as there are anywhere else in the world, there are also pressures from economic and financial interests trying to influence the media.”

Just to be safe, he also mentioned the credit crunch.

“Censorship has no place in Bulgaria,” Stanishev said, “as the local media are good in fairly reflecting reality,” referring to a question he had received from high-school students a few days before.

“The students asked me, ‘Shouldn’t there be some censorship, because the media always emphasize the negatives,’ Stanishev recalled, “and I said that reality should be shown exactly as it is.

“This will help change the reality, even if it means putting pressure on the politicians.”

The Prime Minister spoke strongly against anonymous journalism – what he called the “grey sector” in Bulgaria, where most of the sensationalist and libelous news comes from. He admitted that he had no idea where the money for some of the newspapers and TV stations in Bulgaria came from and supported an idea put forth by the Union of Bulgarian Journalists that a public register be created with this type of information so that those grey sector media were brought into the light.

Stanishev also briefly spoke of the global financial crisis, stating that the media-created frenzy is partly to blame for the collapse of the markets.

“There seem to be people here who aren’t too pleased that Bulgaria is more secured against the financial crisis,” Stanishev said. “They talk about other countries borrowing huge sums and ask why the Bulgarian government isn’t doing so. But the truth is that Bulgaria is financially stable.” The media has to be responsible when speaking and writing about the crisis, he said.

Stanishev also mentioned his disappointment with the international media, which only sees the negative sides of Bulgaria, like corruption and organized crime, refusing to report its merits, such as the amount of foreign investment flowing into the country or its current financial stability.  However, when pressed – as by Andreas Rudas – he admitted that most of the negative stories actually originate from the local media.  “Some media organizations in Bulgaria are quick to jump on unfounded rumors” of alleged secret police operations, he said, tipping off criminals on the front page of the paper.

Venelina Gotcheva, Managing Editor of the WAZ newspaper 24 Hours, agreed, adding that if something is discussed in confidence in Parliament, MPs are the first to call the media, forming a perpetual system of leaks based on their personal agendas. At the same time, the media are often a tribune for accused criminals who challenge the prosecutors on the air, during central news emissions.

“I love my country and believe that it deserves respect and self-respect,” Stanishev said in conclusion. Until Bulgaria and its media start working on their self-respect, it is unlikely that respect will be granted.

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