Starting from Zero: the Collective Identity of Serbian Journalists

[S]he knew how to identify the political problems in our country and they just shut her down[…] but I think it was our government.” – Lena, [22] Journalism student Belgrade University Faculty of Political Sciences (2015)

As an individual with an interest in sensitive research topics, and an aspiring journalist, I remain conscious to the importance of consistent ethical consideration of participants when collecting data. Consequently, during Starting from Zero research project, I became focused on journalists in Serbia whose values and collective responsibilities have become censored by the government. I became confronted by the power of media distribution by the government whilst conducting a focus group with Belgrade’s University students at the Faculty of Political Sciences (2015).

Expanding on the above quote from Lena [22] student, who recognises established Serbian journalist, Olja Bećković, and her previous position in power of discussing topical political issues on her previous television programme, Impression of the Week (2014). Lena continued to identify a sense of restriction that became posed by the government to journalists, during the time of the Yugoslavia conflict: “[T]hat was the time of the biggest media blackout in Serbia and you can assume why the freedom of media within Serbia is at low rates” (2015). Ultimately, the students identified that the government determines what is acceptable to be reported and mediated within Serbia, despite the expectation of the public for Bećković to remain on television after such alternative discussions were visually broadcasted. I will continue to reflect on a journalist’s work ethic in Serbia, influenced by the restriction posed through a Western interjection of technology and political government.

My roles in the group research project consisted of establishing connection with Belgrade’s media experts and maintaining professional contact with our voluntary participants through a series of emails. I adopted the responsibility of creating participant information sheets and consent forms, providing the maintaining of confidentiality of our participants throughout the project. Despite this, I acknowledge that ethical understanding is more than just clearly reminding our participants of their rights to withdraw and the implications of contributing to the research. Ethics in research is the gaining of acceptance from participants by relating to them on an emotional level. I recognise the construction and development of self-identity within qualitative research and how this can shape an researcher’s data: supported by Coffey (1999) who distinguishes ethnographic research as a source of emotional reflection that I will continue to provide in this critical reflection of my ethnographic experience with Olja Bećković.

Ethical procedures are important, however in this critical reflection I will consider ethics as a much broader social and political construct through the development of journalists in Serbia and the restriction of their freedom within the media. I therefore believe that Olja Bećković and I share similar interests with regards to establishing connections with participants, as she had done with her show panel of guests during the aired television programme, Impression of the Week (2014), featuring a guest panel to discuss topical issues openly.

For the purpose of this critical reflection, I will reflect on my roles within the research project and how these responsibilities contributed towards our active involvement in ethnographic research. I will also discuss my positionality as researcher and how this had an impact on the way I engaged with Belgrade’s media industry. I do this by paying particular attention to established Serbian journalist, Olja Bećković, who I understand as sharing similar career ambitions and ethics as myself. Though, I acknowledge that not all journalists do share this ambition, which helped connect Bećković and I during the interview, consequently producing detailed qualitative data in the form of her responses towards political power.

Throughout this essay I draw on qualitative data collected from our field interviews with Olja Bećković, supported by a theoretical perception of power by drawing upon Foucault (1977), sustained more recently by Volcic (2005) prior to visiting Belgrade. I discuss how communication with Bećković was established and maintained, including reflection on the process of finalising interview transcripts with participants prior to analysis and consent of their identities.


Context & Experiences:

Our brief tasked us with examining how a country can re-build and re-establish its own sense of self-identity following conflict, war or civil unrest. I recognise our collective positionality as a group of researchers: too young to recall Serbia’s historic place in the Yugoslavia conflict, first hand. This influenced us to investigate some of the events surrounding the conflict in order to gain a grounding of knowledge that could be built upon by the views of primary resources. In addition to this, we collectively acknowledged ourselves as outsiders to this conflict that we would never be able to fully understand or comprehend such a complex chain of events or the experiences that Serbians had as a result of them.

In order to deconstruct the embodiment of these primary experiences I engaged with whilst researching in the field in Belgrade, I draw upon Hooks (2000) who considers the role of empathy and situates herself as the researcher into the immersive sphere of her research. “[E]ach experience enhanced the value of the other” (2000:84), I therefore recognise the significance of interviewing the University students prior to meeting with Bećković, as they continued to remind us of her established position as journalist and the expectation they had of her identity in terms of media freedom. From this point onwards, whilst in the field of ethnographic research, I began to consume another culture that shaped the way I understood our group research through the position of individuals, students and media professionals. Particular attention to the on-going development of a journalist’s role and the restriction of media publishing remained in a space where national identity is becoming re-constructed after a historic period of conflict.

Adopting this ethnographic approach to the research was necessary in order to connect and establish relationships with participants and develop boundaries of trust. Hooks (2014) more recently presents the concept, that as foreigner to the country, a more intense feeling can be explored that will be immersive and allow embodiment of the culture. Therefore ethnographic research provided the ability to reflect on the position as a researcher and the facilitation of interaction with participants.

Considering these values of a researcher further, Commane and Blackman (2011:235) point out that the researcher’s identity can be measured in levels of success if “their identity as researcher fades over time”. Commane and Blackman therefore suggest that the researcher must be emotionally responsive to their participants and create a space of “double reflexivity” when gathering qualitative data (2011:231). I strongly consider “double reflexivity” due to my positionality as researcher. When interviewing Olja Bećković I was conscious to allow for a space where immersive reflection into each of our shared and mutual career ambitions. Therefore, continuing to establish this mutual interest into one another’s professional experiences and how my position as a student researcher within the UK is perceived as less controlled in terms of topics to investigate, as demonstrated by my interest in gender and sexuality. Despite sharing a similar sense of instutionalised power of hierarchies, that Bećković faced by state funded broadcast media platform, B92, required a television host to conform to, without consideration to what the public desired. As supported by the student’s of the Faculty of Political Sciences, Olja Bećković was adored for her confidence to expose political topics, rarely discussed on air.

Originally, concepts of power became identified, prior to my primary research in the field of Belgrade’s arts, visual media and in creative spaces. Distributions of power became emphasised through the ways in which restriction of distribution of news in Belgrade. Examining the restrictions led me to consider the ethical implications a journalist is confronted with, leading to consider if the development of new digital media in Serbia facilitated a platform where professionals can discuss restricted topics more freely. Volcic (2005) provides an ideological understanding of power relationships that can further explain the restriction of media. Volcic (2005:158) suggests that Westernised values continue to be perceived as “betraying Serbs”, implying that structures of mediation within the West are becoming deteriorated which may begin to suggest why an older generation of Serbia tend to reject the use of technology as this advancement is accepting journalistic practises of the West. I later explore this in relation to the student voices of Belgrade University. However, I acknowledge that in terms of defining power this becomes problematic: as power continues to become imposed by western values. This suggests a certain degree of hegemonic discourses that suggest Serbia is being marginalised or, as reinforced by Volcic (2005:159), experiencing a sense of ‘othering’ in relation to the ethics of media broadcasting.

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Media Blackout:

In order to develop my understanding of the work ethic of broadcast media professions, prior to departure to Belgrade, I read a number of papers concerning the security and censorship of journalists in Serbia, including that of a digital media report in Serbia (Surcˇulija et al, 2011) that gave an insight of a journalist in relation to technology and sensitive topics expressed. I was led to believe that the technology interjected into Belgrade provided a platform for journalists to establish their views more freely, though after interviewing Olja Bećković it was clear that this was more forcefully done by visually presenting opinions in broadcast television, though equally faced damaging consequences.

A space of ‘media blackout’ in Serbia was established, caused by a period of conflict and manipulation, in relation to Volcic’s notion of power (2005), provides support to the creation of marginalisation of individuals who were unable to attain information during the ‘blackout’. Therefore reproducing an ideology of hierarchy established by the government.

The concept that during this period mediation of news remained at a standstill due to technology that was absent compared to that of the West’s. Virilio (2000) points out however, that despite Serbia’s lack of advancement, “technology has come to dominate all aspects of life” (2000:104), otherwise defined as modernity. Through ethnographic research that required immersing myself into Belgrade’s culture, I was able to see that the ideology that Prensky (2001:09) pointed out regarding the “digital native” – I was able to observe that the younger generation as adopting a more western approach towards mobile technology. Observed through their ability to connect and socially interact online more adeptly than an older generation. Simply through the positivity the journalist students expressed when discussing the interjection of technology within their Faculty of Political Sciences in radio and TV journalism, “[B]efore that, it was just textbook knowledge and that was it […] I wish we could have had more practical knowledge from the beginning.” Natalija, University of Belgrade student [21] (2015). The younger generation of Belgrade provided an attempt to actively provide a more frequent use to online mediation of news than that of the government’s restriction through the engagement of technology that, they hoped, provided a space of self-representation.

I begin to contextualise the concept of a ‘media blackout’ further by acknowledging my prior knowledge of power and responsibility (1997[1981]). Curran (1997[1981]) identifies that it was previously considered that the media in Serbia would provide an enhancement of political power, primarily within the government. Stimulated by the utopian projection (Volcic 2012) in the ability to mediate topical issues through broadcast media, instead the dominance of digital communication resulted in a stagnation of contemporary news. Tragedies become highlighted and visible; therefore, as soon as the ‘blackout’ became lifted a surveillance culture was introduced, which will be later considered through the use of Foucault (1977).

Journalists in Serbia attempt to improve a sense of national belonging affected by awareness provided by the way in which the media frames distributed information. I therefore provide an acknowledgment of the British press that in the eyes of a Serbian journalist can become romanticised as freely liberal. In contradiction to this view, I draw upon recent and on-going procedures of the Leveson enquiry, regarding ethical practises of the press. Police investigations where facilitated in order to investigate the relationship of the public and broadcasted media: in particular, the illegal phone hacking scandals that occurred during 2011. It was acknowledged that the press presents surveillance over public discourses, and when these discourses become attacked restriction occurs, a similar process Serbian journalists experienced after the historic space of conflict.

Zoric (2010) suggests that a sense of self-security has become enhanced by the interjection of mobile technology, which is relevant in the methods a contemporary journalist tends to adopt during the construction and shaping of their investigation and how this technology. Zoric (2010) describes how a woman becomes to adopt a greater independence by no longer being flanked by, stereotypically, male orientated media production crew, instead she is able to film in high quality, practically within the field on a mobile device.

I draw on theoretical understandings posed by Curran (1981:282): mobile technology as a weak method of engagement of recovering a sense of national identity with the government. This can be more recently identified as a threat by the way in which Ong (2006:05) pairs a neo-liberal ideology of the opportunity and risk of technology. Implying a sense of uncertainty to this westernised value of a digital world. The sense of a ‘media blackout’ continues to develop by simply the way in which the process of information becomes stagnate, whereas technology tends to catalyse this process and convenience of sharing digital archives in the West.

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Impression of the Week (2014):

During an interview with established journalist and former television presenter, Olja Bećković her opinion appeared confused towards the concept and relation of a ‘media blackout’ in Serbia, which begins to suggest that the portrayal of news becomes a fantasised construction of manipulation by those in power, though was acknowledged by Belgrade University students. Therefore, causing a group of marginalised voices to become under valued and unheard, resulting in an unequal balance in power relations.

Bećković’s former television programme Impression of the Week (2014) indirectly challenged political power through the use of a studio audience and guest appearances on the programme, in order to provide a variety of opinions on topical issues. Tabooed topics became aired, progressing to become shared through digital media as the programme entered the digital era for Serbia

(1988). It was clear that these alternative opinions were not accepted, as Bećković was indirectly asked to leave her position as host on the talk show, during 2014. Therefore, this demonstrates a Foucauldian (1977) ideology of power relations: suggesting principles of institutionalised power rather than that of individualistic. Foucault (1977:171) suggests that these relations of power has become scrutinised by the visual observation, “each gaze would form a part of the overall functioning of power.” For Foucault (1977) visual observation no longer functions as one solitary gaze but as a collective, leading the majority to believe in what is right and ‘correct’ in social norms. Therefore, I suggest that this public scrutiny has become sustained by the government and perpetuated through B92, previous employers to Olja Bećković.

Power Relations and Responsibilities:

The value and work ethic of how a journalist operates in Serbia was an important part of the research for me to consider as an individual because this directly relates to my own research interests of sensitivity and subject position. Journalists in Serbia are constantly reminded of their own positionalities as media broadcasters, because of the topics that they are covering of the conflict they essentially become a target. Despite the delayed beginning of digitalisation for Serbia, in comparison with the established West, technology played a key part in a journalist’s responsibility and methods. As a result of advancement in digital technology, investigative reporting became more detailed and sensitive topics were explored progressively. It was evident, prior to visiting Belgrade, that there was a sense of rejection to Western values of technology becoming interjected into a journalist’s responsibility. Expanding from Virilio (2000) and the sense of a false promise of technology, more recently Hasinoff (2014) has pointed out that the convenience that mobile technology now offers becomes attractive for an individual to share intimate and sensitive subjects they may not tend to normally do. Therefore, journalists in Serbia continue to conform to the regulations of the government due to the offline consequences of sharing sensitive information publicly.

Extract 1 presents Olja Bećković’s explicit understanding of the unequal distribution of power relations for journalists in relation to the current state of the broadcast media in Serbia, whilst identifying her perception of Serbia’s government.

Extract 1:

Esmé Spurling: So how would you describe the power of the media against the government of Serbia?

Olja Beckovic: I think all medias are under the control of government. So the prime minister [Alexander Vucic] is really obsessed with medias. And he controls everything, he watches all TV programmes and society networks and he knows everything what everyone wrote about him and he is all the time in problem and in conflict to discuss with journalists: “how dare you to ask the question” and “do your job!” He does not realise that it is possible to be on the other side of him he is sure that he is the best prime minister ever seen in the world.

This extract clearly suggests that Bećković views Serbian Prime Minister, Vucic, akin to Foucault’s (1977) exploration of the panoptican as a form of a surveillance culture and system of power. Bećković describes Vucic as ‘control[ing] everything’ and states he ‘watches all TV programmes and society networks’. Despite the improbability of one individual being able to watch every media transmission, the threat of an ‘all seeing’ Vucic functions in a similar manner to the panoptican (Foucault 1977). The panoptican itself does not result in constant surveillance, rather the threat of the possibility of constant surveillance results in a self-regulatory society: a self-regulatory society censors itself, in line with the perception that it is already under surveillance.

Rose (2012) has more recently indicated that this type of surveillance culture has become a dominant form of visibility that has entered modern capitalist societies. Rose (2012) develops this notion of surveillance by identifying that an individual can view the world but is not recognised, which becomes to draw upon Foucault (1977:200), “visibility is a trap”. Highly relevant considering the visibility Olja Bećković sustained during the broadcasting of B92. Reconsidering Belgrade University student’s views of Bećković, this considers Rose (2012) drawing upon Foucault (1977) focus of institutional power: by the student’s acknowledgment that Bećković was indirectly dismissed by the political power of the government.

During the end to the reign of Milošević (2000), Serbian tabloids that expressed “hatred and negative energy”, according to Kronja (2006:195), remained higher commodity than those which displayed positivity, which begins to suggest the change in the reporting style of a journalist. Kronja suggests that these pages hold an, “ideological link between misogyny, pornography and political extremism” (2006:203); the progressive concept that ‘sex sells’ becomes the grounding ideology for tabloids in order to provide a competitive mediation of political news.

Extract 2 presents the discussion of internationalisation of media through consideration of China’s economy with Olja Bećković and identifying the restrictions a journalist is confronted with in Serbia.

Extract 2:

Mandy Chun: I am afraid that one day Serbia will become like China, because in China, [if] people share their sensitive topics they might go to the jail. We name bad terms there’s an opportunity for prosecution. So yeah, they don’t have freedom to speak they don’t have media freedom at all so do you think Serbia, one day, will become the same as China? 

Olja Beckovic: Ah, I am afraid its possible yes, but it is big difference because the day when Serbia as in China, any person has their own tablet or iPad or iPhone, it’s far from us.

Esmé Spurling: So in your opinion, do you think that a journalist is restricted or do they have freedom?

Olja Beckovic: [A] journalist is restricted more than they have ever been! So journalists are frightened because they know that if they say anything that he [Alexander Vucic] does not like such in my case, then they loose job. And because, when you loose your job you don’t have any other place to find it so what are you going to do? And he [Alexander Vucic] knows that, so when you ask journalists is there a control of media they would say ‘oh I don’t know I don’t know’. [H]e’s just the guy who makes phone calls personally to journalists every day.

Despite the delayed interjection of technology in Serbia, the Western influence continued to remain absent and neglected, mainly due to the poor economy Serbia experienced. Mobile technology provides an absent promise of freedom of speech (Hasinoff 2014). The media attempts to provide a promise of freedom of expression especially under the works of Volcic (2005:164), “the Serbian discourses portray any positive image of the West as premised on the false promise of progress and capitalist development.” Such as this dominance of technology Virilio (2000) previously identified, becomes rejected in Serbia’s adaptation to the nature of the West. This becomes clear by the style of mediation of Serbia to the westernised countries in comparison with mediation of news in Serbia is distributed and restricted.

I therefore continue to consider Volcic (2005) utopian discourse of media freedom that expressed the ideology that western media becomes easily distributed than that of Belgrade’s stagnate broadcasting, especially by Bećković’s expression that, “[A] journalist is restricted more than they have ever been!” (2015). In terms of political powers directing journalists, with regards to report content and details that should be addressed but are not always broadcasted, became to create a further sense of uncertainty. Topic restrictions became unquestioned.

Volcic (2005) tends to research into the future of Serbia and of what forms will remain most meaningful. I therefore consider the position of a female journalist within Serbia operating under these restrictions. Technology has provided a key enhancement to mobility, a necessary duty of a reporter. Zoric (2010) engages her understanding of security within Serbia, especially for female journalists who have previously been viewed as vulnerable targets in spaces of conflict and corruption, similarly in consideration to journalists in China who experience similar modes of restriction.

I have demonstrated my active awareness regarding ethical consideration, through creating participant information and consent forms that have obtained voluntary consent to the use of their names. I therefore recognise that during interviewing our participants as a group, some of the information shared may have become censored with prior knowledge that their identity would be exposed in our chosen data. However, as identified by Mazzei (2007:47) the data is not restricted to the transcription but consideration to the information the participants neglected to give in “discourse-based research” becomes additionally considered. Therefore, the process of re-formating transcripts provided evidence to me that by exposing our participants’ identities they were keen to provide the edited information. The participants had the right to alter or remove topics previously discussed; facilitated via email communication to validate the final transcriptions. This acknowledgment has provided the research data with a fuller meaning and analytical approach, (Mazzei 2007). As a researcher into topics of sensitivity, I believe has been able to relate to my consideration to emotions experienced in ethnographic research (Coffey 1999).

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We should admit… that power produces knowledge […] power and knowledge directly imply one another” Foucault (1977:27)

By revisiting the project brief, in comparison to understanding the values of a journalist in Serbia, I consider that Belgrade is reforming a new identity in reconstructing a virtual space online as advancement to mobility in mediation of news (Boyd et al 2008). A sense of escapism can be determined by those who accept the use of online mediation, which has been illustrated by a younger generation conforming to the sense of a “digital native” (Prensky 2001). I recognise that only one journalist was primarily sourced and interacted with during conducting research within the field in Belgrade, and so the exploration of identities can be viewed as a on-going process by considering Bećković’s positionality and ambitious career drive. Power becomes established politically by the government in Serbia, becoming intensively restrictive since the reign of Milošević. Due to knowledge of the government generating the truth of Milošević’s corruption to the state. Continuing from Volcic (2012) utopian discourse, I draw upon a more recent identity of European memory by Leggewie (2013:101) who identifies that to, “achieve full integration and collective identity” this memory of the past must be completely re-formed. Therefore, considering a journalist’s ability to create media artefacts that is recognition of memory, knowledge of dates, individuals and events, must continue to shape journalistic investigations equally in order to represent the new identity of Belgrade as a collective nation.



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Zoric, J. (2010) Studio B, [interview] July 2010

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