Self-regulation of online media in BiH: Disinformation, anonymous portals and hate speech
Self-regulation of online media in BiH: Disinformation, anonymous portals and hate speech
The self-regulation system in BiH remains inefficient.
By: Belma Kasumović, Lejla Memčić, Sumeja Mehmedović
The citizens of BiH are not informed, interested or motivated enough to refer complaints to the Press and Online Media Council in BiH about contents that do not directly concern them. On the other hand, due to the limitations of the self-regulatory body – the inability to sanction violations of professional standards – its functioning focuses on issuing public appeals, warnings and counsel to owners, editors and journalists to publish retractions, corrections and apologies, and/or remove a text and/or comment of a user or ban a user permanently or temporarily. That this body may only act on citizens’ reports, and that there is no permanent or periodic monitoring of the contents of online media in BiH, is an additional obstacle. It is completely up to the will of editors and journalists to what extent they choose to act in line with the Council’s decisions.
Self-regulation and the Press Council
The lack of efficient (self-)regulation, transparency of media ownership, need for a fast flow of information and fast and easy profit online, the option of anonymous writing, but also willful propaganda and spins, have lead to frequent disinformation and “fake news”, as well as a large number of online media in BiH which do not adhere to professional or ethical standards.
The Press Council is a self-regulatory non-governmental body for print and online media in BiH, which acts as an intermediary between disgruntled readers, print and online media, oversees the implementation of the Press and Online Media Code of BiH and has the task of improving professional journalistic standards. Some of the Code’s provisions refer to editorial accountability, public interest, accuracy and fair reporting, and confidentiality of information sources. The Code binds journalists and editors to respect public interest, avoid incitement and discrimination, respect the right to privacy, make clear distinctions between opinion and fact, as well as between advertising, sponsored content and editorial content, to protect the right to reply, carefully report on crime suspects, children and minors, protect witnesses if needed, copyright compliance and ownership transparency for possible complaints. Sparse analyses of media reporting on specific topics and annual reports about the situation of media in BiH indicate that the quality of journalism in BiH is poor and that journalists and editors alike do not consistently adhere to professional standards.
To become members of the Press Council, media outlets must be registered as legal entities with relevant authorities, perform activities from the area of journalism and accept the goals and role of the Council. On its website, the Press Council lists about one hundred online media outlets, including well-known online media such as Klix.ba and Buka, and online portals of print media such as Avaz and Oslobođenje, and small local portals such as eSrebrenica and Prnjavor.info. The list covers just a portion of all online media in BiH – some sources estimate that there are around 2000 of them – whose register still does not exist. A large number of online media is anonymous and, according to recent research carried out by the association Zašto ne?, represents a type of media that is the major contributor to the creation and spread of disinformation on the Internet. The majority of them is not registered as legal entities and, as stated by the authors of the research, “the lack of information on persons behind these media outlets prevents the self-regulatory body and relevant authorities from trying to intervene and request the removal of problematic media contents.”
Complaints about contents in online and print media
In 2018, there were 316 citizens’ complaints about editorial contents and comments in online media. The majority were requests for retraction, reactions to a published text or complaints about visitors’ comments. Out of the total number, 50 complaints were rejected, five were untimely, 36 were withdrawn, and 22 were outside the Council’s authority, including complaints about contents published on social networks. A total of 141 were resolved through self-regulation, of which 51 by publishing retractions and 14 by removing the content. The largest number of resolved cases concerned complaints about inappropriate comments made by users of online media, which were resolved by removing the comment and/or permanent or temporary banning of the users' profiles. Although more than half of received complaints in 2018 were resolved through self-regulation, the fact that most of them concerned users' comments, and that some media outlets still do not act in accordance with the decisions of the Press Council speaks to the fact that the self-regulation system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still not efficient enough. Furthermore, many complaints are filed by the same persons about one text published on several portals or a large number of comments on the same piece of text and often refer to comments or statements made on a personal basis.
Citizens are not informed, interested or motivated enough to refer complaints to the Press and Online Media Council in BiH about contents that do not directly concern them. A recently published research carried out by Mediacentar regarding media literacy of youth in BiH showed that young people do not know to whom or how they can report problematic media contents, are not motivated to do so, and do not believe in the efficiency of complaint procedures. They would only report media content that concerns them directly. An additional problem is the lack of interest or need of youth and citizens to verify ownership or the credibility of authors and the media. The majority of citizens will not check whether an online media outlet contains Legal Notice information, whether it meets professional standards and is there someone to speak to in the event of complaints. To engage young people, but all citizens as well, to report problematic media contents and critically evaluate them, it is necessary to educate them on media literacy, the research states.
Efficiency of Self-regulation
The (in)efficiency of self-regulation of online media in BiH becomes clear when we compare the number of fake news and disinformation in the register of the fact-checking platform “Raskrinkavanje” – from November 2017 to November 2018, a total of 1486 articles containing political disinformation were registered – with the number of complaints filed with the Press Council, which is a few hundred a year. In addition to that, it is unrealistic to expect complete efficiency of the self-regulatory body in a market environment where the financial survival of online media depends on clickbait and sensationalist headlines and news, and where adhering to professional standards is not a priority.
Opinions of media workers are divided when it comes to the efficiency of self-regulation. Berislav Jurič, the editor of the Mostar-based portal Bljesak.info, believes that the work of the self-regulatory body is very much necessary to advise and educate, but says that some members of the Council use double standards in their work. The majority of media workers concur that there is a need for change, the introduction of new legislation, and better education of both journalists and citizens if self-regulation is to work.
Aleksandra Mandić, TA at the Faculty of Philosophy in Istočno Sarajevo, clarifies that it is necessary to start debates at the institutional level, enhance and adapt the work of regulatory and self-regulatory bodies to new media technologies, be guided by experiences and specific real-world examples, instead of recommendations of states with completely different government structures. She says that it is indisputable that self-regulation provides more flexibility than state control, but that does not mean that the state should not support the work of online media.
According to Mandić, “It should provide an appropriate legislative framework for work in a specific environment (including fines for violations of regulations, threats and hate speech), and the necessary technical and telecommunication structure. If fines or calls to accountability were introduced for inappropriate online behaviour (including publishing information on sanctioned persons, because it would be unjustified to hide behind the right to privacy), there would be far less anonymous profiles using the Internet to intimidate and spread disinformation.”
On the other hand, Enes Osmančević, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Tuzla and member of the Complaints Commission of the Press Council of BiH, states that Bosnia and Herzegovina lacks legislation on the use of technology which would, in some way, specify what constitutes the abuse of technology, legislation on the transparency of media ownership, which would also make the media more transparent and clear, and legislation on advertising, which would organise the advertising market and regulate media revenue from marketing.
One possible solution to more efficient regulation of online media emphasised by some media workers is the system of co-regulation, which is the link between a self-regulatory and regulatory body, and enables regulators to become involved and impose sanctions when legally prescribed goals and codes are violated. The introduction of co-regulation for online media would mean sanctions for the most severe violations of ethical standards, which would serve as examples to other media.
One broadly accepted solution, which was discussed in Press Council sessions is “certifying” professional and serious portals, but also flagging portals without any Legal Notice information, the so-called “portaloids”. The proposal to establish a commission to deal with theft and copying of media content within the Press Council was also accepted, while the proposal to finally organise a portal register was met with particular approval.
Alternative Solutions – Media Watchdog Platforms
Alongside self-regulatory bodies, watchdog and fact-checking organisations are also becoming more popular across the world. They act as critics of the work of other media and point to violations of professional and/or ethic codes. The most famous watchdog platform in BiH is Raskrinkavanje.ba, started by the team behind the association “Zašto ne?”, which checks media reports, mostly from online media, based on citizens' reports, and determines whether they are fake new, disinformation, spin, etc. Opinions of media workers on the work of the platform are divided, and so are their reactions to analyses of their media contents – while some of them accept responsibility and correct or remove problematic content, others do not acknowledge their work and even react in a hostile manner.
Jurič says that platforms like Raskrinkavanje are also often biased in their work and that some media outlets are never found in their analyses.
Amer Džihana, the editor of Analiziraj.ba, a portal which is also a type of watchdog platform, says that he is positive about the work of new platforms focusing on the media in society because they are a step forward from when only small groups dealt with the work of media. He also thinks that "journalism is too important to be left up solely to regulators, courts and the professional community. It impacts the lives of all people and it is very important that as many people as possible take part in debates about the quality of journalism and public communication in general.”
Furthermore, unlike other media such as print, radio or television, online media also struggle with a large number of online comments, which are often the source of hate speech and also fall under the "authority" of the self-regulatory body and are the media's responsibility.
The role and responsibility of the media in the battle against hate speech in comments is great. Jurič says that Bljesak.info disabled comments, making it clear that by doing so, it is not limiting the freedom of speech, but the freedom of hate.
"As members of the Press Council, we have been warned about the practice of commenting on other media that do not take care of their content. If, however, comments are identified on social networks containing hate speech or any other inappropriate content, they are deleted and the commenters banned."
Džihana says that they disabled comments on their website because they feel that this form of expression has little value, with great potential to harm. However, their social media sites do feature comments, which they regularly monitor, moderate and, as a rule, delete any hate speech, as well as any speech that may not fall under the definition of hate speech, but is vulgar and offensive.
For self-regulation to work, all sides: the self-regulatory body, the media, media watchdog platforms and citizens, must head for the same goal – respect for professional journalistic standards. For now, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, only a small portion of the media and online community adheres to these standards.
The analysis was carried out after the training for journalists and journalism students “Medijska pismenost i verifikacija informacija - od klika do ispravke” (Media Literacy and Verification of Information – From Click to Correction) which was held on 23rd April 2019. Anida Sokol was one of the trainers and mentors to the group of journalists that authored the analysis. The Project was implemented by Mediacentar Sarajevo for SEENPM and TOL.