Dialogue and re-examination versus dissent and division
The acceptance speech of Zvezdana Kovač, Executive Director of the CDRSEE and Editor in Chief of Vicinities, during the awards ceremony of the "European Citizenship Awards 2016" in London on 12 September 2016:
Okruzenje is a joint initiative of the CDRSEE and European Fund for the Balkans (EFB), financially supported by the German Foreign Ministry. We are grateful for their support as it enables us to implement the idea of gathering TV channels from the entire Western Balkans (the countries of ex-Yugoslavia and Albania) around a political TV show. Eight countries from the region exchange a news programme, for the first time ever after the wars of the 90s!
Okruzenje is in its fifth season now, and we are still the only programme broadcast at approximately the same time in all of these countries. I would like to underline this fact, as exchanging news between these countries is still unimaginable today -- unlike the entertainment programs which are still all “political-free” or “taboo-free”.
It all began when we managed to gather seven TV stations from five Western Balkan countries (Croatia, FYR of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia) together. Bluntly speaking, this was a result of our personal acquaintances — people from TV channels who knew who we were and who could trust us. They were also courageous enough to broadcast our programme despite the incredible animosity towards the idea of a joint news project. My praise goes to these people as well and I thank them for their extraordinary fearlessness!
In 2012 it was too early to start with something that perhaps recalled a ‘Yugo-nostalgic’ sentiment. We also feared that we would be accused of conspiracy - of having some “big names” or big power standing behind us and supporting us in creating a “horrible” plan of rebuilding Yugoslavia.
To counter this, we were clear from the beginning: as our aim is not to put together broken pieces — but to provide opportunity with dialogue, to promote a civilized dialogue supported by facts and, in that manner, help recover and develop the broken pieces. We never wanted a new Yugoslavia.
We are now, as I’ve already mentioned, at the beginning of the fifth season. We completed the previous season with ten channels from eight countries of the Western Balkans on board! And we did what no one in TV history has ever done: we brought two prime ministers together in the same studio! In the past, we had the opportunity to obtain the statements of different prime ministers in one show, but never ever had them physically sitting together in the same studio. The success was even greater because they were not just any two ministers but those of Albania and Serbia - two countries with no record of collaboration for the past several decades; two countries whose relationship influenced and even shaped the geopolitical map of the region. If you are aware of the history of the region and the animosities that exist today, what we did was inconceivable. We worked hard, very hard. We walked on tightropes constantly, but we believed in what we were doing and never gave up. Maybe we were lucky, but there is an expression in my language: “sreca prati hrabre” which means: fortune favors the brave.
Now, a word about the media in the Western Balkans: it is not free. There is a prime minister who says that journalists are scum! There are countries where people read the free press in secret … There is another prime minister who calls his political opponents in the parliament, in front of TV cameras – “idiots”. There is a country in the middle of the region whose journalists are forbidden to use the word ”region”, unless it refers to a region of western European countries … There are perfect laws in all the countries, but their implementation is almost zero! There is also poverty in the media: journalists are among the poorest citizens.
I am often asked how objective the media in the Balkans is … There is no absolute objectiveness, of course, as every media, everywhere, has its owner. The problem is not whether you are objective or subjective, the problem is the lack of decent, honest and dignified people in the media! Democracy is still practically non-existent in the region.
I am from the Balkans, I grew up in the Balkans and I can allow myself to say these things - I know my compatriots. They are hardworking and good people. However, the long-lasting autocratic regimes, as well as (consequently) lack of democratic tradition, and cultivation of true human values, metaphorically speaking, left a deep mark. People in the Balkans do not know how to debate; there is a lot of cacophony instead, where no one listens to anyone and, even if they could listen, they would not be able to hear one another.
We are trying to promote something which probably sounds very basic to you - the simple fact of speaking and listening to others. We are promoting the exchange of arguments supported by facts. Our guests from all over the region do not think the same — they often have quite different opinions. However, dissimilar views are always an occasion for re-examination and not hostility. There is no “sensitive topic” in Okruzenje — we talk openly about everything.
Perhaps you can now see why we earned the jury’s trust and why we were awarded special mention in the media initiative of the year. We do hope that there will be Okruzenje/Vicinities in 2017,2018, 2019 … but it will depend upon those who fund us. We are willing to work hard on keeping neighbors gathered around the TV round table, as we deeply believe that the only way to solve problems is through discussion and dialogue and to this, there is no alternative.