A recent book on the state of the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina has underlined the challenges of its development. At the core of the book, some main issues have been identified, including inappropriate legislation ‘borrowed’ from established western democracies, lack of solidarity among journalists, and most importantly, the way the media, which should primarily serve a public interest, has been captured by political and economic elites. The latter, however, is not a crisis of democracy present solely in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also across the Balkans and the entire world. The precarious state of the media is increasingly exacerbated by the use of fake news to push various agendas, and in the absence of proper implementation of laws, the region offers fertile ground for even higher levels of manipulation and political influence. In this context, cooperatives as the alternative to the increasingly captured media space should be considered.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the main media problems is concerned with the media owners and lack of transparency. The study uncovered that especially when it comes to internet portals, which are on a constant rise given that print publications cannot maintain their operations, the lack of transparency affects the media’s accountability in two main ways: first the businesses are not required to declare who the owners are, and second, the public is not notified of what is a sponsored ‘post’ or advertisement and what is standard news. In this way, people with wealth can buy ‘news’ that portrays them positively in the media, without the public’s awareness.
Outside of BiH, in the region, this issues is increasingly highlighted, especially when it comes to media silencing alternative opinions, making investigative journalism a risky affair, and distributing news that is convenient to those with power. In Serbia, a recent campaign was developed by independent media stakeholders, which seeks to raise awareness of the captured state of media institutions. A black page appears when clicking on media portals, with the text: ‘This is what it looks like when there are no free media’. Macedonia has made headlines at the international level, as it was uncovered that not only is the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ website present locally, but it has taken to the international stage, with youth as young as 19 years of age developing fake news websites, and writing pro-Donald Trump articles as the US elections unfolded. While in Albania, most recently, as outlined in one of our previous articles, the media that has a wider reach completely silenced protests aimed to reveal the consequences of building hydropower plants in the Valbona National Park and to demand that the government stops their construction. Because of economic and political interests, the public was not informed about the local developments.
The captured media phenomenon is deeply entrenched in the Western Balkans societies, and change is slow, and given the outstanding challenges, the democratisation of the media is needed. Outside of the region, communities have sought to challenge the traditional approaches to media ownership in order to address the issue of private interests influencing public opinion, and ensuring that such outlets serve the public purpose they are meant to.
The solution proposed is based on the principle of the commons, and namely, it aims to change the ownership structure from a hierarchical, vertical share-holder or powerful owner institution to a horizontal structure. We are, of course, addressing the increasingly popular media coops. The coops address the very problem of the ownership: whether a multi-stakeholder, owned by a community of people or worker managed, though small and primarily serving a local purpose, they are independent and oriented towards serving the public interest. One of the most iconic examples of a media cooperative is the Associated Press, which still functions according to its founding principles, established in New York in 1846. In Europe, some of the media coops have been functioning for many years, such as the New Internationalist (founded in Oxford in 1973), or Die Tagerzeitung (Berlin, 1978), but while in the past these were uncommon, currently media coops are becoming increasingly popular, and expanding their reach, with the help of the internet, and particularly social sharing platforms. For example, Positive News is a media coop which seeks to address the critical issue of negativism in the media sphere, and although published mainly in the UK, it focuses on international issues and reaches out to an international audience.
There are two main models for cooperative media organisations.
The first is that of a worker’s coop in which all the staff in the company work towards its development and operation and equally share the profits.
The second is a multi-stakeholder model, in which not just the staff, but also members of the public both invest resources and have a say in the decision-making and direction of the organisation.
In 2015, Positive News became the first ever crowdfunded media cooperative. Their efforts to achieve this rested on an online campaign #OwnTheMedia as they sought to secure £200 000 investment to expand and to transform itself into a cooperative business. Each donation that members of the public made meant that they became shareholders and owned the publication. The goal was secured in just one month, and the media outlet became owned by 1526 supporters, journalists, and staff. The minimum investment required was as low as £50 per person, and no matter whether some invested more, each shareholder now has an equal vote in the cooperative.