Similar to democratisation itself in the region, the transformation of the media landscape in the Western Balkans (WB) is an open-ended process that can never be fully consolidated, a process that has been marked by significant progress, but also by patterns of regression. The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisor Group (BiEPAG) argued recently that “the state of democracy and freedom has been backsliding or stagnating in the countries of the Western Balkans over the past decade”. In light of this current developments and in highly complex media landscapes in the Western Balkans, alternative media have the potential to contribute to media pluralism and democratisation itself.
Independent international organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Freedom House, Southeastern Europe Media Observatory and others in the region itself such as the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Centre for Civic Education, as well as the European Commission WB countries reports, have documented a profoundly alarming increase in reports of violations of media freedoms on different levels (as argued elsewhere by A. Vračić & B. Bino). However, this decline in media freedoms seems to receive relatively limited attention in the Western Balkans and EU, the latter mostly concerned with stability. Even less attention is paid to the role that alternative media could play in this regard.
An alternative to mainstream media in the Western Balkans
The dynamics of the alternative media landscape in the Western Balkans are difficult to assess due to the lack of credible and systematic research, which is only currently emerging. Mapping alternative media is a challenging task also due to the elusiveness of alternative media themselves and the fact that in most cases they are under-the-radar media or communication networks with limited reach and circulation. Alternative media – also referred to as community media, citizens’ media, critical media, rhizomatic media – have participation as their central feature. They can be both mainstream and online, but they are different in that they open up access to media production to non-media professionals and allow for participatory communicative spaces and decision-making processes in media production, organisation and management.
In this light, the key task of alternative media in the Western Balkans is to challenge the highly concentrated media system of commercial and public service media and the resulting symbolic media power by overcoming the dichotomy producers vs. consumers of media content. Therefore, contributing towards media pluralism in Western Balkans states by responding to concerns over increasing concentration of media ownership, economic and political control over vital communication resources and infrastructures, and the need for diversity of content and sources. These alternative media have created spaces to broaden public debate, inject local and different voices that are often neglected in an increasingly commercialized, personalized and globalized media landscape. By ensuring that media production does not remain solely in the hands of large scale institutions, alternative media remind us that media pluralism is not just about plurality of content but plurality of content producers and owners.
Second, alternative media offer participatory communication spaces to marginalised communities (e.g. Kanxura Radio) that do not usually have access to mainstream media and thus challenge dominant discourse of power relations in society. Third, alternative media have served to facilitate, but also mobilise, active citizenship. This is particularly relevant in lieu of a decline in trust and participation in the political systems in the Western Balkans. There is also social value and contribution that is derived from alternative media – offering platforms for participation and acting as a catalyst for a diversity of activists, artists, communities and civil society organizations.
Challenges and perspective of alternative media in the Western Balkans
Despite the opportunities, concerns about the quality of media production and impact still persist. Alternative media are small-scale participatory media that often remain marginal and face fragmentation and financial hardship. The participatory and non-commercial character of these media implies lack of resources and problems with continuous production, thus making it difficult to gain public visibility and reach broad audiences. Also, these media platforms are not safe havens when it comes to intimidation, indirect political pressures and soft censorship.
Nonetheless, by opening up the access, interaction and participation in media production to a broad public, alternative media hold the promise of an emancipatory and progressive potential, much needed for vitalising democratic life in the Western Balkans. For alternative media to flourish in the Western Balkans, there should be an enabling media policy environment – recognition of community media as a formal “third sector” alongside commercial and public service media and promotion of their social gain and value. In all cases, maintaining a public interest in media developments in paramount in Western Balkans states to ensure quality journalism and media integrity.