Check against delivery

Prime Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am honoured to address you today at this conference dedicated to the media in the Western Balkans. I would also like to thank PM Rama for hosting this event and inviting us to a cultural programme in the evening.

As is already known to many of you, this year's conference follows a new approach: building on the experience of the Speak Up conferences, we have broadened the scope of topics to respond to latest developments in the media sector, taking into account the complexity of problems journalists and media organisations have to cope with at these times. Journalism doesn't take place in an isolated sphere, but in the middle of the society, in interaction with the given political, economic and social environment. Therefore it would not be productive to consider one aspect only, as was done by the previous Speak Up conferences with its single focus on media freedom.

We have to go a step further and discuss the situation of media from a broader angle: media freedom cannot be regarded and achieved in an isolated way. A vibrant, economically sustainable, independent and pluralistic media sector is equally important for exercising freedom of expression as are the legal, political and judicial conditions/guarantees for this. This means that we have to take a look at a variety of issues such as the ownership structure of media, the economic situation, which means especially the advertisement market. We have to look also very closely at the dramatic changes the traditional media landscape is undergoing - which is a global phenomenon, of course - with digitalisation and changing production as well as consumption patterns. Finally, we have to take into consideration also the political and social environment for journalistic work, the obstacles to independent and free reporting: political pressure, phenomena like self-censorship and the very relevant question of quality reporting.  It is clear that we will not have an answer or solution to all questions related to these topics, but these newly shaped Media Days are the starting point for a more realistic, comprehensive and up to date approach which will hopefully lead in the medium and long-term to sustainable tailor-made solutions for the media of the region.

As you will experience, we have also adapted the format of the conference to encourage more forward-looking and result-oriented discussions, both in the panels and in particular in the workshops. Another important new element is the decision to have this important conference no longer in Brussels, but in the Western Balkans, in YOUR region, in order to strengthen ownership and to reach a higher degree of involvement and engagement.

Let me start with one topic, which is of particular concern to the European Commission, not only with regard to the WB region: media freedom and freedom of expression. I would like to highlight this in order to reassure you that despite broadening the scope of topics, media freedom will remain at the very heart of all our activities and considerations with regard to media policy.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental value of the European Union and as such, it is a non-negotiable condition for any applicant or candidate country on their way towards EU accession. Independent and free reporting is crucial for building up democracy, establishing good governance and for an adequate communication of reforms, which is important to take the citizens on board. Support and protection of freedom of media is even more important in view of the fact that conditions for independent and investigative reporting have deteriorated dramatically world-wide: The EU is also affected, as demonstrated only recently by the brutal murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

As for media freedom at the Western Balkans, the Commission is constantly monitoring the challenges and obstacles journalists are facing when exercising their profession. These observations are reflected directly in our country reports. Let me mention only some essential highlights from our analysis.

The cases of violence and intimidation against journalists have always been of utmost concern. And given the lack of progress in this regard, we will continue to follow the issue, address it with the authorities and insist there is no impunity.

We have noted also a wide misuse of defamation lawsuits to hinder the work of critical journalists and we have alerted our partners in the Western Balkans about malfunctioning media- and advertising markets undermining independent reporting. Moreover, for a number of years, the unaccounted use of public funds in media allowing for suspect political bias has been highlighted in our country reports.

We have drawn attention - and this conference is evidence that we keep on doing so – that political leaders in candidate and applicant countries are responsible for guaranteeing media freedom, including the security and decent living conditions of journalists. From the perspective of the accession process, freedom of media is an important indicator of the functioning of Rule of Law. We are constantly addressing this issue in our contacts with the relevant authorities.

But this fundamental right which we will always protect, goes hand in hand with responsibilities on part of the media such as quality of reporting, which means both respecting standards and providing objective, unbiased reporting. Even under the well-known, difficult conditions it is important to overcome polarisation and simplification. Critical reporting is crucial for any democracy, media are an indispensable element of a well-functioning system of checks and balances. But this important function should be exercised with responsibility: with constructive criticism, based on well-researched arguments and avoiding personal attacks. It is easier for us to defend critical journalism which complies with professional standards and which has, moreover, public credibility.

Another area where media can actively contribute to improvements are the ethnic tensions, which can be evoked so easily in this region. It is evident that they are generated by politicians to serve a certain political agenda. But these tensions can be reinforced – or reduced – through the reporting of media. That's exactly where the responsibility of media comes in, where media can contribute to building bridges instead of deepening the divides. Due to the importance of this issue we have dedicated a specific workshop to the topic "Words that hurt: the contribution of media to reconciliation".

Ladies and gentlemen,

Speaking to an audience of experts and practitioners I am very well aware that everybody here knows the difficult situation which media are facing in the Western Balkans. The real issue is what we altogether – political representatives in the WB, stakeholders, business, the EU and media themselves! -  can do to improve the situation. Our Director of DG NEAR for the Western Balkans, Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, who will participate in the first panel, will give you some examples what the Commission is doing already, on the basis of the findings of our country reports, to promote an environment that allows media freedom and quality journalism to thrive.

The "Media Days" which we have launched today, should be an additional contribution to concrete improvements of the working environment of media in the Western Balkans. Apart from issues such as media freedom and reconciliation, the conference will deal, for the first time, with economic aspects and the challenge to adapt to rapidly changing production and consumption patterns.

The precarious economic situation of media enterprises is a global phenomenon, of course, but it affects much more the less developed media markets in countries in transition such as the Western Balkans. Advertising revenues, the main source of financing for professional journalism, dropped dramatically. In addition, advertisers have taken their business to online and social media. Professional journalism faces also a ruthless competition from fake-news producers neglecting any commitment to quality standards and authenticity of information.

The algorithms of the digital world are defining and manipulating consumers' perception, a phenomenon which has heavy consequences for the traditional media market. As already mentioned, these are global developments, but aggravated in the Western Balkans through the lack of expertise how to deal with these challenges.

Against this background we have invited forward looking and innovative media professionals from the EU and accession countries to present their views on how to address persisting media challenges from the economic point of view. I am happy to see media investors as well as an expert from EBRD at the panels and chairs and co-chairs of the workshops who will address future perspectives. Guided by them, the discussions at the specific workshops covers a number of topics with increasing relevance for today's media such as identifying innovative financing sources as alternatives to the malfunctioning advertising markets, developing new formats and business models for the digital age and finally, developing journalists' professional skills which is a further requirement to manage the change. This means not only improving quality of reporting but to learn to better know and understand the audiences' needs.

All the points mentioned are pre-requisites for establishing truly independent media reporting. As it applies in general to Rule of Law, media freedom and improvement of the economic situation and competitiveness of media enterprises go hand in hand. A stable economic situation is the best tool to resist political pressure. Creativity and readiness to engage in new business models is as much needed as the persistent and courageous defence of media freedom and the right of critical reporting.   

In order to underline this forward looking aspect and the focus on new perspectives, we have also invited innovative media start-ups from the EU and the region to present themselves which will certainly lead to interesting exchanges.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We initiated this conference to have a comprehensive discussion about how to get professional journalism back on track in the Western Balkans against the backdrop of the significant shifts and developments in the media landscape as I have just described.

There is one more topic closely linked to the peculiarities of today’s media scene and of relevance to the region. The tabloidization of mainstream media which creates a fertile ground for the quick spread of radical, intolerant attitudes within society. This is where user communities are dominated by the loudest and most radical opinions, intolerant of differing views.

I firmly believe that in the Western Balkans there are large audiences for media products that go beyond the unfortunately very common simplifying “black and white” approach. To this end, I invite you to pay particular attention to discussing ways of promoting quality journalism. Media and digital literacy will be a central, cross cutting subject in all the workshops of this conference.

And all this is also an important economic factor: At times when people are increasingly "over-newsed but under-informed" quality content can be THE decisive asset in an extremely competitive market.

It is true that the environment for media in the Western Balkans is extremely challenging and we all know the external reasons for this: persisting political pressure as we see in countries in transition; rapidly changing markets and consumer habits.

The Commission will continue to provide support for an improvement of the media environment, through constant monitoring and concrete assistance programmes. But there is also work that can be done by the media themselves: getting ready for change!  The "Western Balkan Media Days" which we launch today, should open new perspectives; provide space for the exchange of views and expertise; encourage cooperation across countries and media-sectors and, most important of all, foster innovation.

In this spirit, I wish all participants a fruitful discussion and inspiring experiences. The proverb "The past is history. The present is past. The future has already begun" is particularly relevant for the rapidly changing media market. I hope that this conference will contribute to shaping the Western Balkan media's future in a positive way by creating an independent media landscape of high quality which is, the most important and most sustainable materialization of European values. And as such, a true driver of the reform- and transformation process, which will be decisive to make the European perspective of your countries come true.

Thank you for your attention and enjoy this free space of exchanging ideas and experiences! I am looking forward to the summary of the findings of the workshops tomorrow!