Media, Citizenship, and Political Agenda(s)

Davor Marko
media and citizenship

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Paper Series and is available for download here.

“Clientelistic” ties between leading print media and politics in the countries of the former Yugoslavia prevent media from being an open space for discussion and debate. Characterized by low newspaper circulation, an elite-oriented press, commentary-oriented journalism, and weak professionalism[1], the media has been commonly used as a mouthpiece of political regimes or promotional tool of oppositional forces. As the results of this study illustrate, this is the case with media reporting on citizenship and related issues as well.

By exploring the way the leading print media in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia reported on citizenship from 1991 until 2012, this research has attempted to achieve multiple aims. Firstly it is an attempt to systematize existing research on media reporting related to various aspects of citizenship. Additionally, it provides a primary analysis of media content, in order to identify the most salient topics and issues related to citizenship presented in selected media. Finally, the main trends in media reporting were analysed within an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that includes selected approaches/theories not just from media and communication studies, but also from studies on citizenship. The main assumption of this research is that mass media in the states under scrutiny, while reporting on citizenship-related issues, have mostly legitimized governments in determining their citizenship policies.

The public agenda(s) on citizenship, as generated by the media, was mainly conceptualized around the following issues: the notion of (ethnic or religious) belonging, the relationships between majority and minority and the questions of dual citizenship. Neutral and critical media that open a space for a truly democratic and public debate on citizenship issues have remained marginal. While this is a general problem to be confronted by those states, it is demonstrated particularly clearly when it comes to their coverage of citizenship-related issues.

BiH: Ethnically affiliated journalism

When it comes to BiH, it is impossible to talk about a unique media front or state-based media (with the exception of BHTV which has been created as a shared media platform by the international community). The first line of division follows territorial/entity lines; we can distinguish between media from Republika Srpska (RS) and media from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), the two constituent units of BiH. In RS, both media blocs – regime supporters and those who oppose it – has  an obvious ethno-national tone, dealing with topics exclusively related to Serbs and not to other ethnic groups that are constitutive (at least formally of the RS), some of which further insist on close ties with Serbia. This was reflected in their coverage of issues relating to citizenship. Some consider the state of BiH as a “necessary evil” (Novi reporter, Glas Srpske, Fokus); some reported on citizenship-related issues in a more moderate way but with a focus on pro-Serb politics (oppositional TV BN – Bijeljina, ATV, or the daily Nezavisne). Some focussed on issues related to citizenship in the RS, on special relations (and on dual citizenship) with Serbia, and some were very critical towards the naturalization of foreigners of Arab origins during the war, which they used to criticize Bosniak politicians. For example, while reporting on naturalized citizens in BiH who were Muslim, the pro-Serb media argued that most of these people were former mujahedeen warriors or ‘terrorists’ and criticized the former or incumbent Bosniak authorities for granting them BiH citizenship.

The second line of division follows ethnic boundaries, where three blocs can be recognized: pro-Serb that mostly overlaps with the pro-RS oriented bloc, pro-Bosniak and pro-Croat. What is common in reporting on citizenship is the focus on their own group, and permanent criticism of the others. While the pro-Croat media reported on topics related to citizenship of the state of BiH without an affirmative or negative stance, they focused mainly on the marginalized position of Croats in BiH and their special ties with Croatia. The pro-Bosnian media bloc reported on issues relating to state citizenship without being predominantly characterized by an ethnic tone/focus of reporting. Here we can distinguish between media that use an exclusive pro-Bosniak ethnic tone (Dnevni avaz) and those that offer a civic[2] perspective (Oslobođenje, Slobodna Bosna and Dani).

There was little reporting on issues relating to minorities, especially on their status and rights. Most of the media reported on the Sejdić and Finci v. BiH case[3] in a balanced manner, following mainly the reports of the international and local actors involved, giving a space for different perspectives to be presented. Only a few media outlets from Republika Srpska equated this case with the effort of Bosniak politicians to unify the state, in particular the weekly Novi Reporter.

Serbia: nationally awakened media

During the second half of the 1990s, mainstream print media generally didn’t spark big debates on citizenship in general terms, while some topics (such as the status of refugees) were presented but not explored in depth. In the 2000s, however, links between the government and the leading print media were increasingly liberalized, while the content and the manner of their reporting became increasingly “ethnicized”. In this sense, the content of the leading print media corresponded with the agendas of the leading, mostly nationalistic, political parties or became more nationalistic in their discourse.

When it comes to reporting on issues related to citizenship (dual citizenship, status of Albanians from Kosovo and refugees of Serbian origin, citizenship legislation, the 2006 Serbian Constitution), two shifts took place. First, when we compare the media content in the 1990s and 2000s, it is evident that external pluralism (explicit ties with governmental structures and exclusive political options) was weakened, and that new forms of control took over (private ownership instead of direct political control), while internal pluralism (related to media content) was increased. Second, the division between pro-governmental and oppositional media from the 1990s has been replaced now with the division between nationalistic-oriented media that affirmatively report on government decisions related to citizenship (Politika, Večernje novosti, Glas javnosti, and many other sensationalistic dailies such as Kurir, Pravda, or Press), and those that report in a more “civic” manner, being often very critical towards nationalist policies (Danas, Blic, Vreme, and especially the radio show Peščanik and the web portal e-novine).

Croatia: Rise of critical discourse in the 2000s

Two shifting trends in Croatian media reporting on citizenship can be observed when we compare the 1990s and the 2000s. In the last decade the media became more plural (in the sense of their content), more critical towards the government, but indirectly controlled by various centres of power (for example, the publishing house EPH holds a monopoly over print media). The 2000s were the period in which the weekly Feral Tribune, the symbol of oppositional and anti-nationalist struggles from the 1990s, finally ceased publication in 2008. During the 1990s when the process of nation building was taking place, the media were mostly focused on the “status” aspect. Both pro-government and opposition media reported on the status of the Croat nation, the status of the Serbian minority, the Croat diaspora and the promotion of the transnational Croat community. The most widely debated issue was related to the voting rights of diaspora through the so-called “list for diaspora”. The political changes in 2000 did not influence the policies towards diaspora substantially, but the media — now distanced from direct political control — took a more critical stance towards the issue and did not support it unquestioningly.

Montenegro: Strong political divisions

The issue of citizenship has been of the highest importance in Montenegro while this state transitioned to independence in 2006. The leading print media followed the agendas of the leading parties, adopting corresponding attitudes and perspectives on certain aspects of citizenship.  

During the second half of the 1990s, when the state was divided over the question of whether Montenegro should be an independent state, the media were divided into blocs -- one consisted of pro-government (Pobjeda), and pro-independence media (Vijesti, and Monitor), and another that opposed this idea and expressed pro-Serbian political views (DAN). During the 2000s the pro-Montenegrin bloc was further divided into strict pro-government or pro-Đukanović (Pobjeda), or oppositional (Vijesti and Monitor) while the pro-Serbian bloc remained within the same matrix of reporting. The divisive issues in reporting were new constitutional arrangements, the distinction between “citizens” in a general and “citizens” in a narrow sense (related to those who possess Montenegrin citizenship), the requests of ethnic Serbs from Montenegro to be granted constituent status, the issue of dual citizenship, the position of non-citizen residents after 2006 and problems relating to their voting rights.

General conclusion

The most salient topics relating to citizenship in the media were those with a strong political or inter-ethnic connotation. In Croatia, there was a consensus in the media which followed the official state policies regarding initial determination of citizenship. When discussing the issues and problems related to dual citizenship policies, the media from Montenegro either affirmatively reported on it, gave the floor to all sides involved in debate, or criticized these policies from an ethnic (in this case, Serb) perspective, calling it discrimination in relation to basic rights. Most of the Serbian media — especially during the 2000s — became more ethnic-oriented in their reporting. Through reporting on citizenship-related issues (dual citizenship with Montenegro and new citizenship regulations in Serbia) they reflect a new ethnocentric Serbian citizenship policy.

In BiH, ethno-politically affiliated media used specific cases to defend the position of their own people (or politicians) and to criticize opponents. The main pro-Bosniak media criticized Croatian and Serbian citizenship policies for being “expansionist” and manipulative. On the other hand, the media from RS in most cases were exclusively concerned with issues related to belonging to the state of BiH.

At the moment, based on the summarised trends of reporting on citizenship, it is obvious that the leading print media in these four countries do not offer enough space for discussion and open participation on citizenship and related topics. Print media, due to the uncertain future of the press, are strongly dependent on their political or economic patrons, and rather serve as legitimizers than informers, observers, or watchdogs. It is slightly different with the online media. Due to the penetration of Internet use in the region, and the opportunities it offers for citizens to take part in content creation and discussion, it could play a much important role in discussing the problems and issues related to the citizenship. But the impact of online media in the region of the former Yugoslavia is still uncertain and unexplored, and this could be the subject of future research.

Davor Marko is an external consultant on the CITSEE project at the University of Edinburgh. He is a PhD candidate in culture and communication at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade, and works as an affiliated researcher to the Center for Social Research ANALITIKA from Sarajevo.



[1] Hallin, and Mancini, 2004: 26-29, 67.

[2] What constitutes “civic” (or “građanski”) in this sense is primarily the negation of the idea that the “ethnic” component need be a constitutive part of basic identity, and second its focus on the entire state of BiH and not on its entities.

[3] For detailed analysis on the the case, see working papers related to BiH, on www.citsee.eu