Murrow Students Explore Press Freedom in Serbia
Backpack Journalism Program – Spring 2022
Since his election in 2017, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has overseen a tightening of the restrictions on all forms of information media. This comes as no surprise. Before his roles as President (2017-present) and Prime Minister (2014-2017), Vučić served as the Minister of Information during the Balkans War under the late President (and accused war criminal) Slobodan Milošević. During his tenure in that role, Vučić introduced draconian measures against journalists and the press. Now, his control over the free spread of information has increased, and despite a clause in the Serbian constitution that prohibits censorship, independent journalists and news sources have been under growing limits and pressure.
This past spring, four students from the Backpack Journalism program at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication visited Serbia, reporting on the declining state of press freedom. Abby Davis, Sona Porter, Rick Sinnett, and Nichole Bascue, dubbed the Murrow Four by local television station KXLY, traveled to Serbia under the guidance of WSU Professor Alison Boggs. While there, they interviewed professional members of the independent press, journalism professors and students, and representatives of organizations that support press freedom. They also met with people at the U.S. Embassy Belgrade, while exploring a nation with a complex relationship to democracy. The impact on each of the students was clear.
“Every moment of this feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Nichole Bascue, an integrated strategic communications major from the Murrow College’s Everett campus.
Launching a Professional Career from a Global Perspective
Sona Porter, a double major in journalism and political science at Washington State University, recently published an article highlighting the dangers faced by independent journalists every day. She focused on Ana Lalic, an independent journalist from Serbia who reported on a shortage of personal protective equipment in hospital COVID-19 wards despite harsh government restrictions on covering the pandemic. Within hours, the report was pulled offline and six police officers came to Lalic’s home. She was arrested for disseminating ‘false information’ and causing a panic. Not surprisingly, her laptop and cell phone, and all the data on them, were seized. She was held for two days before finally being released. Other journalists have faced harassment and the ransacking of their apartments. Still, they continue their efforts to tell the truth and ensure an informed democracy.
“Honestly, we’ve met some of the greatest journalists that we’ll ever get to meet. They face a tremendous struggle every day just to get the news out,” Rick Sinnett, an integrated strategic communications major said during a series of broadcast interviews with KXLY reporter Esther Bower.
Despite these challenges, Serbian student journalists remain passionate about and dedicated to their chosen careers. Abby Davis, one of the Murrow Four and a recent journalism graduate, produced a broadcast report on the career outlook for journalism students. The story was published on the News Now website of ABC affiliate KXLY. In the story, a journalism professor explained how freedom of the press is declining while both physical and economic dangers to reporters are increasing daily.
A trip as filled with experiences and interviews as those provided by the Backpack Journalism program, however, allows students to produce more than one article or cover one topic. During a safety and diplomatic briefing at the U.S. Embassy, reporter Abby Davis had the opportunity to interview a military official from the Spokane area.
Davis interviewed Air Force Lt. Col. Manuela Peters in the July 4 issue of The Spokesman-Review. Lt. Col. Peters, the Air Attaché at the US Embassy in Belgrade, is a senior decorated combat veteran with over 3000 hours of flight. A remarkable pilot who is well respected by both her diplomatic and armed forces colleagues, Peters speaks multiple languages including French, Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian. She is also a talented actress and singer, who has performed in military, diplomatic and civilian venues. Not only did the Backpack Journalism program allow the students to meet the lieutenant colonel, but it provided Davis with the opportunity to interview her and write a feature article for The Spokesman-Review that was picked up by numerous web-based media outlets across the country.
Professional and Personal Opportunities Continue
This is only the latest opportunity provided by the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication’s Backpack Journalism program. Each year, the program selects a small number of students from a large pool of highly qualified applicants to travel to a foreign country and build their careers in unexpected ways. Similar to a scholarship, the program is mostly free for the students.
“The program not only gives the students an international perspective,” their faculty guide Professor Alison Boggs said, “it gives them a chance to publish a story with a professional news outlet. This program is a reward for some of the hardest-working students in our college.”