Learning and sipping in Serbia

May 4, 2009

Norway-funded workshop assists Serbian journalists in covering climate change

By Pavel Antonov

'Salash' is a popular word in Serbia. It refers to those traditional farm houses which are scattered across remote fields of Vojvodina, the country's north-western autonomous province. Having endured the rise and fall of the Habsburg Empire, the Yugoslav Federation, two world wars and several Balkan wars, many salash farms stand abandoned and mostly out of sight. But in February one such salash was the scene of a lively and dynamic gathering of journalists and experts investigating and discussing climate change, with the added intrigue of tasting some local wines.

074Serbia's Ministry of Environment selected 14 journalists from national and regional media outlets to take part in the event. Participating as trainers were former Guardian correspondent Paul Brown and Green Horizon Editor in Chief Pavel Antonov. Antonov, currently pursuing a PhD in Geography at the Open University in Milton Keynes, was on a parallel mission: to find out what can best motivate journalists to look into climate change and environment-related topics.

The sad fact that so many throughout this region find "nothing on earth" to energise them environmentally has much to do with a slow recovery process from decades of economic and social transformation and civil war; and this is precisely why the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC) organised this training for journalists in the first place. The training was part of a Norway-funded effort to help Serbia's government alongside experts working hard to prepare the country's National Communication to the UN Climate Change Convention, a necessary step for implementing the Kyoto Protocol, which Serbia ratified in 2007. The media training was the first component of a project entitled 'Building Capacities in the Field of Climate Change in the Republic of Serbia,' the aim of which is to increase general knowledge and public awareness of climate change in Serbia.

As a site for hosting the workshop, one salash near the village of Hajdukovo was not a random choice. Surrounded by vineyards, it erstwhile farm has been transformed by its owners into a cosy wine-tasting guest house called Vinski Dvor, or the Wine Castle. Vinsky Dvor offers a unique combination of up-to-date conference and accommodation facilities, a home-like feeling, delicious food, and — as the name rightly suggests — exquisite, locally produced wines of its own brand. The venue is comfortably situated among farmlands and villages, near the Ludas Lake protected area and the Palic tourist centre, and close to the municipal centre of Subotica. Thus it offered a convenient starting point for journalistic investigation into the local dimensions of climate change. The remote location of Vinski Dvor guaranteed that the participants would commit all their time to the learning process without risk of being summoned urgently to their news desks or family chore

Climate coverage

To lure journalists into the realm of climate and other environmental topics, Brown and Antonov moderated a hands-on learning process at Vinski Dvor. The journalists heard presentations from environment and energy ministry officials, climate and environment experts, local authorities and ordinary people whose lives have been affected by weather changes. By the training's end each participant had collected a handful of story ideas fit to prepare for publishing in their home media. But even more exiting was the sincere discussion that took place around the venue's marble fireplace about opportunities and potential for climate change stories, as well as the various obstacles and drawbacks that each of them has to deal with.

Within just a few days after the training, workshop participants' articles and reports appeared in national daily newspapers (e.g. Vecernje novosti, Blic) and on national TV stations such as B92 and RTS. With this media coverage, the training achieved its overarching objective: that participating journalists would write quality stories and reports on climate change in Serbia. The journalists' improved understanding of climate-related processes and their deeper cooperation with state officials is hopefully the beginning of a long-term impact, said Jovan Pavlovic, the director of the REC's country office in Serbia. Pavlovic also expects that the mass media can raise levels of general knowledge and awareness of climate change in Serbia.

Concerning the professional side of the learning process, participants defined techniques and approaches to improve coverage of climate change issues. Primary attention was paid to human aspects of climate-related stories. During discussions, the journalists identified and articulated specific angles and approaches to make such stories relevant to particular needs and interests of readers, viewers or listeners.