The Inter-Balkanic Press League: How a Publication From 1939 Reminds Us of the Value of Cooperation in the Balkan Area

by Dr. Ahmet Emin Yalman (1939)

Edited by Demetris Kastritsis and Suzan Yalman

The role of the media in creating and feeding conflict between the peoples of the Balkans is, unfortunately, all too familiar to us today. The recent examples of the war in Bosnia and of the Imia-Kardak issue between Greece and Turkey clearly demonstrate the negative role that the media can play in times of crisis. Fortunately, there are also examples to the contrary. The following passages are taken from an article on the Inter-balkanic Press League, an early effort on the part of journalists from four Balkan nations to establish a mechanism of cooperation that would lead to a more constructive, less antagonistic form of journalism. The article was written in the late thirties, at a time when relations between Balkan nations, notably, Greece and Turkey, were exceptionally good.

Today, the political situation in the area is particularly unstable, and the media usually do little more than pour oil on the fire. Nevertheless, some journalists at least seem willing to use their increasing hold on public opinion in a positive fashion, as evidenced by the recent gathering in the Turkish city of Izmir of more than 250 journalists and intellectuals for the second annual Solidarity Meeting of Greek and Turkish Journalists, organized by the Journalists in the Aegean and Thrace for Peace movement. In this context, the article that follows is still relevant, and the effort that it describes can serve as a precedent for similar efforts today.

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In days past, when the word "Balkan" was synonymous with strife, the Balkan press did its share to foment antagonism among the Balkan peoples. No plain facts could penetrate from one Balkan capital to another. Only such news was published as would shed a bad light on neighbours and create suspicions regarding their plans. In their editorial columns, duels between one Balkan country and another were waged vehemently. A successful Balkan journalist was the man who could invent injuries in superlative form.

Balkanic countries faced the same problems. They were all retarded and undeveloped. Public attention was kept away from internal problems, however, and concentrated on various territorial designs. The Great Powers made it their business to keep these ambitions alive, in order to reduced the Balkan countries to the position of instruments of their own policies of domination. The lack of true independence in the Balkan countries was such that every man in public life was labeled an Anglophile, Francophile, Russophile, Germanophile, or Austrophile. No one ever admitted that a Balkan statesman could be without a foreign label and stand only for the national interests of his own country. No chance was given to any of them to have an independent outlook.

The Balkan people paid dearly for acting as blind instruments of imperialistic powers. The experiences of the Balkan people were so bitter that they made an old Balkan proverb come true. This proverb says: "Reason is a nail hanging on the top of our heads; it requires some sort of pressure to penetrate into our brains."

When the 27th Congress for General Peace met in Athens in October 1929, the Balkan people indicated that they had learned a lesson from their common adverse experiences. A sub-committee was formed to examine the possibility of a Balkan League or a regional formation for the purpose of assuring general security.

The first Balkan conference met in Athens in 1930 as the result of an invitation issued by the International Bureau of Peace in Geneva on May 12, 1930. It led the way to new conferences of a general nature and to reunions concerned with special fields of activity and interest.

Journalists pioneered in the effort to promote good-will. They came together on every possible occasion. The meeting of the Balkan council and the exchange of official visits between two Balkan countries, or special invitations from one Balkan country to the newspaper-men of another, created opportunities for close contact. Common professional backgrounds and an unconventional way of facing facts enabled them to understand one another easily and to make friends. Although the trips and receptions were regularly financed by their respective governments, journalists soon stepped out of the official frames. Schemes of cooperation between them were not planned ahead by any agency. They developed from meeting to meeting until they assumed the form of an Inter-Balkanic Press League the spontaneous outgrowth of an atmosphere of goodwill. The Balkan governments did little to plan and foster this cooperation, but they readily recognized its usefulness. They therefore did everything they could to facilitate the movement, and were ready to advance the necessary funds.

The rules of the Inter-Balkanic Press League are unwritten, but they work smoothly and efficiently. Each Balkan country has a national committee. All newspaper-men are considered members of the committee. Although, they are supposed to pay a nominal yearly fee, most of them do not. All of them take part in selecting the executive council. The secretaries of the council do not change from year to year, but the presidents do. Only editors of daily papers, as a rule, are made presidents and their term of office is one year. This scheme keeps the various papers interested in the activity of the committee through the personal attachment of their editors.

In alphabetical order the national committees rotate to become the general headquarters of the League. The annual convention is held in the capital which is the seat of the League for that year. The president of the national committee presides over the convention.

Each convention is composed of official delegations, each consisting usually of from five to seven members, selected by national committees. Inequality in the size of the delegations has never constituted a problem. The convention forms three committees, political, cultural, and technical. Three representatives, each from a different country, preside respectively over the committees so that, including the presidency of the convention, each country receives a presiding position.

The committees examine reports of the four delegations as to the execution in their own countries of the resolutions reached at the previous convention. As a result of the experiences during the year, a report for new activities is drafted by the committees, to be submitted to the convention. The tone of the negotiations is generally cordial and businesslike. Personal or national frictions are remarkably absent.

The discussions are not confined to matters which concern newspapers directly. They comprise stimulations of any sort of cultural contacts which may lead to closer relations and better understanding. The actual results achieved under the direct or indirect influence of the Inter-Balkanic Press League include the following:

Extensive exchange of national news between news agencies; common diffusion of Balkanic news to the outside world; exchange of information among Balkan papers, including inside information explaining the real motives in each country in various internal political situations as well as outside problems; exchange of journalists; elimination of all traces of past hostility from textbooks; preparation of books in various Balkan languages on history from an objective angle, with studies of the internal problems and literature of the other three countries; organization of exhibitions of books, periodical publications, painting and other works of art; exchange of concerts; broadcasting of Balkan programs in the four countries; a contest for a common Balkan anthem and for a scenario of a film to depict Balkan cooperation; research into words, proverbs and anecdotes common to Balkan languages; rectification of erroneously accepted historical beliefs; exchanged of students; reduction of postal rates; encouragement of the idea of a potential Balkan federation.

The extent of the actual success achieved in changing the trends of public opinion, mainly through the cooperation of journalists, is remarkable. The League has demonstrated how goodwill and understanding may be created when newspapers report the normal and sane aspects of other countries rather than the abnormal and sensational. They have made it possible for the Balkan peoples to think of one another not in the form of exaggerated cartoons, but as human beings sharing the same interests and aspirations. The following idea has come to guide all editorials concerning Balkan cooperation: "We are eighty millions of strong, hard-working people. If we are disunited as small states, we are doomed to be dependent on Great Powers. However, if we join hands, we become a great power of eighty million people ourselves, ready to defend our common territory and our independence; we can constitute an influential factor of peace and stability in the world."

In practical application, the era of goodwill in the Balkans was made possible by use of the following method: All Balkan journalists accepted as a permanent principle the avoidance of controversies with each other which might lead to the poisoning of public opinion. If a Balkan newspaper is misguided by false statements, or by incorrect news, and attacks another Balkan country, the press of the attacked country should, under no circumstances, retaliate. The Inter-Balkanic branch is to be given the facts, and it will make the necessary effort to diffuse the correct view of the matter so that a harmful controversy can be avoided.

It is true that one-sided attacks have not been lacking from time to time, necessitating an intervention on the basis of the formula described above. This intervention has always been effective.

As an example, the law promulgated in Turkey forbidding any clergyman or any man or woman belonging to a monastic order (whether Mohammedan, Christian, or Hebrew) to wear special attire on the street and in public places, differentiating them from the rest of the public, gave rise to bitter attacks in the Greek press. The Greek public took this as a special measure directed against the Greek Orthodox Church, the chief seat of which is still in Istanbul, whereas the Turkish Government had intended it as a general manifestation of the policy of secularization which had confined the field of religion to the temples consecrated to various creeds and the consciences of believing men.

It would have been a simple thing for Turkish papers to retaliate with the accusation that the Greeks were socially retarded. Nothing of that sort happened. The Inter-Balkanic Turkish branch signified to Turkish papers that it had the matter in hand, and that any violent answer would only create further mischief. It wrote to the Greek branch explaining the general intention of the law. These facts were diffused by the Greek branch and, in the absence of retaliation from Turkish papers, the controversy died out without leaving any bad effects.

The spirit of general goodwill created in the Balkans was clearly expressed by Ataturk during an informal reception of Balkan journalists in Ankara in the spring of 1938. It was his last public utterance before his sickness, and many people considered it later as a sort of moral testament.

Referring to the aims of the Balkan pact and the Saadabad pact, which extends the same aims to the relation of Turkey, Iran, Irak, and Afghanistan, Ataturk said:

"Balkan goodwill is only a regional aspect of human goodwill . . . . Those leaders who desire for their nation something different than they desire for other nations are short-sighted fools. All world events tend to prove that the destinies of us all are interdependent . . . . The only wise way would consist in considering all humanity as a single body, and the nations as members of this body. Any member which cannot react to the pain to which another member of the same body is exposed, must consider itself as lacking sensitiveness and real vitality."

This generous spirit of peace has taken root in a part of the world where it might be least expected. It is there to stay. As this promotion of a broad spirit of pacification in the Balkans has been mainly the result of cooperation among journalists, it is a significant example of what a beneficial influence the press is capable of exerting if it deliberately chooses to unite instead of to divide.

1 The Inter-Balkanic Press League includes directly the four countries which are members of the Balkan League: Turkey, Roumania, Yugoslavia and Greece. However, there are frequent exchanges of visits between Bulgarian journalists and those of other Balkan countries.



This piece was originally published in the Public Opinion Quarterly, October 1939. Edited by Dimitris Kastritsis and Suzan Yalman, students at Harvard University.