Analysis 30 Nov 12

Serbian Progressives Train Sights on Democrat Media

The ruling Progressives are exerting growing pressure on media outlets long considered a preserve of the Democratic Party.

Bojana Barlovac

Tomislav Nikolic, Serbian President, and Aleksndar Vucic, deputy Prime Minister. | Photo by Beta

Serbia’s ruling Progressives appear to have quickly learnt the lesson of their predecessors, the now downbeat Democrats, who controlled almost all the media for years, through advertising or hidden ownership structures.

One by one media outlets are being taken over – switching sides, with just a few still struggling to remain loyal to the Democrats.

Sasa Mirkovic, president of the Association of Independent Electronic Media, ANEM, has described the atmosphere in the media as “flammable”.

“The media scene has become a battlefield in which those that were close to the [former ruling] Democrats are getting punished, or are converting,” Mirkovic told BIRN.

Tackling murky ownership

The Progressives are taking the media under their control, or closing them down by forcing hidden owners – from the ranks of their rival Democrats - to surrender. A lack of transparent ownership has been a major issue in the Serbian media scene over the past 12 years.

Once generous budgets from public companies and ministries to the pro-Democrat media outlets are now reduced, causing financial trouble for media already affected by the economic crisis.

Most importantly, the government is placing sources of funding for regulatory bodies in electronic communications under its control.

One daily newspaper, Press, has closed, while troubled TV station Avala has lost its national frequency and a new tabloid called San (the acronym of “Srpsko a nase”, “Serbian but ours”) has appeared as another pro-government mouthpiece.  

Tabloid Kurir, widely seen as a mouthpiece of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, publishes regularly affairs based on leaked information sourced from the new centre of power.

The face of Aleksandar Tijanic, director general of Serbian public service broadcaster RTS, graces the pages of almost every issue of Serbian tabloid Kurir.

Kurir started baying for Tijanic’s blood after Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, of the Progressives, urged Tijanic to resign on October 7th.

According to two independent sources who wish to remain anonymous, the Progressives have also put pressure on Zeljko Mitrovic, owner of TV Pink and co-owner of troubled TV Avala, to cancel a contract for the sale of Avala to Grand production.

Progressives were preparing to give Avala’s national frequency to a cable television that suited their interests, the sources said.

Following the interruption of the sale, the Broadcasting Agency, RRA, withdrew Avala’s broadcasting licence on October 26th when it became obvious that the station would not be able to pay fees to the agency.

Mirkovic said:  “Let’s wait and see whether the whole plan was to provide their [Progressive] station with a national frequency.”

Avala is only one of nine national broadcasters in Serbia that has a non-transparent ownership structure, according to the 2011 Anti-corruption Council report. Serbia has 11 national broadcasters.

The oldest Serbian daily paper, Politika, is another media outlet whose ownership came under the spotlight recently.

Critics of the government say the uproar was all because the state, which owns the other 50 per cent of Politika, sought control over the newspaper as a whole,  blocking possible influence from the Democrats.

Over the summer the Progressives caused a furore over the sale of 50 per cent of Politika to Moscow-based OOO East Media Group. In September Miroslav Bogicevic, a financier of the Democrats, confirmed that he was behind the Russian-based company.

BIRN has learned from Politika’s management that tensions have eased since Bogicevic recently agreed not to interfere in editorial policy. The Progressives are due to appoint Politika’s new editor-in-chief by the end of the year.

Privately-owned daily Blic, which has been seen as a mouthpiece for the Democrats, has started losing advertisers - public enterprises and ministries taken over by the new ruling coalition in Serbia.

Daily Press, a newspaper with an unclear ownership structure that was seen as pro-Democrat, shut down its print edition on November 15 after Serbian tycoon Miroslav Miskovic was forced to admit that he was a co-owner. Progressives are leading the fight against corruption and Miskovic is frequently mentioned in Kurir as their target.  

Miskovic withdrew from the newspaper, but Serbia’s very own Elliot Ness, Aleksandar Vucic, leader of the Progressives, has called on new Democrat leader Dragan Djilas to admit his share in Press.

However, the ruling coalition cannot influence the editorial policy of every newspaper in Serbia.

One such publication is Serbia’s best-selling daily Blic, owned by a joint venture between Swiss Ringier AG and German Axel Springer AG. During the election campaign in April and May Blic’s cover pages became synonymous among media watchers for sycophantic praise of the then ruling party.

Obradovic of independent journalists association NUNS said that Blic had been exposed lately to different accusations from  the ranks of the Progressives.

“Blic and Veselin Simonovic [its editor] are now targeted for their close ties with the Democrats,” Obradovic told Balkan Insight.

Ringier Axel Springer Media AG strongly rejects the accusations of link to the Democrats.

“The accusations we are facing are based on no grounds,” Alexandra Delvenakiotis, head of communications at the company, told BIRN.

“The accusations aim to intimidate an independent newspaper and its employees,” Delvenakiotis added.

Meanwhile, the state has started exerting economic pressure on Blic by cutting its advertising.

In a statement released on November 14, the company complained of a policy of “restraint that can be seen on the part of the state and para-state advertisers.”

The state – through ministries and public enterprises – is the biggest media advertiser in Serbia. According to the anti-corruption report, annual spending by state institutions in the media exceeds €15 million.  

“When you add the funds officially assigned for the work of the media, we arrive at a figure of a minimum of €36 million or even €40 million paid to the media from state sources,” the report said.

RTS independence undermined

Earlier in November the government drafted a new law on “Fees for the Use of Public Goods” that would place the sources of funding for regulatory bodies in electronic communications under government control.

Under the draft law, which has been obtained by BIRN, all licence fees, including subscriptions, would go straight into the state budget.

Until now the public has paid public service broadcasters through subscriptions included in electricity bills, which the utility company then forwards to them.

The government insists that the aim of the changes in the funding of regulatory bodies is to facilitate their work.

But NUNS warns that the changes threaten RTS’s independence.

“Such a form of control will enable the authorities to directly influence editorial policy,” NUNS President, Vukasin Obradovic, told BIRN.

If the law is adopted the authorities will be able to condition the transfer of funds to RTS on changes of emphasis in the content broadcast on RTS, he maintains.

When the new coalition took power in July they promised to create a free media scene, unlike what was the case under the Democrats. However, the initial optimism on media reforms has started to crumble.  

“Big words have not turned into acts”, says a source from the diplomatic community. “The first steps are not encouraging.”

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