Analysis 27 Jul 11

Serbian State Pledge to Sell Media Meets Scepticism

As Serbia's long-awaited draft 'media strategy' is unveiled, experts fear commitments to end state involvement in the media will not be put into practice.

Bojana Barlovac and Nemanja Cabric

Serbian media strategyIn a belated drive to regulate Serbia's media scene, with its confusing mix of private and state-owned newspapers and TV, public discussion of a long-awaited strategy on the media's future ended on July 15. The strategy is due to go to parliament in September.

The draft strategy is the work of a group drawn from media organisations and the Ministry of Culture, Media and Information Society.

The draft strategy does not enter into precise details or offer concrete recommendations but rather aims to offer broad guidance on how the media can free itself from excessive political interference.

This is to be achieved by: opting for greater transparency of media ownership; state withdrawal from media ownership; strengthening the independence of public service broadcasters.

With some exceptions, there is broad agreement in the media community that the draft forms a good framework for regulating the current muddle.

But concern centres on worries that lawmakers may intervene significantly in the draft as it goes before parliament for adoption in autumn.

The biggest worry is that state will not prove eager in practice to give up of its ownership of media houses in a pre-election year.

It is also not clear how the country’s public broadcasters - Radio Television of Serbia, RTS and Radio Television of Vojvodina, RTV, are to secure greater “independence”.

As matters stand the Serbian state is still a major media mogul in its own right, directly controlling 50 local and regional stations, the national news agency, Tanjug, and two national daily newspapers, Politika and Vecernje Novosti.

Under the draft strategy, the state is supposed withdraw from ownership of media within 18 months of the strategy’s adoption.

This process of withdrawal is supposed to include the privatization or sale of state-owned shares in media without compensation.

Predrag Markovic, minister of culture and media, speaking in Arandjelovac on July 3, said it was crucial for all media to have transparent ownership and for the state to withdraw from control.

The minister insisted that the government’s desire to withdraw from the media was for real, while noting that most representatives of electronic media opposed such a move.

This may be explained by the fact that most electronic media prefer to rely on “safe” state funding while their privately run counterparts fight for survival in the economic crisis.  

Rade Veljanovski
Rade Veljanovski, journalism professor and member of the working group on the strategy | Photo by FoNet

In spite of the minister’s words, Rade Veljanovski, journalism professor and member of the working group on the strategy, said he still doubted the government’s intentions.

He notes that Serbia has already adopted several laws obliging the state to relinquish ownership of the media.

These are the Law on Privatization from 2001, the Broadcasting Law from 2002 and the Public Information Law from 2003. In practice, the laws have not made much difference.

Menwhile, there are also suspicions that the final document may reflect the desire of Serbia’s centre-left coalition government, led by the Democratic Party of Boris Tadic, to retain as much influence on the media as is possible in a vital pre-election year.

Jovanka Matic
Jovanka Matic, Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade | Photo by Medija Centar Srbija

Jovanka Matic, from the Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade, predicts that authorities will not be willing to carry out such significant reforms in the run-up to what is expected to be a close-run election in 2012.

“The government will try to delay the changes for as long as it can,” she said.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise if the authorities adopted the strategy now, but with a ‘get-out’, postponing their actual withdrawal from the media for a year,” she added.

The final document will probably give the government an alibi to continue delaying application of the law as well as giving the next government other excuses for further delaying the strategy’s enforcement, Matic predicted.

Vukasin Obradovic
Vukasin Obradovic, head of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, NUNS | Photo by FoNet

Vukasin Obradovic, head of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, NUNS, agreed. He too doubts the government will give up its huge media portfolio without a struggle.

The draft document will not “suit everyone”, he said, referring to the interests of the country’s political elite.

“The working group offered solutions that not everyone will like but on the other hand it is a coherent document and it is based on clear ideas,” he added.

Dragana Milicevic Milutinovic, state secretary in the media and culture ministry, tried to disperse doubts about the strategy’s future at a public debate in Belgrade on June 27.

“There has been no [secret] intention, no background and no backstage action,” she said. “The idea was to get a quality draft strategy as soon as possible.”

She criticised those who “continue to believe in conspiracy theories” about the strategy’s implementation.

Kragujevac initiative

Media financed by the government have formed the “Kragujevac initiative” to stop the total privatization of media in Serbia.

Vukasin Obradovic said that calls to harmonize these conflicting interests over the draft strategy might create room for political influences to prevail in the process of making the final document.

“It is impossible to ‘harmonize’ the requests of the ‘Kragujevac initiative’ for publicly funded regional services, and the requests of private and privatized media for privatization to be finished", he said.

The phrase “harmonization of interests” only raises suspicions about the good intentions of the author of the final document, which will be the media ministry, he said.

However, on completion of the public debate on July 15, Milutinovic told the experts involved in drafting the strategy that the ministry felt no obligation to send them the final version, which will go straight from the ministry to parliament.  

Such remarks have raised fresh hackles in the media community, fueling concerns that the document could be significantly altered by MPs before it becomes law.

When it comes to strengthening the independence of public service broadcasters, as well as a clear definition of the public interest in programming, the strategy does not contain any specific programming obligations but only non-binding general recommendations.

Matic, for example, points to one vague recommendation, urging moves “to improve [public] service broadcasting”, but only “if conditions are met”.

The fact that there is to be no obligatory production of educational, cultural and children programmes has also fed a perception that the strategy sees no significant difference between public broadcasters and commercial ones, both of which are currently dominated by reality shows and TV novellas, and which compete for the same marketing revenues.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.


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