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news 29 Oct 15

‘Soft' Censorship Threatens Serbian Press Freedom

The use of 'soft' censorship by the government poses a threat to genuine press freedom in Serbia, a new report says.

Igor Jovanovic
BIRN
Belgrade
Ivan Tasovac, Serbia’s Minister of Culture and Information. | Photo: Beta

The Serbian government’s use of "soft" censorship remains a threat to press freedom, a report issued on Thursday by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, WAN-IFRA, and the Center for International Media Assistance, CIMA, in Washington says.

The report, “Media reform stalled in the slow lane: Soft censorship in Serbia”, was published with the support of the Open Society Foundation while BIRN Serbia was a research partner.

The report noted that Serbia lacks a functional, vital and competitive media market.

“Taxpayers' funds are now one of the most important sources for survival of media outlets. However, public monies are deployed with partisan intent,” the report said.

As reported, “soft censorship” exploits media outlets’ financial vulnerability to influence news coverage and shape the broader media landscape.

“Soft censorship is an indirect and often highly effective media control mechanism that diminishes journalistic independence, constrains freedom of expression, and narrows democratic debate,” the report said.

WAN-IFRA and CIMA define soft censorship as “the array of official actions intended to influence media output, short of legal or extra-legal bans, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on media outlets or media practitioners".

Indirect forms of censorship include selective media subsidies and partisan allocation of advertising, and the biased application of regulatory and licensing powers that can influence editorial content and affect a media outlet’s viability.

Among other tools deployed by the Serbian government, the report noted selective government advertising, public enterprises contracting directly with media outlets, lack of competition or monitoring, regulatory manipulation regarding licensing and ownership transparency and differing treatment of taxes and debts of media close to government.

It also said that state media funding does not promote media independence or pluralism.

“It is most often used to support the survival of state-owned media, or to support media favourable to the government. Heavy reliance on money from state bodies and public companies inhibits the media's ability to perform a watchdog role,” the report said.

Government’s soft censorship continues to be a major threat to press freedom in Serbia | Photo: BIRN/Filip Avramovic

It also said that state media sector spending is not allocated on a competitive basis and money is not accessible to all media on equal terms.

According to BIRN Serbia, between 2012 and 2014 subsidies and directly negotiated contracts made up 80 per cent of all spending, while procurements and public competitions, which require some competition, comprised 20 per cent of all funds.

“There are no official consolidated data on government spending in the media sector, nor publicly available reports on the effects and results of these allocations. Lack of transparency allows uncontrolled discretionary spending that is a primary enabler of soft censorship,” the report said.

It also said that journalist in Serbia face diverse pressures.

“Their work is often only modestly paid, highly stressful and affected by lack of resources, insufficient knowledge to cover certain topics, and uneven editorial ethical standards,” it writes.

“Investigative journalism is not encouraged; work that reveals abuse of power and public resources is often obstructed,” the report said.

Among the recommendations for improving the freedom of the media, the report says state media spending should be used primarily to foster media plurarism, support high quality content, and help the media to fulfill a watchdog role.

State funding should not interfere in fair market competition.

New media laws should be fully implemented, introducing new standards in budgetary allocation with clear procedures and conditions for the allocation of state funds.

Media outlets, professional organisations and other relevant stakeholders should be included in the early stages of the budgetary planning process.

“The Serbian public should be given access to data to make informed choices about their media consumption. Data concerning media ownership structures and the use of taxpayer funds is of particular importance,” the report concluded.

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