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10 Feb 17

Serbian Parliament Turns Hearings into Beauty Pageants

Slobodan Georgiev

By avoiding difficult questions and blocking serious discussion, the ruling majority in Serbia’s parliament is reducing committee hearings to the level of beauty contests.

Serbian parliament. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ ButrosButrosGali.

If you follow the committee hearings held by the Serbian parliament, the weaknesses of this country’s democracy could not be more obvious.

For one thing, most of the deputies do not understand that they were not elected to parliament to promote the interests of their parties and leaders and improve their own ratings.

Meanwhile, MPs from the various opposition parties do not have the strength to formulate new ideas or concepts, or use the time they have during the sessions to present their views or policies.

The way the ruling coalition runs parliament also does not allow much space for different ideas or policies.

Speaker Maja Gojkovic would slap down members of opposition parties if they even tried to articulate something that could sound like criticism of government policies.

There was a good example of this problem three days ago.

On Monday, the parliamentary committee for culture and education organised a public hearing to present candidates for the programming board of the public broadcasting company, RTS.

There were 28 candidates for 19 positions on the board and the session lasted for more than three hours.

The role of the committee is just to organise the hearing, while the RTS executive board will decide who to appoint to the board.

The board only has an advisory role. RTS is not obliged to implement its decisions, although it should help the public broadcaster to have more balanced and objective programming, which reflects the differing interests of different social groups, especially marginalised and minority groups.  

The committee session was a chance for MPs and the public to meet the people who may indirectly shape the programming of the most influential media outlet in Serbia.

But what did the public - if there was anyone willing to spend three hours watching the session via parliament’s website - see and learn from the hearing? Not much.

For a start, the candidates were all virtually unknown to the public.

They had applied for the post by responding to a public advertisement and had submitted their CVs like it was just another job opportunity. Most had no experience in terms of TV production or any other kind of media.

They included high school professors and administrative workers. Three of them were members of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic’s press office.

This fact sparked malicious comments from some people because Nikolic and his team are not recognised as media professionals.

But the public should be more concerned about what the debate looked like and how the candidates saw the role and the future of the public broadcaster.

The president of the committee called on them to give brief statements about how they see the overall situation as regards RTS’s current programming, and then allowed MPs to ask questions.

Most of the candidates said the same thing: the programming is good but there is a space for improvements; when I was a child, the educational programming was better and that is why I will focus on that side of the programming schedule, to improve programmes for the young because they don’t watch TV anymore…

After a short introduction, which looked like the presentation of candidates for Miss Universe, the bit when the contestants say how they want to save the world, go to college or only watch the Discovery and National Geographic channels, MPs had a chance to ask questions.

But when the first of the opposition MPs asked one candidate to assess the quality of news programming, the president of the committee, Speaker Gojkovic, started to argue with him, saying that this was not a political debate, that the candidates were not pupils who should reply to such questions, and complaining that the committee hearing was not a courtroom.

The ruling Progressive Party has a majority on the committee, like it does on other parliamentary committees, so it can decide according to its own interests as to how such a hearing is organised.

Because of this, the debate was kept short and so, almost every time one of the candidates was asked a tough question, they repeated that they were not at school, showing that they did not know anything about parliamentary instruments and mechanisms.

But, how can we blame them when MPs from the parliamentary majority do not know, either, and constantly undermine the significance of public hearings and other facets of parliamentary life?

Talk about it!

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