www.nettime.org
Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Veran Matic: Media in Serbia - Ten Month On
geert lovink on Mon, 27 Aug 2001 20:42:13 +0200 (CEST)


[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Veran Matic: Media in Serbia - Ten Month On


from: <mediawatch {AT} lists.opennet.org>
sent: Monday, August 27, 2001 8:43 PM

MEDIA IN SERBIA - TEN MONTHS ON
- brief analysis -

Veran Matic

1. INTRODUCTION

One of the first immediately noticeable results of the political changes of
October 5, 2000, was opening up of the state and quasi-state broadcasters
and print media in Serbia to the representatives of former opposition bloc
and NGO sector. High hopes raised in the aftermath of the October changes -
that the media field would be efficiently and swiftly reformed in a just
manner, that political influence on the media would be largely eliminated -
have nonetheless proved to be overly optimistic. Quite the contrary, ten
months after the political changes it appears that more substantial system
changes have bypassed the media sphere. Even more worrisome is the suspicion
that utter absence of any changes in the media field is not the result
stemming from the concurrence of adverse circumstances but conscious
determination of the new people now wielding political power in the country
to retain certain mechanisms formerly used as a convenient vehicle by the
Milosevic regime to exert pressure on the media. Actually some of the events
in the summer of 2001 have additionally stirred up such suspicions.

2. LEGAL FRAMEWORK

Legal framework for the work of the media has not basically changed since
the day the political changes took place. New authorities did prevent
further implementation of the infamous 1998 Serbian Public Information Act
immediately, Federal Constitutional Court declared many of its articles
unconstitutional in January, and the newly-formed Serbian Parliament
repealed it in February 2001 (except for the articles regulating the process
of registration, reply and correction of the published information). Serbian
Information Ministry was abolished. A moratorium on allocation of new
broadcasting licences was declared. NGOs and media and journalist
associations began enthusiastically their work on drafting new media
regulations - Public Broadcasting Act and Public Information Law. The
representatives of the new government hailed the beginning of this process,
but, with the exception of the Federal Telecommunications Minister, did not
wholeheartedly engage in it.

Following the fall of the Federal Government in July 2001 and the
abolishment of the Federal Telecommunications Ministry, the fate of the
bills and other documents drafted with the European and US assistance by
domestic experts remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that there
has been some political opposition to the adoption of the new regulations,
particularly in the part envisaging that the powers pertaining to
decision-making and regulation of the media field are to be transferred from
the government to an independent regulatory body as well as that the Serbian
Government is to be stripped of the right to exert direct influence on the
state radio and TV broadcaster which is supposed to be transformed into a
public broadcasting service. However, the Serbian Government did return 11.4
million dinars of a total of 31 million dinars in fines imposed by the
former regime on print media under the 1998 Public Information Act. Yet, no
new regulations have been adopted, old telecommunications and public
broadcasting acts have not been changed (except for the abolition of
subscription fees for state broadcaster appended to electricity bills), no
analyses nor audits of the business dealings of the quasi-state private
media, which developed and amassed a fortune under the dictatorship, have
been conducted.

The consequences of such a state of affairs are extremely unfavourable,
above all, for the independent media which, despite the former regime's
repression, enormously contributed to bringing about political changes in
the country.
When it comes to the print media, the fact that there is no more an
information ministry, though advantageous for the democratic image of the
new Serbian Government, created a situation in which not a single member of
the government is under obligation to systematically deal with the
transition in the media field. This is why no tax exemptions were granted to
the press in the ongoing process of tax reforms. Moreover, the percentage of
unsold copies for which no sales tax is due was scaled down. The last one in
a series of blunders was corrected in August but not until after strong
pressure on Serbian politicians had been exerted by the domestic media with
the help of international media associations.

When it comes to electronic media, the immediate consequence of the
moratorium on frequency allocation was the freezing of the inherited state
of affairs in the media field on the day of October 5, 2000. In other words,
those broadcasters privileged by the Milosevic regime which had granted them
broadcasting licences for large area of coverage have retained all their
privileges, while the independent media, viciously targeted by the former
regime, have not been granted any allowances to redress injustices suffered
at the hands of the Milosevic's henchmen (confiscated equipment has been
returned to some stations, but not to the majority of the independent
broadcasters, and in addition to this, no licences for an increased area of
coverage have been granted). The moratorium and the delay in adopting new
media regulations and announcing public competition for frequency allocation
effectively curbed any development or strategy planning on the part of the
independent media. The moratorium is supposed to be in effect until the
adoption of a new Public Broadcasting Act which, however, was not enacted in
June as previously announced. Moreover, the government's refusal to accept
the drafts of new media legislation prepared by experts actually testifies
to the intention of the new authorities to retain some mechanisms of control
over the electronic media created by Milosevic.

3. PROBLEMS OF STATE MEDIA

Even though state broadcasters opened up to all political options after the
October changes, they have not managed to solve the majority of the problems
inherited from the past. However, it seemed that the most pressing problem
of the state radio television broadcaster, namely, direct political
influence on its editorial policy, was resolved, and that only financial and
personnel-related issues needed to be addressed in the upcoming months.
However, ten months later, the situation with Radio Television Serbia (RTS)
is even worse, apparently, than immediately after the changes.
Namely, there are, once again, apparent signs of the intensifying political
pressure on RTS and its editors. National state broadcaster had operated for
seven months without its management board. Finally, its members were
appointed by the government. Then it took another two months to appoint new
general manager. In July 2001, Milorad Petrovic, editor of the RTS central
information programme "Dnevnik 2", resigned from his post claiming that he
had been under enormous pressure by some ruling political parties which
might have led to political instrumentalisation of the national broadcaster.
Public competition for editor-in-chief of the RTS information programming
had been announced in July 2001, but was subsequently annulled since the
general manager had not proposed a single candidate for the post of all the
people who had applied for the job. Gordana Susa, president of the Serbian
Independent Journalist Association (NUNS), was also one of the contenders.
She stated, after the annulment of the public competition, that the
rejection of her application was due to the opposition of the Democratic
Party of Serbia (DSS), the party headed by Yugoslav President Vojislav
Kostunica. These public statements of two esteemed journalists raise serious
doubts and concern about the sincerity of new Yugoslav authorities with
respect to the transformation of the state media into public service
broadcasters.

The situation with finances, personnel or equipment in RTS has neither
changed for the better. Debts amounting to about US$ 20 million, excessive
number of employees (between 7,500 and 8,000) and outdated equipment are
only the gravest problems of the national broadcaster. Since the abolition
of subscription fees, RTS is financed from the Serbian budget which makes it
totally dependent on the government. It is interesting that, despite the
excessive number of employees, even the journalists the most loyal to the
Milosevic regime have not been sacked. Milorad Petrovic stated that a large
number of RTS journalists were incapacitated for an independent style of
reporting going on to say that they expected from him, his being the editor
at the time, to put specific spin of his own on their comments and reports.
"Journalists... feel the need to belong to someone," said Petrovic
criticising his colleagues who forgot during the Milosevic's era that they
should have their own opinio!
ns and views.

Local media, controlled by the local authorities, which also fall in the
category of state broadcasters, are under an ever-increasing pressure of the
local branches of the ruling parties. In addition to this, these
broadcasters cannot be privatised without prior consent of local governments
which is why their position does not fit the role of watchdogs for the
public at the local level.

It may be inferred that the situation with the state media in Serbia is
extremely bad. These media have been prevented from undergoing system
transformation into public service broadcasters (Radio Television Serbia) or
autonomous privatisation (when it comes to local and regional stations). The
opportunities for autonomous financing have been limited and the politics
has an ever-increasing direct influence on the editorial policy. Their
financial and personnel situation has not been improved, and it will take a
lot of time and efforts to help them reach the level of the corresponding
media in other countries undergoing transition. Of course, only if there is
to be no direct interference of the centres of political power with their
editorial policy because there can be no transition while such influences
exist.

4. PROBLEMS OF INDEPENDENT MEDIA

Independent media have remained unbiased and objective in reporting after
the political changes so that there is a sort of continuity in place with
respect to the period before the Milosevic's ousting from power. Their main
problem stemming from inactivity or negligence of the new authorities as
mentioned above in the part of analysis on legal framework is that they have
no opportunity whatsoever to compete on equal footing with the media
privileged by the Milosevic regime because of either moratorium on frequency
allocation (in case of broadcasters) or economic environment unfavourable
for doing business (in case of print media - lack of tax exemptions, tax on
unsold copies).
Unlike independent print media for which it would suffice that the
government places no restrictions on their activities, independent
broadcasters have been brought to the verge of existence by the new
authorities' measures (i.e. the absence of adequate measures in the media
field). Due to the moratorium, the broadcasters which did not possess
licences in the Milosevic era because they were treated as the enemies of
the state have remained 'pirates', while other stations do possess some
broadcasting licences, but valid only for extremely small areas of coverage.
Consequently, their potential for substantial revenues from advertising is
extremely restricted. On the other hand, media moguls who created their
empires thanks to close ties with the Milosevic-Markovic family have
retained their broadcasting licences for national coverage; they have become
closer to the new people now in power and thus maintained a lion's share of
advertising market which is the main source of income for radio and TV
broadcasters. Moreover, the stations of the swiftly "converted" media moguls
from the Milosevic times have drastically enhanced their position on the
media market by purchasing for the next couple of years the rights to the
most attractive foreign TV shows for the territory of Serbia, and they have
been able to do this owing to privileges inherited from the past. Delay in
adoption of the new Public Broadcasting Act and the announcing of the public
competition for broadcasting licences makes it impossible for independent
broadcasters to work on development plans as no one knows what the
conditions of the public competition for frequency allocation will be nor
whether the independent media will be granted any licences at all. Finally,
the major defect of the existing media system is that the independent media
are not allowed to expand to national area of coverage which has been, up to
now, reserved for the state television and Milosevic media 'converts'.

It may be inferred that the independent media, especially the electronic
ones, are going through an extremely difficult period which does bear
resemblance to the situation during the Milosevic repression. True enough,
the means used to suppress the independents are entirely different, but
there are lingering doubts that the segment of the media scene which are the
most resistant to political influences has been put on a back burner.
Neglect of independent electronic media and mutual rapprochement of the
quasi-state media and the new authorities is a reason good enough for
serious concern and it is unpromising in terms of further democratic media
system development in Yugoslavia. Judging by the quality of content and the
degree of critical stance towards the authorities, only the independent
media possess the potential for an adequate social function which the media
in a democratic society should have.

5. NEW THREATS TO JOURNALISTS

In addition to the problems inherited from the past, journalists in Serbia
once again have to fear for their lives. After the assassination of Slavko
Curuvija by an unknown gunman during the NATO bombing, another journalist
was murdered in Serbia: on June 11, 2001, in Jagodina, a central Serbian
town, Milan Pantic, correspondent of Belgrade daily Vecernje novosti, who
had been investigating crime and corruption in his town which had also been
the reason for death threats he had been receiving before his violent death.
Both murder cases have remained unsolved to date. There are indications that
there has been an attempt on the life of a Belgrade weekly general manager,
who prefers to remain anonymous. His being in an armoured car at the time of
the attack has actually saved his life.

According to the estimates of experts in criminology, we may assume that
investigative journalism delving into crime and corruption  will
increasingly expose journalists to grave risks. Namely, during the Milosevic
era when top police officials were involved in criminal activities and
corruption, criminals were not particularly concerned about articles in the
press which might expose them because the judiciary and the police were
unable to prosecute them as these institutions were steeped in corruption
themselves. Today, however, a press article may indeed cost some criminal or
corrupt public servant his freedom so they would not stop at nothing,
including physical liquidation of "misbehaving" journalists. The most recent
surveys suggest that journalists together with teachers and university
professors are the least affected by corruption, unlike customs officers,
policemen, lawyers, public servants in ministries, etc. This piece of
information is extremely important because it testifies to the fact that
journalists have maintained a high degree of integrity in the past ten
months so that they are trusted more than people of other professions,
particularly the politicians. Bearing this in mind, it may be said that this
is a very good starting point for a serious campaign against corruption, but
also one of the possible motives behind attacks on journalists and media,
which includes physical harassment and even murder.

Serbian journalists have remained the most consistent critics of corruption,
war crimes and the ways in which Serbian nouveaux riches have amassed
immense wealth during the past decade. Their fierce defence of acquired
privileges leads to a conclusion that investigative journalism in Serbia is
becoming an increasingly dangerous job.

6. RECOMMENDATIONS

Taking into account that the primary objective of the media system in Serbia
should be adapting to European standards and the role of the media aimed at
helping establish, maintain and develop a democratic society, which in turn
entails the need to preserve the best and the most vital segment of the
media sphere that emerged on the public scene out of confrontation with the
Milosevic regime, namely the Serbian independent media, we are at liberty to
state specific recommendations to the authorities in FR Yugoslavia and
Serbia as well as the international community. We are convinced that these
recommendations, if translated into concrete action, would improve the media
situation in Serbia both in short and long term, thus contributing
considerably to the desperately needed social stability in the transition
period.

A. Recommendations to the authorities of FR Yugoslavia and Serbia

- Bearing in mind that a vacuum has been created both at the legislative and
regulation level in the media field and the policymaking in the field of
public information (at the moment there is no a single parliamentary body,
or ministry or an operative independent regulatory body), it is necessary to
form an organ which would co-ordinate the work on changing the legal
framework and defining the media policy. Such a body should be an
independent state agency.
- The Government must come up with its vision of media development for the
next five years, the reason for this being not only the political changes in
the country but the introduction of new digital technologies and
co-ordination with the development of the telecommunications sector, etc.
This would initiate a public debate on the development plans for this
extremely important sector.
- The Government should prepare a report on the situation in the media: what
it has actually inherited from the former regime and what its plans intended
to eliminate chaos and confusion are. This is also important with respect to
the new laws and regulations which are bound to be introduced sooner or
later, but this is also a way to make a clean break with the past - to bring
to an end bitter discussions about injustices and how to redress them as
well as to propose the measures necessary for the reforms, if there is a
general consent about it already in place.
- It is necessary to engage without delay in the work on adopting new system
laws, whose drafts were presented to the Serbian government in early August
2001, and to begin implementing them as soon as possible.
- Bearing in mind the delay in establishing a new legal framework, measures
intended to eliminate discrimination of the independent media, above all,
the electronic ones, which originated in the Milosevic era and which has
been reinforced and protracted by the indefinite moratorium on frequency
allocation imposed by the Federal Telecommunications Ministry, should be
taken immediately. The implementation of measures based on positive
discrimination is the only way to enable the independent media to survive in
the following period.
These measures should comprise the following:
a. Granting broadcasting licences to all independent broadcasters for their
current areas of coverage. These licences should be valid for the next two
years, i.e., until the public competition for frequency allocation within
that specific area of coverage under new Public Broadcasting Act is declared
completed.
b. Granting temporary licences for extending the area of coverage valid
until the completion of the public competition for frequency allocation
under the new legislation (if necessary, even at the expense of big
commercial broadcasters that thrived and developed unhindered thanks to
their close ties with the Milosevic regime) to those independent
broadcasters which have strictly observed the moratorium, even to their
disadvantage, despite the fact that many new "commercial" media came into
existence and expanded by violating that same moratorium.
c. Settlement of debts and compensation by allowing those broadcasters which
pursued an independent editorial policy and programming orientation during
the Milosevic regime to use specific frequencies.
d. Return of equipment confiscated from the independent electronic media
during the Milosevic era. If the seized equipment cannot be tracked down,
those independent media should be reimbursed either directly or through,
say, government bonds that could be used for payment of taxes, customs
duties, etc.
e. Possibility to set up mixed-ownership enterprises for present-day public
companies so that they could manage to survive and develop.
f. Immediate closure of all broadcasters which began operating after the
formation of the federal government in November 2000 and declaration of
moratorium as well as preventing these media from applying for frequencies
under new legislation.
g. Encouragement and incentives for an increase in the programming content
which would educate the citizens for a life in a democratic society, an
economy developing successfully, which would help them understand developed
democratic societies, which would foster reformist policies and transition
processes, educate young people and promote cultural values - basically
everything which is now lacking in our media and our society. The media
could give an enormous contribution until the institutions of the society,
which are supposed to deal with these issues, recover and regain strength.

B. Recommendations to the international community

a. It is necessary to persist in providing all sorts of aid to the
independent print media and broadcasters, particularly because of the fact
that the new authorities either are not creating necessary environment for
normal business operations of all the independent media until they
eventually do ensure proper conditions for a fair competition on the media
market.
b. It is necessary to intensify co-operation with the authorities in FR
Yugoslavia and Serbia in relation to the adoption of a new legal framework i
n keeping with the international, and especially European standards. It is
also necessary to stress the importance of regulating the media sphere in
line with democratic principles for the integration of Serbia and Yugoslavia
into the European mainstream.
c. Provided that the state media are indeed eventually legally transformed
into public service broadcasters, it is necessary to support the process of
their transition, above all, through the training courses for journalists
and by helping them advance their technical resources and equipment.
Transformation into public service broadcasters will entail the necessity to
provide autonomous financing for these stations so it will be necessary to
provide support for the training of managers in order to optimise the use
funds raised through subscription.
d. It is necessary to support projects and organisations intended to monitor
the situation with media freedoms and freedom of expression in general as
well as report on violations of these freedoms.
e. Support for projects aimed at unveiling the facts from the past which led
to war crimes and mass destruction.
f. Support for projects which would advance the level of professionalism of
journalists and media alike.

Veran Matic
Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) Chairman

In Belgrade,
August 2001

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net