Serbia: Media and government

U.S. expert on the Balkans Daniel Serwer recently published an analysis of the media scene in Serbia, regarding claims of censorship and stifling of media freedoms.

Serwer, senior research professor and senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote that he "asked a knowledgeable friend about media freedom in Serbia."

Noting that he was "prepared to publish other well-reasoned perspectives on this issue," Serwer posted the reply he received on is blog:

"Here is my theory on the Serbian media scene.

Media freedom activists (MFA) who claim there is censorship imposed directly by the Serbian government or even Prime Minister Vučić himself – and who consist of both journalists and nongovernmental organization representatives – constitute a small fraction of people working in the media sector overall. Most journalists do not complain about censorship and perform their jobs normally.

Of course, being a minority does not mean being wrong. But in the case of the MFA, the problem is the argumentation they use in their attempts to prove that there is censorship. What they emphasize as their “ultimate proof” is that a vast majority of mainstream media never, or at most rarely, criticize Vučić.

It is true that most media treat Vučić in a positive way, but that does not necessarily have to be due to censorship by him or the government as a whole. The media do not operate in a vacuum; they are an integral part of broader society. As such, they reflect the general mood of the public. If Vučić enjoys huge support from people, it is not surprising that most media might be reluctant to write or speak against him, even if they have grounds. They do not want to risk alienating their readers and followers, both actual and potential.

Even though Vučić is today far more popular than Tadić ever was during his presidency (and certainly holds more power than Tadić did), when you compare the number and percentage of mainstream media that are currently pro-Vučić with the number of those that were pro-Tadić when he was in power, you’ll see that, strangely, more media then favored Tadić than now favor Vučić.

Another two factors that I believe contribute a great deal to sycophantic behavior of some media toward those in power (at any given time, not just at present) are opportunism and cowardice. An example of cowardice is when a journalist refrains from criticizing a politician in power not because someone influential warned them not to, but because of perceived fear of getting into trouble if they did. An example of opportunism is when a journalist (or editor) flatters powerful figures in hopes of earning privileges in return. Albeit different, both can be regarded as cases of self-censorship.

In terms of their attitude toward the ruling elite, Serbian mass media can be roughly classified into three basic categories.

The first includes those that openly support Vučić, but also others from his political party (SNS), in any situation, even when they are clearly in the wrong. Of the newspapers, such is the daily tabloid Informer. Of the nationwide TV stations, such is also privately-owned Pink, arguably the most watched TV channel in the country. I cannot tell you for sure whether these media favor Vučić because their editors or owners have a friendly personal relationship with him or because they sincerely support him and his policies (or for some other reason, such as secret financial backing, pressure, fear of the consequences, etc…)

The second group are those media that for the most part maintain a more or less positive attitude toward (or at least do not openly criticize) Vučić himself, but often attack other members of the government, including Vučić’s closest aides from both the government and his party, among whom is President Nikolić. Nikolić was recently an object of a severe – if partly deserved – smear campaign by a number of media. The most notable example from this category is the daily semi-tabloid Blic, one of the most read newspapers in Serbia.

The third category consists of media with a basically balanced approach, meaning that one can find similar amounts of pro- and anti-Vučić/government content. Belonging to this category is the state TV network (RTS), as well as two dailies – privately-owned Danas and predominantly state-owned Politika – with the former slightly more anti-government and the latter more of the opposite.

Other mainstream media fall somewhere between these three categories. Thus, on the whole, it can be said that mass media generally lean toward Vučić but not necessarily the entire government. The situation is completely different in so-called alternative media (online portals, blogs and so on), where almost all of them constantly criticize Vučić, frequently in an offensive manner without foundation.

There are also two mainstream weeklies worth mentioning. One is Vreme, which is overtly anti-government and even more anti-Vučić. The paper exists for two decades and a half already and is known in international circles thanks to its strong opposition to Milošević throughout the 1990s. The other is Nedeljnik, which is not as much anti-Vučić as Vreme, but no doubt inclines more toward the opposition.

The MFA emphasize as a “proof” of censorship that the overall number of political talk-shows (debates) on television has decreased since Vučić came into power. That is true, but it has more to do with commercial than political factors. Apart from their cautious optimism about Vučić as national leader, most people have grown disinterested in politics (or, better to say, politicking). People know in advance what politicians are going to say in almost any situation, so why waste their time listening to all those empty phrases? When it comes to television content, the average citizen of Serbia would rather watch entertainment (highly popular music talent competitions and other reality shows) than boring political debates, especially when the two are concurrently broadcast on different TV channels. Except for a few politicians capable of amusing the public, others struggle to attract attention during their appearances on TV.

Market forces, more than anything else, also have predominant effect on the printed media’s “political preferences.” Serbia is a relatively small and poor market. Except for a few tabloids, which can attract significant readership thanks to their provocative and sensationalistic content, most of the other press are forced to fight for mere survival. Given the lack of readers, compounded by a drop in sales due to the expansion of online journalism, they have to rely almost completely on advertising.

But here is a catch-22: companies logically seek to advertise in the newspapers with as many readers as possible. Those who lack readers have little choice but to try to secure advertisements from state-owned corporations and/or large private companies close to the political elite. Such a strategy may imply avoiding politically sensitive topics, which, in turn, opens up the opportunity for the ruling class to exploit government (or related) advertising as a means of influencing these dependent media’s editorial policies. While that cannot be called censorship in the literal (or classic) sense, it certainly puts indirect financial pressure on media. This possibility has existed for a long time, regardless of who is in power, and will continue to exist as long as the Serbian market remains too poor to absorb the relatively large number of media (especially printed ones) that operate in the country.

Those media that are bitterly opposed to Vučić don’t want to be involved in business deals that have any link with the current government. An overwhelming majority of the MFA come from these media. In order to survive, they seek money from international NGOs and other organizations with the mission of promoting freedom of the press and similar values. One way to try to secure funding from these organizations is to apply for different projects. But such projects, provided that you have won one, are just a temporary solution, since the money will sooner or later be used up.

In order to receive continued financial aid, the MFA need to convince the potential international (or foreign) sponsors that the situation in Serbia is “catastrophic,” that the media are “terrified by Vučić and completely under control by the government” and so on. Hence the senseless allegations that Vučić is a “horrible dictator” and that the situation is “even worse than under Milošević,” which is, of course, a blatant lie, but one that may prove useful if someone buys it. While Vučić occasionally does express some authoritarian characteristics in his general conduct, he is far from acting as a dictator, let alone “worse than Milošević.”

In fact, the MFA suffer from a deeper problem: a pathological hatred of Vučić. They routinely oppose and condemn whatever Vučić says or does, including even things they otherwise support, not least because many of them benefited in the past from their closeness with the former ruling, but now barely surviving, Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, for most ordinary people the issues such as censorship, freedom of the press and the overall state of media in Serbia seem of little concern. People basically have a low opinion of media and journalists. They believe there is a lot of misinformation deliberately published for political or other selfish purposes. People are often skeptical of what they hear or read even in the media they willingly choose to follow. Unfortunately, such an impression is not without reason.

Regarding allegations that Vučić tends to react angrily to any negative opinion someone publicly expresses about him, it is important to stress that he rarely reacts to criticism of his political moves. What usually provokes emotional overreaction from him and and other politicians are arbitrary accusations of power abuse or similar malpractices.

Although this is just a small part of what could be said about the topic in question, I hope that you can now form at least a partly clearer picture of the media situation in Serbia."

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