Front page




 


Media in Serbia

 

Despite the almost three years which have passed since Serbia opted for democracy, there is no sign that the Serbian Government has a strategy on developing the media sector. The adoption of new media legislation is well behind schedule while the government ignores the outcome of public debates on the draft bills. This has left media exhausted as they struggle with an irregular market environment and inequitable business conditions. Nor have the authorities responded to demands from the public to review media operations under the previous regime. This raises the legitimate question of the degree to which Serbia has really rid itself of the heritage of an oppressive regime, what real improvement has occurred in the status of media and the government’s attitude to the sector.

The old Public Information Act introduced in 1998 has not been applied since 2000. Most of its provisions, apart from those applying to the registration of media outlets, were repealed in February, 2001, after the Constitutional Court ruled them unconstitutional. In the meantime, the Serbian Government has reimbursed media for some fines applied under the former regime and disbanded the former Ministry of Information. In May, 2003, the government accepted a proposal to cut tax on print media.

At the federal level, the authorities introduced a moratorium on new frequency licences pending the adoption of new media legislation. This legislation was promised by the end of 2001. They also dropped the obligatory television subscription fee which was formerly added to household electricity accounts. The new Broadcast Act was not adopted until July, 2002, and the Public Information Act and Telecommunications Act in March, 2003. Legislation on accessibility of information has still not been adopted, despite the government pledge to do so together with the other media legislation.

Although the government took no active part in the preparation of media legislation, it had a decisive influence on the versions finally adopted by the Parliament.

The Public Information Act, as the basic media law supposed to guarantee freedom of the media and the rights and responsibilities of journalists, was adopted during the state of emergency imposed after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, when civil rights, including the right to freedom of speech, were severely curtailed. This was a practical way to bypass discussion of certain articles introduced into the bill immediately before it was tabled in the Parliament. In addition, there was no public discussion of amendments introduced by MPs with government support, despite these having been rejected as unacceptable after months of public debate. The act as adopted has nine completely new articles which regulate the extremely sensitive issue of prohibiting the distribution of information. This was seen by media as an attempt to introduce the principle of censorship into Serbia’s media legislation.

Another provision introduced as an amendment in the Parliament provided for the state to establish a news agency. The public debate had ruled this concept out for a number of reasons. Firstly because it introduced a special set of rules for only one kind of outlet – a news agency – while all other state-owned media were required to be transformed into public services or privatised. This was justified with the argument that “the public has the right to be informed objectively and without bias of all the positions taken and decisions made by state bodies” and because, if there were only private news agencies, “the public could be left without information on decisions taken by the state”. This indicates the government’s reluctance to trust media which are not under its direct control. This attitude also calls into question the government’s candour in its stated intention of transforming the state-owned television network into a public service.

The new Public Information Act, without proper justification, also places more restrictions on the protection of information sources than did earlier drafts seen by the public.

Too many detailed regulations with detail, and the idea that the Public Information Act should regulate issues which are normally dealt with under common law, have created a situation which imperils the very nature of media. One example of this is the stipulation that the permission of bystanders is needed for street photography.

It is possible that no one will observe these pointless provisions which largely make nonsense of the act. The multiplicity of provisions demonstrates the government’s fear of the media and its distrust of their role in society.

Although the new Public Information Act was prepared in parallel with the Bill on Accessibility of Information, the government did not table the latter in the Parliament. Given that the Public Information Act is more general and primarily regulates the work of the media, it is essential that the government shows the same readiness to define the obligation of public service media to provide the public with information. This would generate a general climate of responsibility and stimulate the media to engage in investigative and analytical journalism.

The controversial Broadcast Act has given the impression that the government is not prepared to relinquish the inherited mechanisms of exerting pressure on the media. The greatest concern attaches to the tardiness of its adoption together with changes to the draft which had been prepared by local experts with the support of Council of Europe and OSCE consultants. Work began on the draft in November, 2000, when the Media Centre and the Independent Association of Serbian Journalists established a working group to draft media regulations. This group’s draft was submitted to the government in August, 2001, but was not adopted by the cabinet and tabled in the Parliament until April 2002. At the beginning of June the same year, the government suddenly withdrew the bill from parliamentary procedure, saying it had a large number of amendments. It was returned just a week later. The proposed number of members of the independent regulatory body, the Broadcast Agency Council, had been reduced from fifteen to nine, and the list of bodies with the right to nominate members of the Council had changed to the detriment of the civil sector. The law as adopted gives the state the right to nominate four of the nine councillors, two are nominated by social institutions – the universities and the Church - and two by lobby groups and professional organisations. The ninth member is nominated by the eight other councillors, with the proviso that the candidate must live and work in Kosovo. In this way, the balance of influence on the Agency, and therefore on the entire broadcast sector, including public service outlets, was swung in favour of the state, particularly in the politicised Serbian society.

The implementation of the Broadcast Act was also questionable, with fresh procrastination by the Government and the Parliament in nominating their candidates for the Council. The deadline prescribed for the establishment of this body was exceeded by more than six months. Then eight members were hastily elected on April 11, 2003, with the procedures prescribed by the Act being breached in the case of two members. Although the law obliges the Parliament to publish lists of all candidates with basic biographic data at least thirty days before the appointment of Council members, the candidacy of Nenad Cekic was published only three days before and that of Vladimir Cvetkovic on the very day of the election.

The legality of the appointment of the ninth member of the Council, the Kosovo representative, nominated by the other eight councillors, is also highly questionable. The Parliament elected the nominated candidate, Goran Radenovic, although his biography reveals that he does not meet the legal requirement of living in Kosovo.

The delay in implementing the Broadcast Act, and thus the appointment of the Council, also blocked the transformation of the state media network, Radio Television Serbia, into a public service. This state-owned company was left without reliable funding or a new management structure, leaving it open to continued outside interference. Preparations for public bidding for broadcast frequencies was also brought to a halt and the chaotic media market, in which more than a thousand broadcasters are operating, was needlessly allowed to continue. The delayed application of the law also set back the transformation of property ownership in local media operated by local government bodies.

Thus the eventual appointment of the Council members in April and May, 2003, still brought no hope that this body would tackle the innumerable problems in a responsible way, because a third of its members have been elected illegally. This has called the credibility of the entire Council into question. The situation was aggravated at the Council session of June 4, when one of the members who had been appointed in breach of procedures was elected chairman of the council. The councillor nominated by professional media and journalists’ associations, Snjezana Milivojevic, subsequently announced her resignation at the same meeting.

This all indicates that the Serbian authorities have not found the resolve to adopt a new legal framework for Serbian media operations and thereby make an irrevocable break with the practice of direct influence on the media. Instead they have opted for a compromise, a modest step forward from the practice of the former regime rather than what had been expected from a democratic government. To this may be added that fact that even these new laws are now being breached – as in the case of the election of Broadcast Agency Council members – in order to secure a sympathetic attitude to certain broadcasters. Thus it is clear that media in Serbia, particularly those which have maintained their independent position and critical attitude to the authorities, have great cause for concern.

This has been unfortunately compounded by changes in criminal legislation which have not addressed provisions used to limit the freedom of speech employed by the former regime as a mechanism to suppress independent journalism.

Only the crime of illegal possession and use of radio stations has been decriminalised. Still on the roll of criminal acts are the dissemination of false information, libel and tort, with more severe sanctions for these acts when committed via the media. The serious obstacle this presents to media operations and investigative journalism is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of charges brought under this legislation have been for articles which analyse the abuse of authority.

Not even the courts have shown a grasp of the role and position of journalists and the media in society, even in cases where the legislation provides mechanisms for not penalising media and journalists who have behaved in accordance with the highest standards of professional journalism. The courts are frequently reluctant to employ the principle that critical analysis is more acceptable when it applies to politicians, rather than private individuals.

Apart from the limits imposed by the legislation as it stands, media and journalists are also faced with a generally poor financial position. In order to survive they frequently find themselves forced to deal with companies of dubious repute. Journalists, too, are vulnerable to bribery and corruption. On the other hand, neither the political nor the social elite displays a sufficient grasp of the independent position of media and the importance of this position for the success of social reform and the pursuit of the public interest.


Recommendations:

· Urgent adoption of legislation on the accessibility of information.

· The Serbian Government and representatives of the working group should review the viability of certain provisions of the Public Information Act which do not conform to the principles of the working group and propose that the Parliament delete the questionable provisions via a bill to amend act. This relates particularly to the provision regulating the prohibition of publication and the provision enabling the state to establish a news agency.

· The Serbian Parliament should revoke its appointment of Nenad Cekic and Vladimir Cvetkovic to the Broadcast Agency Council because of the breach of legally prescribed procedures, and dismiss Goran Radenovic who does not meet the conditions for membership of the Council.

· Urgent creation of the Serbian Telecommunications Agency which should regulate the use of frequencies and prepare a strategy for the purpose of frequency range and a strategy for frequency allocation. This body should also step up work on defining the technical parameters which would enable the Broadcast Council to develop a sound strategy for the distribution of radio frequencies and television channels in such a way as to balance the needs of local media, regionalisation and define the frequency requirements for national media.

· Urgent decriminalisation of the acts of libel and tort and their reclassification under civil law. The financial sanctions applicable should be redefined in the light of the real economic situation in the country.

· Launch and intensify the process of examining the role of media under the former regime and establish the possibility of lustration in publicly funded media.

· Enable intensive collaboration of media in the region for the exchange of information as well as specialised programming linked to issues such as the tackling of organised crime and the disclosure of war crimes.

· Urgent resolution of the use of the building in Resavska Street which, before World War I, was bequeathed to all journalists and to which the Association of Journalists of Serbia and the Independent Association of Serbian Journalists should have equal access.

· Expedite the ownership transformation of state-owned media, including regional and local companies established by provinces or municipalities.

· Urgent identification of those responsible for the murder of Slavko Curuvija and Milan Pantic, journalists assassinated in 1999 and 2001 respectively.

· Facilitation of information exchange in the region in addition to television and radio exchange, including the possibility of mutual distribution of print media with tax relief and without customs duties.

· Bring into conformity the provisions of various pieces of legislation which would prevent the establishment of monopolies in the media sector and cross-media ownership which would stimulate media pluralism.


Recommendations to the International Community and Donors:

· It is essential to provide a support system for education programs. Apart from reconstruction of formal journalism courses, it is necessary to strengthen programs of alternative educational institutions for short-term training. It is also necessary to broaden the scope of international exchange in order to give direct insight into the standards of appropriate media companies and academic bodies. In the same way there is a need to develop programs to educate managers in the media.


Donors should review their strategies and direct their attention particularly to:

· The successful transformation of Radio Television Serbia into a public service, together with the transformation of as many media outlets as possible so that the public may play a more effective role in monitoring politics and public life.

· Support for ownership transformation of media as a basis for economic development of the sector and for securing stable, independent, autonomous editorial policies. A democratic country should have only a public service (radio and television) controlled by independent bodies, while all other media companies should be privately owned.

Defining strategies to incorporate comprehensive aid packages:

· Providing everything from expert insight into business practices and potential to the development of long-term strategies based on this expertise, including financial support, investments and loans aimed at achieving these goals. This would assist in improving professional standards in journalism and the development and long-term economic stability of respected media at the national, regional and local levels.

· Galvanising objective and investigative programs which would keep the public informed of crimes which have been committed. This is a necessary step in paying respect to the victims and enabling the people of the region to understand the complexity of the conflicts which have occurred and the suffering of innocent people on all sides. Only in this way can the conditions be created for those responsible to be brought to justice, which would pave the way for reconciliation and co-existence in the region.

................................................

ANEM - Association of Independent Electronic Media
Veran Matic

................................................

BETA News Agency
Ljubica Markovic

.................................................

BLIC Belgrade Daily
Veselin Simonovic

.................................................

DANAS Belgrade Daily
Grujica Spasovic

.................................................

Ekonomist Magazine
Mijat Lakicevic

.................................................

FoNet News Agency
Zoran Sekulic

.................................................

Glas javnosti Belgrade Daily
Slavoljub Kacarevic

.................................................

Local Press
Vukasin Obradovic

..................................................

Media Team in Serbia for Cooperation with Stability Pact
Vladan Radosavljevic

....................................................

NIN Belgrade Weekly
Slobodan Reljic

.............................................

NUNS, Independent Journalist Association of Serbia
Milica Lucic Cavic

.............................................

Production Group Mreza
Lila Radonjic

.............................................

RTS Radio Beograd
Rade Veljanovski

.............................................

RTS Radio Beograd I program
Dušan Radulovic

.............................................

RTS Radio 202
Nebojsa Spaic

.............................................

SEEMO Serbia
Radomir Licina

.............................................

VIN – Independent TV Production
Gordana Susa

.............................................

VREME Belgrade Weekly
Dragoljub Zarkovic

..............................................

In Belgrade, June 6, 2003

Front page of special

News

Chronology of events

 


DOCUMENTS

Media situation in Serbia, May 2003

Invitation to dialogue between government and media

Full text of the demand to replace two members of the Broadcast Agency Council

 


ANALYSIS

Srecko Mihajlovic: Lost in advance: the battle against pubic

Does the law not matter?

IFJ Warns of “Damage to Integrity of Broadcasting Law”

SEEMO Concerned over Press Freedoms in Serbia

 
FORUM

OSCE urges new election for broadcast monitoring body

CPJ concerned about government harrassment of the press

IPI Serbia Alert

RWB Call for re-election of council

OSCE urges transparency in media appointments

ANEM: repeat Broadcast Council election

NGOs shun Broadcast Council debate

EC Charge d’Affaires: Cause for concern

US Ambassador Extremely Disappointed at Status of Media

Verena Taylor: Legal procedure was not respected

OSCE Chairman: Laws may never be broken

Head of OSCE Mission: (1) “Aware of certain criticism”

Dimitrijevic: Against flouting of law in name of public interest

Head of OSCE Mission: (2) The law was broken in the Broadcasting Council’s constituting

Andric: Decision will stand

Milivojevic: If there is suspicion about autonomy form outset, Council will not be able to operate.

Veljanovski: There is deliberate negative pressure from the authorities.

Lucic-Cavic: Angry that candidate of professional associations, one of our greatest media experts, won’t be sitting on the Council

Matic: Not only an issue for our profession, it is a problem for the entire society

Lucic-Cavic: We could have survived another month

Milenkovic: Will broadcasters follow Parliament’s suit in breaching law?

Radulovic: Guiding principle was bad

Zink: Govt and parliament should consider grounds and response


Click Here!

© 2003, B92