"Media Cannot Survive On Donations Alone"
The B92 director Veran Matic tells BIRN that the
secret of the
Serbian radio and television station's success lies
in the fact that
it was already preparing itself to survive in a
long before the fall of the Milosevic regime.
BIRN: In the past 15 years, western
donors have invested a lot of money in the Serbian
media. Have these donations helped the independent
media and to what extent?
VERAN MATIC: This aid helped many
media outlets survive, but not much more. If it
hadn't been provided, many would have perished or
been pushed to the margins. There were also periods
when there were no significant investments and there
were donors who had funds for the independent media
only at certain times. The only organisation that
maintained consistent aid programmes was the Open
Society Institute. USAID, the European Union, national
donor organisations and non-governmental organisations
[NGOs], in their capacity as implementers of independent
media aid projects, joined this foundation now and
Q: Looking back, was this investment
good or were there some bad aspects to it?
A: Of all the investments made
[in Serbia] it was the best. The investments in
political parties did not prove spectacular as they
failed to create an authentic democratic environment.
In most cases the democratic parties slipped back
into the old undemocratic ways once they came to
power. NGOs also failed to win a proper place in
the process of social and political development.
Some bigger ones joined political parties, while
others have been sidelined, through mismanagement
or by deliberate initiative of the state, which
sees the NGO sector as a rival.
But the independent media have by and large survived
their authenticity as democratic watchdogs. Look
at the weekly news
magazine Vreme, the daily paper Danas and B92, which
has grown as a
radio, television and website into a very successful
outlets have operated now for over sixteen years,
that changes are possible and that there are those
who can pull them off.
The bad side concerns the frequent attempts to
make aid instrumental
on achieving certain political goals. After the
[1995 Bosnian] Dayton
peace accord we had a situation where almost no
one was willing to
help the independent media because [Yugoslav president
Milosevic was seen as the guarantee of peace, and
of the Accords.
Donors often don't know the right moment to act
owing to their own
bureaucratic style of decision-making. The most
common problems stem
from lack of knowledge of the local situation. This
was why the most
successful and most useful donors were always those
with local offices.
Q: While Milosevic was in power,
donors made political activists out of media outlets,
granting donor money to the anti-regime media. How
did Milosevic's fall influence these media and the
A: Some donors certainly tried
to turn media outlets into political activists but
not much was achieved, which was why there were
tensions between the local media and donors. The
opposition [parties also] tried. to control the
independent media by gaining control over the aid
funds. But the independent media prevented this.
Soon after the collapse of the regime, a conflict
broke out as the
media continued to do their job and criticise, while
democratic government wanted the same level of support
received in opposition. Unfortunately, donors [who]
mostly gave unconditional support to the new democratic
"honeymoon" lasted for several years and
is best illustrated by the
statement the [later] murdered Serbian prime minister
gave to B92 in Washington, when he said, "We'll
give them medals, but
not broadcasting frequencies."
This terrible misunderstanding divided the reformist
bloc, while the
lack of understanding of the importance of independent
media... meant the democratic reformist wing quickly
lost its allies
at the local level. The donors did not escape this
trap and most
often sided with the government in this confrontation.
consequence is that five years on we still do not
democratic media legislation.
The chaos in the electronic media has never been
greater and the
adopted media laws have not yet been implemented
because it doesn't
seem in the interest of the government. The most
countries and some international organisations have
helped this come to pass by tolerating, or even
irresponsible and undemocratic conduct of the Serbian
Q: We often hear that donor money
created media that directly depend on these donations
and which will inevitably cease to exist after donor
funds dry up. What do you think about the donors'
exit strategy, leaving the media to battle it out
on the market?
A: Media outlets that are products
of donor activities should not exist anyway. Whereas
media that came into existence from authentic motives
and rationale have endeavoured to create a situation
in which they do not depend to such a degree on
aid. The very nature of donors, both the governmental
and non-governmental donor organisations, is not
market-oriented. They are present as long as there
is crisis, but when the crisis is over they seek
new flashpoints and abandon what they created.
Radio B92 hired experts two years before Milosevic
fell to train the
management and prepare them for the post-Milosevic
period and for the
stiff market competition that was to follow. This
helped us not only
to preserve our radio as the undisputed market leader
but also to
develop a competitive television [service].
Q: What was the strategy to create
self-sustainable media, based on your own experiences?
A: We started preparing for sustainability
long before the October 2000 changes [which saw
the collapse of the Milosevic regime]. Since we
had large projects, we had to draft accurate project
plans and defend them before the donor consortia.
So even when we mostly lived off donations we were
building. This facilitated our transition to the
next phase when our new skills were needed to position
our company on the market. We also obtained professional
assistance to develop our commercial activities
In our mission statement we described ourselves
as a commercial media
outlet with a high degree of social responsibility
by virtue of a
large part of our programming content. We would
be a public service
broadcaster sustaining itself commercially.
The sudden withdrawal of donors is certainly shocking
for any media
outlet. But B92 alleviated the impact through collaboration
Media Development Loan Fund, which specialises in
assisting media in
transition. In addition to favourable long-term
loans, it helped with
the development of managerial skills. This combination
knowledge and finances is the key to success.
It is expensive to train the employees of a company
that has a
national radio [and] television [service] and a
popular web site, a
publishing house, a CD label and much more. This
was why our last big
donation was about training and education. We succeeded
in winning a
grant from the European Agency for Reconstruction
for education and
training provided by the European Centre for Broadcast
the BBC. This training programme lasted for two
years and encompassed
all the employees - from journalists to top management
- and it
finished with an evaluation of the all the employees.
But democratic media laws have still not been implemented
still have this chaos in the media, hampering successful
The chaos is conducive to irregular conditions in
the market, to
unfair competition and a general inability to establish
that we have been fighting for. The lack of effective
media laws and institutions carries a huge risk
in the eyes of
potential investors. When this is the case, it is
better to try to
survive and develop by relying on your own capital
business deals, which should enable growth at least
until the media
scene is properly regulated. Only then will the
media companies be
able to attract good investments.
Q: Is privatisation of media outlets
a solution after donations disappear? What are the
positive and negative aspects?
A: Privatisation is absolutely
necessary but unfortunately B92 is the only successfully
privatised media company in Serbia today. Legal
regulations and practice are not in place in this
field and it is in the interest of the government
to prolong this period when it is possible to influence
the media thanks to their ownership structure.
In the case of B92, the whole process was conducted
with the idea of
introducing an ownership structure that would prevent
First, we prevented the state from becoming the
and identified friendly institutions in advance,
like the MDLF, which
would support our policy as a co-owner of the company.
distributed shares to all employees who had contributed
development of B92.
The B92 founders and managers set up the B92 Trust
to ensure the
implementation of the editorial policy through controlling
But Trust members cannot take away these shares
if they leave the company.
Q: Should Balkan media outlets
continue to apply for grants? And in what areas
are these grants most needed?
A: Of course there are areas in
which the media should get support. Otherwise some
important projects would never be implemented. The
reference here above all is to education programmes
and projects informing the public about Euro-Atlantic
integrations, European institutions, and so on.
Our decade-long isolation means we were far removed
from the sources of basic information.
Then there is investigative journalism - an extremely
for journalists to play their authentic role of
Rare are the media that can finance from their own
large-scale investigative projects.
Very important too are programmes aimed at facing
up to our recent
past. This is not a popular topic and such investigations
Finally, the position of minorities, from ethnic
to sexual, is also
Q: Although substantial donor
funds have been spent on journalism training, professional
standards remain low. If results in this field are
meagre even with donations, what will happen when
donor money dries up?
A: Investments in institution-building
are crucial, and these institutions should help
train journalists and management. The money invested
here is never wasted. It will systematically help
to bring good-quality journalism to the media scene.
When donations dry up, I hope the existing media
will develop these institutions, because their very
existence is in the interest of the media outlets