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Politicians Muscle in on Minority Media

Political parties take control of ethnic minority newspapers, triggering protests from staff.

Journalists working for ethnic minority media groups in Vojvodina are growing concerned about interference from the recently founded authorities, which in many cases are run by a single party.

After years of struggling to survive in the hostile climate of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, they say they are now facing more subtle threats to their independence from national councils, set up in ethnic minority areas to decide on community issues such as education, language and culture. In 2004, two years after the bodies were established, they gained many rights over local media.

In many cases, the councils have effectively taken over management of their community’s newspapers, selecting directors, editors and management boards of minority of media outlets.

The system used to appoint members of the various councils, meanwhile, plays into the hands of a few relatively strong ethnic minority parties.

This is because those who sit on councils have to be either members of parliamentary bodies or elected through the collection of signatures as a show of support, which only political parties have the infrastructure to do.

The councils were set up with the best intentions by the government under a new Law on Protection of Minority Rights and Liberties.

After the passage last year of a law prohibiting the state from running minority media outlets, the Vojvodina parliament transferred “founding rights” to the national councils, giving them management and editorial control.

The Hungarian National Council, which represents the biggest minority in the province, now runs the most important Hungarian media groups in Vojvodina.

These are Magyar Szo (Hungarian Word), the Hungarian-language newspaper founded in 1945, the youth magazine Kepes Ifjusag (Youth in Images) and the weekly 7 Nap (7 Days).

Laszlo Jozsa, chair of the Hungarian National Council, is both a senior official in the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, SVM, led by by Joszef Kasza, and vice-president of the managing board of Magyar Szo.

Jozsa insists he keeps his various portfolios separate and says his party has no influence on the local Hungarian media. “I wouldn't allow my political party to exert indirect influence on the media through the national council of which I am the chairman,” he told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR.

While the Hungarian National Council is responsible for Magyar Szo’s operations, editorial policy is left up to the newspaper’s editor, he added.

But not all the journalists agree. “The newsroom tries hard to work as it used to, but it's different now,” said one source on the daily. The same source maintained the newspaper was now under the control of the SVM and that reporters who opposed this stood to lose their jobs.

Recently, Ferenc Csik Nagy, the editor Magyar Szo, lost his job for publishing an open letter written by a journalists’ union criticising the newspaper’s management team.

Journalists from Magyar Szo said they expect more redundancies if and when the newsroom in Novi Sad, the current headquarters, is reduced and it expands activities in the northern, mainly Hungarian areas, around Senta and Subotica.

Jozsa says this makes practical sense, as few Hungarians live in Novi Sad. “Only three to four per cent of the population of Novi Sad is Hungarian,” he said.

But opponents in the newsroom fear a move to the SVM strongholds of Subotica or Senta will bring the newspaper even more closely under the party’s auspices.

“In this way, the dream of the SVM, which is to move the daily to Subotica, will come true,” the same newsroom source told BCR.

The struggle over the Hungarian media in Vojvodina is reflected in many other, smaller, minority communities.

Last year's decision by the Vojvodina parliament to make the Romanian National Council the official owner of the Libertatea media company also led to infighting.

The first move by the Romanian National Council, after taking control of the Romanian-language weekly, was to dismiss the management and appoint a new editor.

Danijel Petrovic, chair of the Romanian National Council, told BCR that the dissmisals were made purely with a view to opening up posts for public competition and were not politically inspired.

But as on Magyar Szo, many readers and journalists disagreed. The dissmisals led to journalists locking themselves into their offices and fights erupting between their supporters and the council members.

According to Niku Coban, director of Libertatea, the decision to transfer control over these media outlets to the National Councils was an error.

“The minority media outlets are now at the mercy of small groups of people who have no experience with the media,” he said.

Coban said that political interference had increased dramatically since 2004, when the national councils acquired rights over local media.

“[Before 2004] none of the then Vojvodina information ministers called to ask why something had been published or not,” he said.

“Once the council [assumed control of operations] its members started to do exactly that, asking why someone had been criticised in the newspaper and why we didn't write more about the activities of the council.”

Discontent culminated last July when Libertatea journalists staged a two-month strike, demanding new elections to the Romanian National Council.

After an extraordinary electoral assembly session took place in Vrsac last September, a new council was formed, which reappointed former members of the management, such as Coban. He still believes the councils are a poor idea.

“The national councils are an illusion, a trick of the Serbian government,” he said. “The fact that voters may punish the council by voting someone else in, if they don't do their job, is not much comfort. In four- year term for council members, they can destroy everything.”

Vojvodina’s small Ruthene community has also been split by the creation of a Ruthenian National Council and by its assumption of powers over the community’s newspaper, Rusko Slovo.

Discontent centred on the role of the council’s former chair, Rafail Ruskovski. A member of the Democratic Party, DS, he tried to cut the number of the newspaper's journalists and use the funds for other cultural activities of the council.

Some agreed with the cuts. “More than 20 people were putting out a 20-page weekly newspaper,” one journalist complained.

Others, however, were furious. “Ruskovski wanted to lay off 10 people on Rusko Slovo, but I could not accept it,” said the newspaper’s former director, Mikola Santa. “This led to conflict.”

The row ended in the replacement of most members of the Ruthene council and the appointment of new people to run the newspaper.

“Rusko Slovo and the Ruthenian National Council now have good relations, and they exert no pressure on the newspaper,” said Vladimir Palancanin, current director of the weekly.

Journalists seem to work best with national councils when they have not fallen under the control of single parties or cliques.

There are no serious problems between the Croat National Council and Hrvatska Rijec, Vojvodina’s Croatian weekly newspaper, for example, because no one party has a majority on the council.

Its members belong to the DS, the Social Democratic Alliance of Vojvodina, LSV, and the Democratic Party of Vojvodina Croats, DSHV.

The position of the Roma differs from that of the other communities, as its council has no media outlets to control. There are none in Vojvodina, a situation that reflects the community’s high level of illiteracy.

That, however, has not diminished the level of infighting and bickering on the Roma National Council since it was founded in 2003.

In June, Srdjan Sain, chair of the executive board, resigned, voicing dissatisfaction with the work of the council chairman, Vitomir Mihailovic. “The Roma National Council has not achieved anything,” he said.

Mihailovic denied this, saying the council had achieved much in the field of education, culture and in cases of discrimination against Roma.

Dinko Gruhonjic, president of the Independent Association of Vojvodina Journalists, believes the national councils should not retain control of the minority media.

The case of the Hungarian media in the province, he says, illustrates what can grow wrong, “It is obvious that a one-party national council, like the Hungarian one, intends to control all the Hungarian language media in Vojvodina.”

Gruhonjic advocates a return to the policy of government financing for the minority media as a possible solution. If the state were to assist the minority media to survive, he added, that would at least prevent them from falling under the control of one particular party.

The other alternative, total privatisation, will bring new abuses in its train, he maintains.

“The media might be privatised by bogus companies whose shadowy owners are influential minority politicians,” he said.

Marinika Ciobanu is a journalist with the Romanian language weekly Libertatea. Miroslav Zadrepko is TV B92 correspondent from Vojvodina. Atila Marton is a freelance journalist. Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is BIRN Serbia and Montenegro director.

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