Serb Media Challenge Changes to Broadcasting Authority

Plans to alter the selection process for the body issuing frequency licenses trigger protest.

Serb Media Challenge Changes to Broadcasting Authority

Plans to alter the selection process for the body issuing frequency licenses trigger protest.

Serbian media associations have attacked the government’s proposed amendments to Broadcasting legislation, accusing it of trying to strengthen its control over the all-important council charged with issuing frequency licenses.

The government proposals, due for adoption by the Serbian parliament at the end of July, are expected to lead to the final formation of a Broadcasting Council, which has been on hold for two years.

The recent history of the council has been unhappy. Although the 2002 Broadcasting Act laid the foundations for the council, the body was not formed until April 2003, after which its operations were suspended following furious rows over the selection of members.

After Nenad Cekic and Vladimir Cvetkovic - nominees of the Serbian government and parliament - were elected, despite their candidacies not being announced within the appointed deadline, two other council members resigned.

It was also established that the selected candidate for Kosovo in fact had no obvious connection with the territory, and lived and worked in Serbia.

After these ructions, other problems over electing council members made it impossible for it to start work, as a result of which the process of legalising frequencies also ground to a halt.

Although Serbian media outlets welcome the plan to form the Broadcasting Council, which can bring order to the current chaos over frequency licenses, many claim the government’s planned changes to the selection process are designed to boost its influence over the authority.

Under the proposed legislation, the council is to have nine members. The original plan was that four would be elected by the governments and parliaments of Serbia and the province of Vojvodina. Another four would come from the universities, non-governmental organisations, media associations and religious communities. The ninth was a representative of Kosovo.

The government now wants three to be selected by parliamentary committee, instead of parliament itself, and they have not divulged who will appoint this committee. The government has also proposed scrapping a key provision that says council members can only be elected or dismissed by a majority vote in parliament.

Rade Veljanovski, a radio journalism professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Political Sciences and an author of the Broadcasting Act, says the changes will effectively increase government influence over the council.

He calculates that alongside the three parliamentary appointees, the government will also be able to count on the Serbian Orthodox Church representative, while the member from Kosovo – who will be selected by the council’s other eight members – will also be under their control.

“For the sake of good relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, it is clear the religious communities’ representative will come from this institution,” he said. “So, one way or another, the state will have five members [on the Council] while professional [media] organisations will only have three.”

Most media analysts also criticise the proposed amendments. Several umbrella organisations, including the Independent Association of Serbian Journalists, NUNS, the Association of Independent Electronic Media, ANEM, and the Belgrade Media Centre, have urged the government to change its mind.

The three associations suggest a different system of nominating candidates, under which the state would choose three, the churches, universities and non-governmental organisations another three, while the rest would be nominated by professional media bodies.

In an open letter on July 15 to Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica, the media associations said the core of the problem with the council was “the dominant influence of state bodies on the election of its members”.

It added, “The newly-proposed process of electing council members is an obstacle to the council’s independence and is totally out of line with international standards and the democratically organised society for which we are striving.”

The statement complained that the draft amendments were written without prior consultations with media associations, which, it said, “Creates antagonism between the media and the authorities.”

The government has denied seeking to strengthen its own hand on the council. Dragan Kojadinovic, minister for culture and the media, said the main motive was the purely practical one of speeding up the council’s hitherto stalled operations. “We have already wasted two years. Let’s finally unblock the council,” Kojadinovic told IWPR.

Responding to the charge that the changes will slow down the process of Serbia’s integration into European structures, as Serbian legislation has not been brought into conformity with European norms, the minister said many complaints came from people who had no interest in seeing the council working at all.

“The objections are mainly made by those who are not very happy with the idea of finally resolving the council issue,” he said. Kojadinovic also insisted he had met representatives of professional media associations several times and that the proposed changes merely summarised what they had discussed.

International organisations tasked with monitoring the Serbian media have not commented on the changes, which suggests they are unlikely to meet a barrage of foreign criticism.

Representatives of the OSCE, which took part in drafting the original legislation, were not consulted over the changes, which may explain why they have not reacted.

Geoffrey Barrett, head of the European Commission delegation in Serbia and Montenegro, said the commission’s main concern was to see the council functioning.

“We believe it necessary for the council to start work as soon as possible,” Barrett said last week. He did not say whether the EC agreed with the proposed changes to the legislation.

Milos Zivkovic, an ANEM lawyer, said foreign precedents should serve as a warning to Serbia. Citing Bulgaria, where a majority vote in parliament is also not required for selecting (or dismissing) the country’s Broadcasting Council members, he said the lack of this requirement “is now causing them a great many problems”.

Zivkovic added, “It makes it possible for each structure that comes into power [in Bulgaria] to immediately change the make-up of the council”.

Serbia’s recent history since the fall of the Milosevic regime in 2000 suggests even democratically-elected administrations have a marked tendency to try to maintain control over the media.

In the Milosevic era, radio and television stations close to the government were issued licences, while independent media groups found theirs revoked. Many operated illegally, as they still do, expecting a future Broadcast Council to legalise their status.

In the meantime, the number of illegal radio stations has increased, while the privatisation of broadcast media has not begun.

Many of these problems can now be resolved once the council starts working. But a number of media groups say the proposed changes to the broadcasting authority mean that a celebration is not in order.

Tamara Skrozza is a journalist with the Belgrade weekly Vreme.

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