Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbia: Key Step to Media Reform

Breakthrough in efforts to turn state-run radio and television into an independent broadcaster.
By Tamara Spaic

Serbia's parliament has finally drawn up a list of candidates for a new broadcasting authority that's seen as a major step towards freeing the media from the shackles of state control and turning it into a genuine public service.

IWPR learned that parliament, after months of delays, agreed last week on six candidates to compete for one place on the eight-member Broadcasting Council. The other places will be filled by representatives of state institutions, NGOs and journalists' associations.

The council will map out a broadcasting development strategy, issue licenses, set programme standards, protect copyright and penalise broadcasters promoting discrimination, hatred or violence.

The objective is to wrestle media out of the state control - which Serbia's new democratic leadership has pledged to achieve but been slow to deliver.

Now, the selection of parliamentary candidates has removed the last serious barrier to setting up the council and with it the implementation of radical new broadcasting legislation adopted in June last year.

Ivan Andric, chairman of the culture and information committee in the Serbian parliament, confirmed to IWPR that the list of Broadcasting Council candidates is finally complete, and suggested that they might be appointed by parliament in the next 10 days.

Parliament might then, in addition to implementing the broadcasting law, adopt even more wide-ranging legislation on public information, Andric said. The latter measure was drafted two years ago following the downfall of Milosevic and has since languished on the parliamentary sidelines.

Andric told IWPR that the process of candidate selection had been held up because the ruling coalition Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, took so long to choose a representative.

Many media analysts believed DOS delayed nominating a candidate because of its reluctance to see an independent state broadcaster.

The other bodies represented on the council selected candidates right after the new broadcasting legislation was adopted on July 19, 2002.

DOS foot-dragging, in defiance of two years' pressure from the Council of Europe, OSCE and EU, has left the state broadcaster still very much under the influence of the Serbian leadership and media scene in general floundering in the kind of chaos that prevailed under Milosevic.

Media analysts estimate that between 1,000 and 1,300 radio and TV stations are operating without proper licenses or any restrictions on programme content.

Darko Brocic, a media researcher and director of AGB Strategic Research, told IWPR, "Not even the police know how many TV and radio stations there are in Serbia. Ever since Milosevic's time, anyone could have started one up.

"Many TV stations are essentially video outlets showing only movies - of course, without paying for them. It's the same with radio stations. Some broadcasters don't carry a single advertisement so they can hardly have any commercial motive."

Brocic said some broadcasters had been created solely to improve their owner's image or were simply money laundering operations.

Official figures list a total of 504 radio stations and 253 TV channels in Serbia. Analysts estimate that the broadcasting council will allocate about 250 frequencies for the former and 50 for the latter.

None of this can be done, of course, until the council is set up - and some analysts believe it could take up to six months for the body to produce its first tangible results. At this rate, forthcoming elections look like taking place amid the same old media chaos.

Tamara Spaic is an independent journalist and media consultant for the speaker of the federal parliament chamber of citizens.