Serbia: Media Reform in Limbo

The Serbian authorities have not fulfilled their pledge to reform the country's media.

Serbia: Media Reform in Limbo

The Serbian authorities have not fulfilled their pledge to reform the country's media.

Friday, 23 November, 2001

One of the most immediate results of the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic was the opening up of state and quasi-state broadcasters and print media to representatives of the former opposition and NGO sector. But high hopes that this would usher forth a period of professional, objective journalism, free of political influence, have proven to be overly optimistic.

A year after the revolution, it appears that the media has changed little. Even more worrisome is the suspicion that this is due to a conscious determination on the part of the new political establishment to retain certain mechanisms of control exploited by former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

The legal framework governing the media remains basically in place. The post-Milosevic authorities did immediately halt implementation of the infamous 1998 Serbian Public Information Act. Many of its articles have either been declared unconstitutional and repealed. The Serbian information ministry was also abolished and a moratorium on the allocation of new broadcasting licences was declared.

NGOs, media and journalist associations began work on drafting new media regulations - the Public Broadcasting Act and Public Information Law. Representatives of the new government hailed the beginning of this process but, with the exception of the federal telecommunications minister, did not wholeheartedly engage in it.

The abolition of the federal telecommunications ministry following the fall of the federal government in July 2001, meant the fate of the bills and other documents remains uncertain.

While the new authorities initially pledged their support for the reforms, they were clearly uneasy about adopting the new regulations, particularly handing over control of them to an independent regulatory body.

So far the authorities have merely abolished some of the most unpopular Milosevic-era media laws but they have stubbornly avoided introducing new legislation which would limit their influence over the running of the Serbian media.

In the telecommunications and broadcasting spheres, for instance, all they've done is abolish subscription fees for the state broadcaster, previously appended to electricity bills. There have been no audits of business dealings by the quasi-state media, which amassed a fortune under Milosevic's rule.

All this combines to create a state of affairs extremely unfavourable, above all, for the independent media which, despite the former regime's repression, contributed enormously to bringing about political change.

The abolition of the information ministry, although advantageous to the democratic image of the Serbian government, has created a situation whereby no member of the government is under an obligation to deal with the reform of the media.

The moratorium on frequency allocations in effect froze that state of affairs inherited on October 5, 2000. Broadcasters granted licenses by Milosevic retained all their privileges, while the independent media, viciously targeted by the former regime, received no allowances to redress injustices suffered at the hands of the former president's henchmen.

Confiscated equipment has been returned to some stations, but not to the majority of independent broadcasters.

Broadcasters denied licences in the Milosevic era have remained pirate stations. Others granted licenses covering small areas struggle on, but their access to advertising revenue is extremely restricted given their limited geographical reach.

Milosevic-era media moguls have on the other hand retained their nationwide licenses and have moved closer to the new political leadership. They have thereby held onto the lion's share of the advertising revenues and bolstered their position by buying rights to popular foreign TV shows.

Delays in introducing public competition for broadcasting licenses and failure to adopt a new public broadcasting act has made it impossible for independent broadcasters to plan ahead.

The situation at Radio Television Serbia, RTS, is apparently worse now than immediately after the changes of October 2000. Once again there are signs of intensifying political pressure on the station and its editors.

In July 2001, Milorad Petrovic, editor of the RTS central information programme, Dnevnik 2, resigned claiming he had been put under enormous pressure by some ruling political parties. Attempts to recruit an editor-in-chief for RTS information programming was stopped after the general manager failed to propose a single candidate out of those who had applied.

Gordana Susa, president of the Serbian Independent Journalist Association, NUNS, was one of those who applied for the post. She claims her application was turned down due to opposition from Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS.

All this raises serious doubts about the sincerity of the new Yugoslav authorities towards the transformation of the state-owned media into public service broadcasters.

On October 3, 2001, officials ordered the independent TV station, Pirot, to immediately cease broadcasting on the grounds that the station did not hold the relevant frequency license. Managers there chose to ignore the demand, which smacked of the tactics of the Milosevic era.

Meanwhile, RTS has debts of 20 million US dollars, an excessive number of employees (between 7,500 and 8,000) and outdated equipment. The abolition of subscription fees has left the broadcaster totally dependent on funds from the Serbian government's budget. Despite excessive overstaffing, even journalists renowned for their loyalty to Milosevic remain at their desks.

Journalists in Serbia are also still exposed to serious personal danger. On June 11, 2001, Milan Pantic, correspondent of the Belgrade daily Vecernje novosti, was murdered in Jagodina in central Serbia. He had been investigating crime and corruption in the town and had received several death threats.

During the Milosevic era, corrupt officials and criminals had less to fear from the press. Articles exposing their activities were unlikely to bring on prosecutions by police and judicial institutions, which were themselves corrupt and involved in criminal dealings. Nowadays, however, a newspaper article could indeed lead to investigation and prosecution.

The media situation in Serbia needs to be improved. Concrete action in this sphere would contribute to desperately needed social stability in this period of transition.

The government should create an independent state agency specifically tasked with reforming the legal framework governing the media in Serbia and defining media policy. Work needs to begin right away on the draft legislation put before the government in August 2001, to ensure its implementation as soon as possible.

Independent broadcasters, pirate or otherwise, should be granted licenses for the next two years until the new public broadcasting act comes into effect and open competition for frequencies can go ahead.

Temporary licenses extending the area of coverage should be given to those independent broadcasters who have respected the moratorium, even if this is at the expense of large commercial broadcasters, which grew and prospered under Milosevic's wing. Several of those broadcasters have in fact expanded operations since October 2000 in clear violation of the moratorium.

Other measures, such as government bonds in compensation for lost, confiscated equipment; partial privatisation of publicly-owned companies and the closure of broadcasters set up after the November 2000 moratorium, would also help the independent broadcasters get through this difficult period.

The international community, meanwhile, needs to continue providing support to independent print and broadcast media. Pressure should be brought to bear on the authorities to ensure the speedy adoption of legislation guaranteeing European standards of media impartiality and independence.

For RTS to succeed as a public service broadcaster, if indeed it ever becomes one, journalists need to be trained and equipment updated. A public service broadcaster needs an autonomous source of funding and managers, trained and equipped, to administer those monies efficiently. The international community has much to contribute here.

Projects and organisations designed to monitor media freedom also need international support. As do projects aimed at unveiling the facts about the past, especially war crimes.

Such schemes would enhance the level of professionalism among journalists in Serbia and provide a concrete basis for media reform.

The Serbian government's neglect of independent electronic media and the rapprochement between the quasi-state media and the new authorities has given real cause for concern.

Should the government continue its policy of neglect, reform and democratisation in Serbia could be seriously jeopardised.

Veran Matic is the chairman of the Association of Independent Electronic Media

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