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Serbia: Outcry Over New Broadcasting Authority

Government accused of breaking its own guidelines in selection of candidates for a new body tasked with allocating broadcasting frequencies.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Serbia's recently formed Broadcasting Council, which has the all-important task of allocating frequencies, has come under sharp attack from local media groups and associations.


They say the selection of candidates to the authority shows the government has every intention of retaining control of the electronic media and of continuing to favour their political sympathisers.


A protest letter to parliament has been signed by the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, NUNS, the Association of Independent Electronic Media, ANEM, and the TV broadcasters' body, Spektar.


In their letter, the critics questioned the suitability of some council members, claiming they breached electoral law.


At heart, the groups fear the government is bent on rewarding its allies in the media with the best frequencies. They also worry that ANEM, whose chairman is the editor in chief of B92 Radio and TV, Veran Matic - the veteran journalist and campaigner from the Milosevic era - could be sidelined.


A battle over media reform and the allocation of frequencies has been raging ever since Slobodan Milosevic fell in October 2000.


Up until now, the government was reluctant to intervene, which meant a fresh allocation of frequencies was put on hold. This worked greatly to the benefit of the old pro-Milosevic propaganda outfits, led by TV Pink and TV Braca Karic, TVBK because they were able to keep the frequencies given to them by Milosevic.


After switching sides to support the new government, both stations used their favourable position on the airwaves to develop broadcasting empires.


At the same time, TV B92, which had remained politically independent, complained of the lack of fairness in the system.


The authorities finally adopted a new broadcasting law last July but since then the selection of a supervisory council was repeatedly put on hold.


Among other responsibilities, the body is tasked with allocating radio and TV frequencies, a decision which could leave many of the thousand existing stations in Serbia without a licence.


The biggest struggle concerns the limited number of national frequencies, entitling users to broadcast over the whole national territory.


Besides the two national television channels, which are to be transformed into a public utility and whose national frequency rights are secure, TV B92 has been locked in a competition for the other frequencies with TV Pink and TVBK.


The first worrying sign that the government might still be planning to continue actively favouring the latter two stations occurred during the state of emergency, when media freedoms were curtailed.


To the dismay of the independent media, the Broadcasting Council was formed and its members appointed on April 11, at the height of this period.


This appeared to breach the government 's own broadcasting guidelines, which stipulated that candidates' names and CVs must be made public 30 days before their election.


The promised transparency in the nomination process was skirted, with members of parliament blocked from gaining a complete insight into the merits of all the nominees, the independent journalists said.


Aside from the transparency issue, the names of the candidates put forward by the government did not all inspire confidence in their neutrality and integrity.


One original nominee Zoran Petrovic, an engineering professor who has since withdrawn his candidacy, was involved in a bitter dispute with students while dean of his faculty in the Milosevic era.


Another university professor, Vladimir Cvetkovic, in a recent thesis, entitled National Identity and the Reconstruction of Serbian Institutions, sharply attacked B92 and NUNS.


A third nominee is Nenad Cekic, an assistant professor of philosophy and a former editor in chief of Radio Indeks.


In their protest letter to parliament, the media groups complained that Cekic's ties with the station claimed a possible conflict of interest issues, as it is likely also to compete for frequencies.


Cekic previously accused Veran Matic and B92 of monopolising foreign donations to anti-Milosevic media groups in Serbia, again raising questions about his future neutrality in issues involving that station. Cekic told Blic daily on April 18 that "the law does not say a council member must love Veran Matic".


When contacted by IWPR, Cekic refused to comment on the claims.


A question mark also hangs over Goran Radenovic, selected as candidate for Kosovo. Although his CV suggested he lived there - having worked for TV Pristina in Milosevic's time - the independent media and some Kosovo Serb politicians believe that he is no longer a resident.


Oliver Ivanovic, a Kosovo Serb leader, assured IWPR that Radenovic now resided in Montenegro. More significantly, he worked in a freelance capacity for TV Pink, according to Ivanovic and B92.


Ivanovic said Kosovo Serbs, whose own local candidate from Mitrovica was not accepted, wanted to know how and why Radenovic was nominated. "He told us he nominated himself and that the other council members accepted his nomination," Ivanovic said.


According to law, residence in Kosovo is a prerequisite for the candidate from the region.


When asked by IWPR to respond to the claims, Radenovic said that he never worked for TV Pink and insisted that he lives temporarily in Montenegro, for family reasons. He said he shuttled between Gracanica in Kosovo and Podgorica.


"I have a flat in the centre of Pristina, occupied by an Albanian. I cannot live there and now I live in Gracanica," he said.


Dejan Milenkovic, from the Yugoslav Lawyers' committee, JUKOM, a member of a working group on broadcasting legislation, told B92 that apparent breaches in the government's own broadcasting guidelines would undermine public confidence in the system before it even started.


"If the parliament that passed the broadcasting act does not abide by it, one wonders if citizens and broadcasting companies will also abide by it," he said.


The complaints from the independent sector have also won support from groups and bodies outside Serbia.


Ian Willem Blankert, the European Commission delegate to Serbia-Montenegro, said the journalists' objections provided cause for concern.


Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, was more candid. "For months journalists have been calling on the Serbian government to implement the Broadcasting Act, but now they have decided to act it seems the rules are being broken," he said.


"If the rules are not followed, it will damage the integrity of the broadcasting law and undermine the whole process of broadcasting reform."


Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor in chief of the Belgrade weekly Blic News