Serbia: The privatization of the media as a stumbling block – inconsistent legal framework and a lack of political will
Translation: Fairpress

Authors: Slavko Arsović, YUCOM and Nedim Sejdinović, NDNV

Completion of privatization and withdrawal of the state from media ownership are among priorities of the announced changes to the set of the media laws, some of which have already received the green light from Brussels. These media laws are stemming from Media Strategy, which was adopted in September 2011, with which application there is a significant delay. It is interesting that the media laws adopted in 2002 and 2003 also predicted the privatization of media in Serbia and established final deadlines (2006 and 2007), but the state has actually never withdrew from the media ownership.

What has so far been a great brake for privatization of media is not only inconsistent legal framework (laws that define the work of local governments, national councils of national minorities, capital and public enterprises contrary to media laws), but also a lack of political will, both at the local and at the national level. This is a deficiency by which the privatization process in other areas is also characterized, so in this sense the media sphere is not a big exception.

During the privatization process in Serbia, which started in the period after the political changes in 2000, the specificity and social importance of media was not recognized, so they were sold under the same conditions and in the same way as other companies. In addition to the economic crisis and the deregulation of the media market, it is probably one of the reasons why the process of withdrawal of the state from media ownership in Serbia has failed.

An overview of the area shown in the Media Strategy gave a clear indication of media privatization failure. The document states that, according to the Privatization Agency:

for 37 media privatization process was suspended on the basis of the Law on Local Self-Government;

7 public media has been shut down by the decision of the founders (local authorities);

for 9 public media auction was ended unsuccessfully;

out of 56 privatized media until that moment, 18 contracts were terminated, so these media were waiting for new privatization process;

the remaining 36 privatized public media, with few exceptions, were operating on the edge of economic viability and their future is still uncertain.

Data recently published by the Ministry of Culture and Information indicated that 79 media are still waiting for privatization after the adoption of prepared set of media laws, which clearly shows that in the meantime (since 2011 until present) there have been new terminations of the contracts and that the number of viable privatizations has been significantly reduced.

It should be pointed out that since 2000  there is a constant pressure on the state by the international community to regulate the media, including withdrawal of the state from the media ownership, but the government (no matter what political parties participated in it during this period) continuously resisted it. In the meantime, the newly adopted laws created the legal framework which interrupted privatization process, and in 2007 a decision to stop the privatization of electronic media broadcasting in minority languages​​ had been made under the pretext of protecting their rights. It is clear that this was just an excuse, having in mind the fact that many state-owned media overnight introduced program in minority languages ​​in order to stop the privatization. It is true, however, that the ownership of the state, local government or national councils of national minorities, is only one aspect – although

the most direct and undisputable one – which political influence on the media is implemented through. Political influence is achieved and maintained due to insufficiently regulated financing of media and media projects, significant role of the state in the advertising market, the lack of transparency of ownership and possible concentration, violation of the independence of regulatory bodies, budget funding of public services and, finally, a very difficult general financial situation of the media and journalists today, which makes it much easier to control them.

Although this is often very difficult to separate, apart from political the media are particularly exposed to different economic pressures, which are achieved through both direct ownership and through the payment of advertising space. Various studies show that the government controls the crucial part of the marketing in Serbian market, especially because the number of large advertisers are – state companies, as well as ministries and other institutions. For example, the state-owned Telecom Serbia spends, according to the Report on the Pressure and Control over the Media of the Anti-Corruption Council, 30 million euros on marketing, of which 10 million on advertising in the media. The income from this particular company, as well as ministries and other state institutions, according to this Report, is a significant part of the annual budget of some media. However, government influence is more than noticeable in the private sector, as well, as evidenced by the fact that the advertising market shows significant changes when there is a change of government.

If there is privatization of the media in the next period at all, it may occur that the state will try to keep its direct influence on the media through tycoons close to the ruling parties who will participate in privatization. It is a model that has already been applied during the government of Vojislav Kostunica, when the print in Vojvodina was bought by financiers and activists of his party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (Case

The public was especially disturbed with the case of illegal privatization of Večernje novosti newspapers, a case that the government’s Anti-Corruption Council also dealt with. Council’s report showed the chronology of the non-functioning of the system, which includes the authorized Ministry, Government, the Securities Commission and the judiciary…The bottom line of the story is that the major stakeholder, through a non-transparent process, became a tycoon Milan Beko, but it was not a known fact until he disclosed it himself a few years later. Interestingly, the Prime Minister at the time of privatization Vojislav Kostunica then said that the public should not be concerned because the Večernje novosti remained in “domestic hands”, meaning that foreigners will not be the owners of this newspaper of national importance.

How big the role of the government in the media sphere is shows the fact that the state, even when it is not the major owner, has a decisive influence on editorial policy. For example, after the change of government in Serbia in 2012 there was a change of editors in chief of newspaper Politika, Dnevnik and Večernje novosti in which the state is a minority shareholder. The newly appointed editors are close to the largest party in Serbia – Serbian Progressive Party.

It is a matter of concern that even today there is no pressure from the public and the civil society to regulate the media area, for which the state withdrawal from media ownership is an issue of great importance. The withdrawal must also be transparent and under the close eye of critical public. It is clear that the withdrawal of the state from the media itself will not mean the removal of political and economic pressure and the political use of the media, but it is a necessary prerequisite. Until then, the media in Serbia will be a tool in the hands of the elite and will not work in the service of the citizens.



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