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geert lovink on Fri, 5 Oct 2001 09:05:19 +0200 (CEST)

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from: <mediawatch {AT} lists.opennet.org>
sent: Friday, October 05, 2001 3:40 AM

- brief analysis -

One of the first immediately noticeable results of the political changes of
October 5, 2000, was opening up of the state and quasi-state broadcasters
and print media in Serbia to the representatives of former opposition bloc
and NGO sector. High hopes raised in the aftermath of the October changes -
that the media field would be efficiently and swiftly reformed in a just
manner, that political influence on the media would be largely eliminated -
have nonetheless proved to be overly optimistic. Quite the contrary, twelve
months after the political changes it appears that more substantial system
changes have bypassed the media sphere. Even more worrisome is the suspicion
that utter absence of any changes in the media field is not the result
stemming from the concurrence of adverse circumstances but conscious
determination of the new people now wielding political power in the country
to retain certain mechanisms formerly used as a convenient vehicle by the
Milosevic regime to e!
xert pressure on the media. Actually some of the events in the summer of
2001 have additionally stirred up such suspicions.

Legal framework for the work of the media has not basically changed since
the day the political changes took place. New authorities did prevent
further implementation of the infamous 1998 Serbian Public Information Act
immediately, Federal Constitutional Court declared many of its articles
unconstitutional in January, and the newly-formed Serbian Parliament
repealed it in February 2001 (except for the articles regulating the process
of registration, reply and correction of the published information). Serbian
Information Ministry was abolished. A moratorium on allocation of new
broadcasting licences was declared. NGOs and media and journalist
associations began enthusiastically their work on drafting new media
regulations - Public Broadcasting Act and Public Information Law. The
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.
Following the fall of the Federal Government in July 2001 and the
abolishment of the Federal Telecommunications Ministry, the fate of the
bills and other documents drafted with the European and US assistance by
domestic experts remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that there
has been some political opposition to the adoption of the new regulations,
particularly in the part envisaging that the powers pertaining to
decision-making and regulation of the media field are to be transferred from
the government to an independent regulatory body as well as that the Serbian
Government is to be stripped of the right to exert direct influence on the
state radio and TV broadcaster which is supposed to be transformed into a
public broadcasting service. However, the Serbian Government did return 11.4
million dinars of a total of 31 million dinars in fines imposed by the
former regime on print media under the 1998 Public Information Act. Yet, no
new regulations have been adopted, !
old telecommunications and public broadcasting acts have not been changed
(except for the abolition of subscription fees for state broadcaster
appended to electricity bills), no analyses nor audits of the business
dealings of the quasi-state private media, which developed and amassed a
fortune under the dictatorship, have been conducted.
The consequences of such a state of affairs are extremely unfavourable,
above all, for the independent media which, despite the former regime's
repression, enormously contributed to bringing about political changes in
the country.
When it comes to the print media, the fact that there is no more an
information ministry, though advantageous for the democratic image of the
new Serbian Government, created a situation in which not a single member of
the government is under obligation to systematically deal with the
transition in the media field. This is why no tax exemptions were granted to
the press in the ongoing process of tax reforms. Moreover, the percentage of
unsold copies for which no sales tax is due was scaled down. The last one in
a series of blunders was corrected in August but not until after strong
pressure on Serbian politicians had been exerted by the domestic media with
the help of international media associations.
As far as the electronic media are concerned, the immediate consequence of
the moratorium on frequency allocation was the freezing of the inherited
state of affairs in the media field on the day of October 5, 2000. In other
words, those broadcasters privileged by the Milosevic regime which had
granted them broadcasting licences for large area of coverage have retained
all their privileges, while the independent media, viciously targeted by the
former regime, have not been granted any allowances to redress injustices
suffered at the hands of the Milosevic's henchmen (confiscated equipment has
been returned to some stations, but not to the majority of the independent
broadcasters, and in addition to this, no licences for an increased area of
coverage have been granted). The moratorium and the delay in adopting new
media regulations and announcing public competition for frequency allocation
effectively curbed any development or strategy planning on the part of the
independent m!
edia. The moratorium is supposed to be in effect until the adoption of a new
Public Broadcasting Act which, however, was not enacted in June as
previously announced. Moreover, the government's refusal to accept the
drafts of new media legislation prepared by experts actually testifies to
the intention of the new authorities to retain some mechanisms of control
over the electronic media created by Milosevic.

Even though state broadcasters opened up to all political options after the
October changes, they have not managed to solve the majority of the problems
inherited from the past. However, it seemed that the most pressing problem
of the state radio television broadcaster, namely, direct political
influence on its editorial policy, was resolved, and that only financial and
personnel-related issues needed to be addressed in the upcoming months.
However, twelve months later, the situation with Radio Television Serbia
(RTS) is even worse, apparently, than immediately after the changes.
Namely, there are, once again, apparent signs of the intensifying political
pressure on RTS and its editors. National state broadcaster had operated for
seven months without its management board. Finally, its members were
appointed by the government. Then it took another two months to appoint new
general manager. In July 2001, Milorad Petrovic, editor of the RTS central
information programme "Dnevnik 2", resigned from his post claiming that he
had been under enormous pressure by some ruling political parties which
might have led to political instrumentalisation of the national broadcaster.
Public competition for editor-in-chief of the RTS information programming
had been announced in July 2001, but was subsequently annulled since the
general manager had not proposed a single candidate for the post of all the
people who had applied for the job. Gordana Susa, president of the Serbian
Independent Journalist Association (NUNS), was also one of the contenders.
She stated, after t!
he annulment of the public competition, that the rejection of her
application was due to the opposition of the Democratic Party of Serbia
(DSS), the party headed by Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. These
public statements of two esteemed journalists raise serious doubts and
concern about the sincerity of new Yugoslav authorities with respect to the
transformation of the state media into public service broadcasters.
The situation with finances, personnel or equipment in RTS has neither
changed for the better. Debts amounting to about US$ 20 million, excessive
number of employees (between 7,500 and 8,000) and outdated equipment are
only the gravest problems of the national broadcaster. Since the abolition
of subscription fees, RTS is financed from the Serbian budget which makes it
totally dependent on the government. It is interesting that, despite the
excessive number of employees, even the journalists the most loyal to the
Milosevic regime have not been sacked. Milorad Petrovic stated that a large
number of RTS journalists were incapacitated for an independent style of
reporting going on to say that they expected from him, his being the editor
at the time, to put specific spin of his own on their comments and reports.
"Journalists... feel the need to belong to someone," said Petrovic
criticising his colleagues who forgot during the Milosevic's era that they
should have their own opinio!
ns and views.
Local media, controlled by the local authorities, which also fall in the
category of state broadcasters, are under an ever-increasing pressure of the
local branches of the ruling parties. In addition to this, these
broadcasters cannot be privatised without prior consent of local governments
which is why their position does not fit the role of watchdogs for the
public at the local level.
It may be inferred that the situation with the state media in Serbia is
extremely bad. These media have been prevented from undergoing system
transformation into public service broadcasters (Radio Television Serbia) or
autonomous privatisation (when it comes to local and regional stations). The
opportunities for autonomous financing have been limited and the politics
has an ever-increasing direct influence on the editorial policy. Their
financial and personnel situation has not been improved, and it will take a
lot of time and efforts to help them reach the level of the corresponding
media in other countries undergoing transition. Of course, only if there is
to be no direct interference of the centres of political power with their
editorial policy because there can be no transition while such influences

Independent media have remained unbiased and objective in reporting after
the political changes so that there is a sort of continuity in place with
respect to the period before the Milosevic's ousting from power. Their main
problem stemming from inactivity or negligence of the new authorities as
mentioned above in the part of analysis on legal framework is that they have
no opportunity whatsoever to compete on equal footing with the media
privileged by the Milosevic regime because of either moratorium on frequency
allocation (in case of broadcasters) or economic environment unfavourable
for doing business (in case of print media - lack of tax exemptions, tax on
unsold copies).
Unlike independent print media for which it would suffice that the
government places no restrictions on their activities, independent
broadcasters have been brought to the verge of existence by the new
authorities' measures (i.e. the absence of adequate measures in the media
field). Due to the moratorium, the broadcasters which did not possess
licences in the Milosevic era because they were treated as the enemies of
the state have remained 'pirates', while other stations do possess some
broadcasting licences, but valid only for extremely small areas of coverage.
Consequently, their potential for substantial revenues from advertising is
extremely restricted. On the other hand, media moguls who created their
empires thanks to close ties with the Milosevic-Markovic family have
retained their broadcasting licences for national coverage; they have become
closer to the new people now in power and thus maintained a lion's share of
advertising market which is the main source of inco!
me for radio and TV broadcasters. Moreover, the stations of the swiftly
"converted" media moguls from the Milosevic times have drastically enhanced
their position on the media market by purchasing for the next couple of
years the rights to the most attractive foreign TV shows for the territory
of Serbia, and they have been able to do this owing to privileges inherited
from the past. Delay in adoption of the new Public Broadcasting Act and the
announcing of the public competition for broadcasting licences makes it
impossible for independent broadcasters to work on development plans as no
one knows what the conditions of the public competition for frequency
allocation will be nor whether the independent media will be granted any
licences at all. Finally, the major defect of the existing media system is
that the independent media are not allowed to expand to national area of
coverage which has been, up to now, reserved for the state television and
Milosevic media 'converts'.
It may be inferred that the independent media, especially the electronic
ones, are going through an extremely difficult period which does bear
resemblance to the situation during the Milosevic repression. True enough,
the means used to suppress the independents are entirely different, or at
least it appeared to be so until October 3, 2001. On that day, in the manner
strikingly similar to the ways of the Milosevic regime and its brutal
repression on the independent media, two Federal Ministry of Transport and
Telecommunications ordered an ANEM member station, namely TV Pirot, to
immediately cease broadcasting given that it did not possess a valid
frequency licence as required by law. However, TV Pirot management board
decided that it would not cease broadcasting. Even before this regrettable
incident, there were lingering doubts that the segment of the media scene
which were the most resistant to political influences has been put on a back
burner. Neglect of independent elect!
ronic media and mutual rapprochement of the quasi-state media and the new
authorities is a reason good enough for serious concern and it is
unpromising in terms of further democratic media system development in
Yugoslavia. Judging by the quality of content and the degree of critical
stance towards the authorities, only the independent media possess the
potential for an adequate social function which the media in a democratic
society should have. If the new authorities, which have deliberately done
virtually nothing to legalise the status of the independent media, would
pursue their policy of neglect and ignorance or even closure, as in the most
recent incident with the official ban imposed on the work of Pirot
television broadcaster, this could seriously jeopardise the reformist
processes and democratisation of the society.

In addition to the problems inherited from the past, journalists in Serbia
once again have to fear for their lives. After the assassination of Slavko
Curuvija by an unknown gunman during the NATO bombing, another journalist
was murdered in Serbia: on June 11, 2001, in Jagodina, a central Serbian
town, Milan Pantic, correspondent of Belgrade daily Vecernje novosti, who
had been investigating crime and corruption in his town which had also been
the reason for death threats he had been receiving before his violent death.
Both murder cases have remained unsolved to date. There are indications that
there has been an attempt on the life of a Belgrade weekly general manager,
who prefers to remain anonymous. His being in an armoured car at the time of
the attack has actually saved his life.
According to the estimates of experts in criminology, we may assume that
investigative journalism delving into crime and corruption  will
increasingly expose journalists to grave risks. Namely, during the Milosevic
era when top police officials were involved in criminal activities and
corruption, criminals were not particularly concerned about articles in the
press which might expose them because the judiciary and the police were
unable to prosecute them as these institutions were steeped in corruption
themselves. Today, however, a press article may indeed cost some criminal or
corrupt public servant his freedom so they would not stop at nothing,
including physical liquidation of "misbehaving" journalists. The most recent
surveys suggest that journalists together with teachers and university
professors are the least affected by corruption, unlike customs officers,
policemen, lawyers, public servants in ministries, etc. This piece of
information is extremely important because!
 it testifies to the fact that journalists have maintained a high degree of
integrity in the past twelve months so that they are trusted more than
people of other professions, particularly the politicians. Bearing this in
mind, it may be said that this is a very good starting point for a serious
campaign against corruption, but also one of the possible motives behind
attacks on journalists and media, which includes physical harassment and
even murder.
Serbian journalists have remained the most consistent critics of corruption,
war crimes and the ways in which Serbian nouveaux riches have amassed
immense wealth during the past decade. Their fierce defence of acquired
privileges leads to a conclusion that investigative journalism in Serbia is
becoming an increasingly dangerous job.

Veran Matic
Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) Chairman

In Belgrade,
October 4, 2001

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