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Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media: The key for media freedom and Inter-Party Dialogue in Serbia

Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media; Photo: N1

Media experts say for EWB that they are not surprised that the request for a radical reform of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) is one of the main demands set by various opposition parties and groups ahead of the beginning of a new phase of Inter-Party Dialogue on the improvement of electoral conditions under the auspices of the European Parliament, since such an initiative is one of the prerequisites for “liberation of the media” that are mostly subordinated to the will of the authorities, and is in line with the current Action Plan for the implementation of the Media Strategy. However, they doubt that the regime led by President Aleksandar Vučić will be ready to give full autonomy to REM in its future work, having in mind Vučić’s tendency to control, i.e., ‘regulate’ public broadcasters and television stations with national frequency.

What does the Media Strategy Action Plan state?

According to the statement from the website of the Ministry for Culture and Information, the Media Strategy for the period between 2020-2025 and the accompanying Action Plan for the period between 2020-2025, adopted at the end of last year, should ‘enable the improvement of the public information system through a harmonized positive legal framework, which guarantees the freedom of speech, media freedom, the safety of journalists, media pluralism, developed media market, strengthened journalistic profession, educated citizens and institutions capable of regulation implementation…’ As for the reform of REM, as reported by the Cenzolovka portal, it is planned, among else, to ‘exclude the competent committee of the National Assembly from the process of electing the members of the REM Council; to exclude the National Assembly and the executive authorities from the process of adopting the Statute of REM and bylaws, with a prior public debate and enabling the possibility of issuing fines in case of violations of the provisions of regulations in the field of electronic media and advertising”.

“The improvement of the control system for abiding by the minimal program conditions for providing media services, as well as the election of the new assembly of the REM Council” is also planned, “but with different office terms of members, in order to enable different assemblies of the National Assembly to elect a proportional part of the REM Council structure”, as well as to “establish clear criteria that a candidate for a Council member must meet, such as education and work experience”.

What has already been achieved in the dialogue?

During the first phase of the Inter-Party Dialogue on the improvement of election conditions in Serbia that took place at the end of 2019 with the mediation of the European Parliament representatives, the following four measures for solving the problems regarding unequal media treatment of the ruling party and the opposition which fell under the functioning of REM have been adopted: election of new members of the REM Council, adoption of the regulations for public media services during campaigns, recommendations for privately owned televisions stations and regular monitoring of the election process, the results of which will be posted on the website. The opposition, including political organizations that boycotted those discussions and parliamentary elections held in June 2020, is not satisfied with the ways in which these commitments have been met, because they believe media in Serbia are far from media openness towards the ‘voices’ of those who criticize the current government.

Vladimir Bilčik, Tanja Fajon, Knut Fleckenstein and Parliament Speaker Maja Gojković following the 2019 IPD; Photo: EU Delegation to Serbia

The EP mediators in the dialogue, Tanja Fajon, and Vladimir Bilčik, expressed their dissatisfaction last winter saying in a joint statement that ‘‘judging by the reactions of the public, there is still no trust in the impartiality of REM’s work, which was and still is one of the goals of the inter-party dialogue’’.

What is the opposition demanding?

In the current phase of the dialogue on the improvement of the conditions of the elections, which recently began with preparatory video meetings with MEPs, the opposition in Serbia has much more specific demands for the reform of REM than was the case in 2019, that, generally speaking, do not conflict the Media Strategy and the Action Plan principles. However, some demands by certain opposition groups go beyond what has been defined by those documents.

‘’We propose an entirely new REM structure to be elected as part of a possible agreement between the government and the opposition with the mediation by the EU. That, of course, means that REM would consist of competent individuals with integrity, who could realize their legal role. It could be further defined by the lex specialis. If the current authorities do not want to do this, our second proposal would be creating a completely new body that would take on the role of a media regulator and make sure there is a balance on the media scene. We ask for supervision over the implementation of these agreements by the supervisory body. Honestly, we are not dealing at all with media strategies faked by the illegal government’’, said the leader of the Movement for Change Janko Veselinović for EWB, speaking about the negotiation platform demands by several opposition organizations – the Party of Freedom and Justice, the Democratic Party, the Movement of Free Citizens and the Movement for Change, that refer to the future work of REM.

Secretary-General of the Social Democratic Party, Konstantin Samofalov, under whose auspices are a dozen opposition parties and movements have adopted a list of demands for Inter-Party Dialogue, said for EWB that their demands “relate to finding mechanisms and guarantees for compliance with current laws, and thus legal obligations of REM”.

According to Samofalov ‘’The problem is primarily in law violations and the abuse of institutions. We can reform REM as much as we want, but if daily political statements come from REM and if it does not fulfill its legal obligations, all reforms would be in vain, as we can suggest the most ideal legal solutions, but that would be in vain too if we do not abide by the laws’’.

The People’s Party also presented its demands for inter-party dialogue, including the ones regarding REM. According to the party’s leader Vuk Jeremić ‘’equal representation is needed, equality between the ruling party and the opposition in REM is needed, so that neither side may overpower the other’’.

The dependent position of REM

According to Slobodan Cvejić, a tenured professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade and a former member of the REM Council, it is ‘’completely logical and appropriate to have the improvement of the work of REM as one of the top priorities of the opposition parties’’. In his statement for EWB, he said that ‘’according to our laws and in accordance with the relevant regulations of the European Union, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media was given permissions and assigned responsibility for regulating the sector of electronic media.

‘’These rules were, generally speaking, set up in order to affirm democratic values. It has been shown and proven many times by various relevant actors that REM does not exercise a significant part of its legal powers and therefore acts irresponsibly. Such practices harm democracy, solidarity, trust in institutions and they slow down the social development of Serbia’’, said Cvejić, who quit his position in REM in December 2020. He explained in a statement for TV N1 that he did so because of the way the president of the REM Council Olivera Zekić was elected, that is, because of the violations of democratic procedures within the Council.

Slobodan Cvejić; Photo: Media center

He pointed out that the analyses of the REM’s legal status show that ‘’part of this institution’s weakness stems from its relative dependency on legislative and executive branch (for example, defining the positions of the members of the REM Council as public servants, which is why REM has to be under the auspices of some Ministry, which gives the possibility to that Ministry to obstruct REM’s independent work in certain situations)’’.

‘’The idea was to resolve these status weaknesses of REM with the new Media Strategy, and I think that the proposed solutions were good. But here we encounter the previously learned lesson: there are good laws and strategies in Serbia, but they are not being implemented, or they are being manipulated. This lesson defines my pessimistic answer: I do not believe that the Media Strategy will be implemented consistently and efficiently in a dominant political culture of clientelism and abuse of public institutions’’, concluded Slobodan Cvejić.

The captured public broadcasters

Željko Bodrožić, the chairman of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, told EWB that since laws and regulations have to be abided by, it is ‘’logical for journalist and media organizations, the professional public, even opposition political parties demand that REM does its job at full capacity and independently of the influence of the authorities and powerful owners of electronic media’’.

‘’This regulatory body should be a shield against lies, nonsense, primitivism, hate speech, abuse of media inventory and political propaganda, all of which characterize many television stations, some of them having a national frequency. In many ways, REM represents a guarantee of objectivity and public broadcasters’ independence. However, it failed in a way since both RTS and RTV are captured by the ruling party. It is clear that the situation would be completely different if REM worked independently and abided by the laws. I think that at least two national television stations would lose their frequencies, and the rest would be burdened by much-deserved sanctions and would have to improve their programs. When it comes to news programmes that means they would have to open them up for different opinions and spare the viewers the brutal SNS propaganda’’, stated Bodrožić.

He further stated that if everything written in the Media Strategy regarding the further functioning of REM was to be fulfilled, the things he previously listed would still happen.

‘’The Media Strategy detected all the anomalies regarding the work of REM and then highlighted the measures and activities for bringing the situation into the legal framework. The Action Plan defines all of it clearly, and if the Serbian Progressive Party decides to implement it, we will have a better REM and more quality electronic media. However, I doubt that Aleksandar Vučić will want to let go of the remote controls he uses to regulate all television stations according to his liking’’, said Željko Bodrožić.

There is no political will in making REM an independent body

Vukašin Obradović, journalist and a former president of NUNS, said that ‘’the request made by the opposition parties for making the improvement of REM’s work one of the main demands is completely understandable and justifiable’’.

‘’Given the permissions, REM is a focal point of the media scene, at least when it comes to electronic media. That is why REM is in the epicenter of interest not only of political entities, but also of professional associations, and the reform of this body has taken an important place in the Media Strategy, i.e., the Action Plan. The key importance of REM is that in fact it regulates the general framework for electronic media, monitors the implementation of media laws and is able to take certain measures against those who do not respect the Code of Ethics and professional standards”, said Obradović.

Obradović stated that the influence of REM regarding the public broadcasters is not to be forgotten, because its Council elects the members of the management boards of both RTS and RTV.

“REM also decides who will get the ‘national frequency’, i.e., who will be given the possibility of national coverage after digitalization. The Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media significantly influences the general standards that will be valid in this field, both when it comes to formal and essential issues of editorial policies of commercial broadcasters and indirectly public broadcasters as well. It is, therefore, a particularly important body that has a huge impact on all media in the electronic sphere, but also bears a huge responsibility due to the chaos, unprofessionalism, and tabloidization that currently prevails. That is precisely why a thorough, radical reform that has already been defined by the Media Strategy is needed.  Representatives of media and professional associations as well as delegates of state bodies who participated through the Working Group and its development have all agreed on this matter, alongside the Government of Serbia by adopting the Action Plan,” he explained.

Obradović highlighted that formally, but also from the statements of almost all political entities, even government representatives, it could be said that there is a general agreement on the reform of REM, but that is a “catch 22”.

Working group for drafting the Media Strategy; Photo: Government of Serbia

“No government since 2000 has shown the political will for REM to truly become an independent regulatory body, spared from the influence of non-media factors. Regardless of the fact that the Media Strategy identifies the weaknesses in the functioning of REM, and that the Action Plan defines the steps to be taken in practice, no key changes will be made until political conditions and awareness of the fact that we need professional electronic media, instead of government cheerleaders is created, as well as that the public broadcaster must serve the public, rather than the powers to be’’, said Obradović for EWB.

Vukašin Obradović stated that ‘’realistically speaking SNS bases its power largely on media influence, with the electronic media being the most important in achieving the set political goals, which is in fact often propaganda in favor of one party or one person”.

‘’In such circumstances, it seems completely unrealistic to expect that the envisaged changes in the status of REM will essentially bring about the independence of this regulatory body. Even if all of the objections stated in the Media Strategy are to be legally solved, the problem of implementation remains, because if an independent regulatory body was really wanted, the already existing legal framework would suffice’’, concluded Obradović.

A play for international organizations

Nedim Sejdinović, a journalist and media analyst, said for EWB that the opposition parties are right to recognize REM as ‘’one of the key enemies of media freedom and as an accomplice in the abuse of media in political and propaganda purposes of the ruling circles’’.

‘’Let us remind ourselves that REM was envisioned as an independent institution that would be dealing with the regulation of space occupied by electronic media, and the purpose of this body is to be strictly separated from the authorities, to have its Council comprised of highly moral and professional individuals, and to be a sort of an umbrella that will protect media professionalism and media ethics in the electronic media sphere from powerful individuals who would like those media to serve them, instead of the citizens. Because of the way it is functioning today, and the way it has been functioning for years now, it has become a parody. It consists of political henchmen who only implement the decisions made elsewhere, it is a force that stifles media freedom and lets electronic media violate laws and bylaws daily, as well as defy the code of ethics. If REM did its job, our media scene would look incomparably better, and many media outlets would certainly have lost their licenses a long time ago”, said Sejdinović.

According to him, ‘’there is no doubt’’ that the story of the Media Strategy and the ‘famous’’ Action plan is just a show for the international organizations.

‘’No one serious and well-intentioned can even think that these documents will contribute to the improvement of the media scene. In the end, the existing laws concerning media are quite enough to regulate the media scene in the service of the citizens, as long as there is an elementary political will to implement them. Moreover, you cannot force the government, which is used to bypassing all legislative norms, to respect the laws by amending the law. One should not forget that the government, while parallelly working on the Media Strategy, made many moves that ridicule the efforts of journalists and media associations to, in cooperation with institutions, improve the media scene”, said Sejdinović.

As examples of bad moves made by the government in the field of media, Sejdinović listed “party purchases of television stations with national frequencies with citizens’ money, catastrophic open calls for co-financing media content, continuous attacks on independent media and journalists…”

“Let us remind ourselves that Olivera Zekić was appointed the head of REM despite the opposition of the professional public, and let’s remember that the state and its companies are establishing new media against the law … It is clear that the political power of this government is reflected in strict media control and that it will never give it up at any cost’’, said Nedim Sejdinović.

This article is published within the project “Supporting media freedom in Serbia in relation to the EU accession process”, implemented in cooperation with EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the EUROPEUM Institute or those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

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