In unconsolidated democracies, such as those in the Western Balkans, where freedom of expression has never been fully established, media funding also remains shrouded in controversy. Who is financially supporting some media, and who are the owners? How much funds a particular media outlet received from state funds and based on what criteria?
Western Balkans societies, mostly polarized, are consequently producing a deeply polarized media sector. Such deep divisions, combined with a lack of transparency and traditional influence of politics and business in the media sector, have created whole media ecosystems struggling with corruption. Those who are still resisting the corruptive influence, are struggling with financial difficulties.
On the other hand, even if these things should be regulated, in a lot of cases it is almost completely unknown who is behind some media outlets. True ownership is often kept a secret from the broader public, in order not to discover the potential interest of those influencing the media.
European Commission’s reports on Western Balkan countries, published in the middle of October this year, highlighted the need for changes and improvements regarding media funding. As briefly explained, almost all countries are facing lack of transparency, political or business influence, shady ownership, and unequal conditions for state funding between different media outlets.
Different countries, similar problems
When speaking about the freedom of expression as a broader term, EC wrote down that Albania has made no progress since the last report. The report explained the concerns of media organizations and activists about “the use of media channels to promote owners’ economic interests and political agendas”.
“High-profile business group has increased their economic penetration in the media market”, says the report. Since media funding is followed by a lack of transparency, EC recommended aligning legal requirements for transparency of media ownership and financing with international standards.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has also seen no progress in freedom of expression, has apparent problems with legislation on media ownership transparency, which was highlighted in the report, adding that “no steps were taken” to adopt the new law. On the contrary, EC stated that advertising agencies linked to political parties continue to harm media integrity. Local broadcasters that receive funding from local authorities remain subject to political pressure and influence, the report explained.
Despite facing various issues in practice, almost all other countries have adopted, at least to some degree, adequate legal framework, which is always the starting point for all further improvements.
Kosovo made limited progress when it comes to freedom of expression, but continues struggling with a lot of irregularities when it comes to media funding.
“The media sector remains heavily dependent on donors and advertising, including those from the government and political parties”, stated the report. However, many media companies struggle to sustain themselves financially through commercial means, while “private broadcasters depend on other sources of funding and remain strongly linked to political and business interest groups”.
European Commission recommended increasing the availability of data, especially regarding media ownership, since a lot of information “remains unclear and often fictitious”, as most media do not provide them on their finances or real ownership.
According to EC reports, Montenegro is probably the best positioned out of all the countries in the region. While achieving limited progress in freedom of expression, this country “benefits from a pluralistic media environment”. Despite some previous controversies, the level of transparency is far higher than in Serbia, for example.
In North Macedonia, the situation has worsened after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the ongoing trend in lower income for the media industry, then leading the government to adopt measures to help the industry. Nowadays, according to the report, “concerns about media integrity and independence continue to be raised by media associations due to the precarious financial viability of media entities”.
The media associations also expressed concern over the prospect of political parties using state funding to advertise in the media as a potential way to gain political influence on editorial lines, stated the European Commission.
Regarding the situation in Serbia, European Commission recommended improvements on “ensuring transparent and equitable co-funding for media content serving the public interest and increased transparency in media ownership and advertising”.
Political and economic influence over the media still remains a source of concern according to the report. The deeply polarized Serbian media environment is divided into those who are trying to be independent or supported by some private actors, and those who are openly supported by the state’s funds.
The second group is personified in the print media, which the report characterized as those with the most violations of the journalistic code of professional conduct recorded by the Press Council, including those with court convictions. They have continued to receive public co-funding, especially at the local level.
In order for Western Balkan countries to harmonize with the international standards concerning media funding, a lot will need to be changed. Starting from the legal framework in some countries, while only implementing the existing one in practice in others. However, the first precondition is transparency.
This article was published as part of the project “Civil society for good governance and anti-corruption in southeast Europe: Capacity building for monitoring, advocacy and awareness-raising (SELDI)” funded by the European Union.