BELGRADE – Media capture is quite visible in all Western Balkan countries, while governments influence the media by regulating access to government news resources, advertisements, and other forms of public financing to shape a favorable public opinion, it was concluded in the Policy Brief “Media Capture in the Western Balkans: From captured states to captured media”, published within SELDI Network.
The authors underlined that one of the consequences of media capture is widespread disinformation, which threatens the consolidation of democracy in the region. The noted that the main direct and indirect captors in the Western Balkans are governments.
“Disinformation is an essential instrument for domestic and international players to achieve their political objectives and influence public opinion, such as Moscow’s campaign to maintain influence in the Western Balkans and damage NATO and EU enlargement”, Policy Brief said. It is added that this has shown to be extremely effective in the case of pro-Russian disinformation regarding the war in Ukraine.
According to Policy Brief, governments in the region often abandon or abuse regulatory roles, causing media ownership concentration, while public broadcasters are in constant financial struggle, dependent on government funding, which puts them in a position of political subordination.
“Data about funds allocated for media advertising is scarce or missing. In many cases, managerial or key editorial positions are directly chosen or influenced by political representatives leaving more room for influence”, Policy Brief argued.
Although media freedom is a vital part of the formal EU accession process within Chapter 23, media freedom is crucial preceondition for a functioning democracy. However, according to the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders from 2022, the Western Balkan countries significantly lag behind most EU member countries, being placed from 57th to 103rd place.
The authors recalled on EC’s annual country reports that also provide an assessment of freedom of expression – for the level of preparedness for membership and for progress.
“Kosovo achieved ‘limited progress’ in all but one of the last six reports, while Albania achieved progress twice. On the other hand, Serbia and Montenegro, which only achieved ‘limited progress’ once in the last six years, while Bosnia and Herzegovina has not achieved any progress in freedom of expression”, Policy Brief stated.
According to Policy Brief, weak media laws in the region are not providing sufficient independence to media regulatory bodies. “The tight political grip on these bodies is further undermining their independence, creating fertile ground for media capture.
Media ownership concentration serious challenge to diversity
The authors noted that states often abuse this role and damage media pluralism and independent bodies does not have adequate safeguards that will prevent media ownership concentration, which is a serious challenge to diversity and it affects the entire media landscape, as it carries the presumption that one editorial policy can be applied to many media outlets.
“Governments can also use their power to influence the media through advertising, which could have serious repercussions for smaller media outlets. Thus, governments can shape public opinion by putting pressure on the media, censoring content that is not in line with government policy, and thus preventing any criticism”, authors stated.
The explained that in most of the countries of the region the media landscape is highly fragmented. Out of the entire Western Balkan, Serbia is recognized as the country with the highest number of media outlets with over 2500 media outlets registered in the country.
The case of Telekom Serbia is especially highlighted in the Policy Brief because that state-owned company is an important actor in the Serbian media market and a good example of undermining competition in the media landscape.
Media capture should be more carefully assessed within the EU accession process
“Having in mind the threat of media capture and the importance of media freedom for democratic development, elements of media capture should be more carefully assessed within the EU accession process of Western Balkan countries”, authors recommended.
They added that media capture should be analyzed as a distinct phenomenon from media freedom in general to examine the mechanisms that enable political control over media in the region and propose adequate remedies.
“Governments should adopt and implement specific legislation to ensure transparency of media ownership and funding, preventing concentration and concealment of media ownership. Public funding media outlets should be transparent, based on objective criteria, and dedicated to serving the public interest. This also requires adequate safeguards against arbitrary funding from both the budget and state-owned companies and public enterprises”, Policy Brief recommended.
According to recommendations, public broadcasters should be isolated from political influence, both through improving mechanisms of appointment of management and ensuring funding independently from the state budget or independently from the executive of the country.
“Legal frameworks should be improved to ensure the independence of media regulatory bodies from political influence and the increase in their capacities that would enable them to fulfill their important roles in contemporary democratic societies”, the authors recommended.
They concluded that disinformation should be tackled by both the governments and the EU and other democratic actors having in mind the severity of the problem and its geopolitical component, both in terms of external actors involved and the effects of disinformation on other countries and regions.