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Serbia’s Media strategy: Path towards media freedom or a front for the EU?

Media; Photo: European Union

The new year is coming, and with it the third birthday of the Strategy for the Development of the Public Information System in the Republic of Serbia for the period 2020-2025 adopted by the Government on January 30, 2020. Experts agree that its implementation would lead to significant changes in the Serbian media lanscape, but that after three years of almost ignoring this strategic document, it is clear that there is no political will for its implementation.

Now all the eyes of media professionals and associations are focused on the newly formed Ministry of Information and Telecommunications after it formed a new Working Group in November that will work on the adoption of amendments to the Law on Public Information and Media. Work on the Laws on Electronic Media and the Law on Public Media Services is also expected.

What would a proper implementation of the Media Strategy change?

 If we had implemented the Strategy in accordance with the Action Plan – claims Tamara Filipović from the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (IJAS) – we would now have had a comprehensive analysis of the media market and we would have determined the state of the local media market and how advertising can be improved and commercial revenues increased.

“We would have known what kind of media content we lack, whether there is media pluralism of content and concentration of ownership. We would have changed the Law on Public Information, which provides for a set of measures that can and should improve the process of project co-financing, primarily related to the analysis of the needs of the local population when it comes to public information. The work of commissions for evaluating projects would have been improved, and there would have be greater responsibility of the authorities that announce the competition and the people who make decisions on the allocation of funds,” Filipović believes.

She adds that the adequate implementation of the Strategy would increase independence of editorial policy of the media whose founders are the councils of national minorities, and that the implementation of the Strategy would positively affect the position of journalists and journalistic sources. Finally, Filipović says that the implementation of the Strategy would also mean changes to the Law on Electronic Media, which would be harmonized with the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive, and that the composition of the people in the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) would be changed, which, as she states, would probably lead to a different distribution of national frequency licenses to media service providers.

Nevertheless, media experts agree that only the consistent application of existing legal frameworks (three media laws) would change the media landscape of Serbia for the better. Saša Mirković, professor at the Faculty of Media and Communications, hopes for changes for the better during the mandate of the new Minister of Information and Telecommunications, Mihailo Jovanović, but states that the delay is considerable and that his performance will be judged on the basis of what he can change for the better by implementing the existing legal framework.

“On the other hand, adequate implementation of the Media Strategy would mean that there is political will of the Government of Serbia to continue with the long-time-ago interrupted reform processes based on the aforementioned media laws from 2014. By consistently applying their own strategic document, the Government and the relevant ministry would send a message that they are ready to put words into action in the field of media reforms”, says Mirković. He adds that, instead of that, the government shows that it is no accident that the outlined obligations and the reform announcement remain a dead letter which discourages all those who have been participating in the preparation of such documents for six years.

How far it has come and how late it is – no one knows

To the question of how far the implementation of the Media Strategy has come, no one has a precise answer, since based on the decision of the previous Government, the former Ministry of Culture and Information was obliged to submit a report on the undertaken activities defined in this plan to the Working Group for Monitoring the Implementation of the Action Plan on a quarterly basis, which was not regularly fulfilled, explains professor Saša Mirković. “So we are left to guess what and how much are the current delays in the implementation of the Media Strategy”, he concludes.

Veljko Milić on behalf of the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina (NDNV) believes that the implementation of the Media Strategy is significantly delayed in almost all areas, and that the most significant ones relate to the planned changes to laws that are crucial for the media.

“Even though amendments to the Law on Public Information and Media (LPIM) were started on time, the whole process went rather poorly, and the working group failed to agree on the final text of the proposed amendments to the law. After that, the Government of Serbia entered into a technical mandate and all work on the adoption of this law stopped”, he explains and adds that the changes to the Law on Electronic Media have still not started, and that we are waiting for the changes to the Law on Public Media Services.

According to Milić, the only area in which all the measures envisaged by the Media Strategy were fulfilled within the deadline is media literacy.

The Strategy was implemented rather insufficiently in the past two years, believes Tamara Filipović from the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, and the only thing she sees as an improvement is that tabloids which drastically violate the Code of Journalists of Serbia still receive slightly less money from the budget through competitive co-financing than they used to in the previous period.

“But even that amount is not much smaller and we cannot be satisfied with the result”, she concludes.

Obstacle to the implementation of the Strategy – lack of political will

There is no political will to properly implement the Media Strategy – our interlocutors agree.

“The fears that the Media Strategy will only serve as a formality behind which the state will hide, especially in front of the European Union, which is increasingly crticial of the media situation in Serbia, have come true. By adopting the Strategy, the Government gained some time, and now it is delaying its implementation. The third year since the adoption of this document is approaching, and the new minister has just formed a new working group for changes to the law”, explains Jelena Kleut, a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad.

She is concerned that some of the important decisions are made without any regard to the goals set by the Strategy, and she is primarily referring to the allocation of national frequencies.

“The regulatory body remained unchanged, although the strategy states that it is necessary to ensure the organizational, functional and financial independence of REM. Furthermore, the Strategy mentions that it is necessary to revise the criteria for media concentration, that it is necessary to do detailed analyzes of the media market, analysis of the diversity of content and analysis of the needs of different audience groups. None of that was done, and REM made a decision without any criteria that will outlive the Strategy”, says Kleut and adds that fulfilling the goals of the Media Strategy is not in the line with the wishes of the ruling coalition because its strength largely comes from an indirect control of the media.

“I say indirect, because the control is manifested in a complex network of clientelistic, political-economic relations, with which certain media are downgraded, while others are pushed to the margins.” A strong and independent regulator, which would make decisions regardless of political and economic interests, but based on principles of public interest, represents a potential threat. That’s why I don’t see the political will to reform REM”, she concludes.

Tamara Filipović agrees with this, reminding that the implementation of the Media Strategy was stopped in October last year, when the Working Group for amending the LPIM completed its work, and that process did not result in an agreed document of changes and additions to the Law. She reminds that the process is now at least formally resumed, since the Working Group for LPIM in its modified composition started with its activities recently.

What is next?

 Since the establishment of the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications, the initiative to continue work on the Law on Public Information and Media and the Law on Electronic Media has been re-established. The formation of a new Working Group for the implementation of the Action Plan for monitoring the realization of the current Media Strategy for the period 2023-2025 is also underway.

“It is a good signal that the work on these laws includes the organizations that worked on the adoption of the Media Strategy and the Action Plan and successfully completed that work,” concludes Veljko Milić.

Mirković explains that the speed with which the new Minister of Information and Telecommunications formed the Working Group for Amendments to the Draft Law on Public Information and Media and the Working Group for Amendments to the Law on Electronic Media “confirms that the biggest and most serious delay is precisely in these areas.”

He adds that the time of praise for the adoption of the Media Strategy in the process of European integration has long passed, and that now the focus is on the analysis of implementation, which until now was extremely selective and insufficient. He warns of the consequences that may result from failure to implement the Media Strategy.

“The outcome is that due to the delay in the amendments to the Law on Electronic Media, Serbia is at risk of being excluded from the Creative Europe Programme, into which it was admitted in 2014 as the first country that is not a member of the European Union,” says Mirković and adds that it is the best example of how Brussels can sanction negligence, disinterest, obstruction and lack of political will by cause of non-implementation of the Media Strategy.

Strategy development process: Inclusive, but distressing and too long 

The three-year process of creating the Media Strategy went through various stages – it was inclusive and transparent, but also turbulent, full of mistrust, painful and too long, explains Saša Mirković, professor of the Faculty of Media and Communications. He adds that the best proof of the obstruction of this process is the fact that it was managed in the last phase by the Cabinet of the Prime Minister.

Tamara Filipović from the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia states that the development of the strategy was accompanied by numerous controversies, that the process took too long due to the fault of the authorities, and that the professional associations that participated in the process were repeatedly misled and deluded.

“The relationship between the authorities on the one hand and credible professional associations on the other is full of mistrust because we (associations are primarily part of the Media Freedom Coalition) have been deceived and tricked many times. We have returned to dialogue several times because we care about improving the position of journalists, media workers and the environment in which they work and live, but all of that is quite painful and exhausting”, says Filipović.

The article was published as part of the project “Supporting media freedom in Serbia in relation to the EU accession process”, which is carried out in cooperation with the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy and with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. The views expressed in this text do not represent the views of the EUROPEUM Institute, nor the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

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