This article was originally published in Serbian.
The recent decision of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) to go on strike, after television stations N1 and Nova S stopped broadcasting for 24 hours, resembles the already used recipe of the authorities. And it goes – to answer the accusation with an accusation, a harsher and more personal one, to answer a protest with a counter-protest, and if necessary, to answer the hunger strike with a hunger strike. Therefore, two and a half years ago, several MPs from the Serbian Progressive Party went on a hunger strike, because two opposition MPs had done it the day before. This copy-paste method is very practical when it comes to redirecting attention to oneself or when it comes to something much more dangerous for society – making any criticism pointless, even when it is backed up well.
In the European Commission’s annual report on Serbia, published a little more than two months ago, it is stated that no progress has been made in terms of freedom of expression. Among other things, it is stated that cases of threats and violence against journalists continue to cause concern, and the implementation of the media strategy is increasingly delayed, which also affected the amendments to the Law on Public Information and Media and the Law on Electronic Media, as well as that the media often use and tolerate hate speech and discrimination, which is rarely followed by a reaction from regulatory bodies or prosecutors.
The Report of the European Commission states that ’’In early 2022, REM looked into two videos broadcast on cable and national channels, but reacted publicly with condemnation only in the case of the cable one seen as criticising the authorities“.
It also states that „In July 2022, REM awarded all four licences to the same previous holders for a period of eight years, that received warnings from REM due to violation of their legal obligations. A call for a fifth licence was published in August; the process should be transparent“.
The president of REM, Olivera Zekić, said that it is the continuation of the pressure on this body which has been going on for years. Along with the European Commission, she mentioned political parties (opposition) and part of the non-governmental sector as those who exert pressure.
Meanwhile, the fifth license has not yet been assigned. It is not known when it will happen. REM went on strike. At the session of the Committee for Culture and Information, held on Tuesday, December 20, the first matter on the agenda was precisely the suspension of REM’s work. It was also mentioned that the opposition MPs will request the dismissal of REM Council members because they broke the law. At the same session of the Committee, Olivera Zekić said that the idea to go on strike was hers, and that one of the main reasons for it was the media chase after REM, primarily led by members of the United Media Group, and related to awarding the fifth license.
It all ended when the Committee for Culture and Information of the Serbian Parliament came to the conclusion that it gives unequivocal support to REM in performing the tasks defined by the law. In that conclusion, which was proposed by SNS MP Nebojša Bakarec, it is stated that the Board understands the REM Council’s decision to suspend work.
Public interest, what was it again?
,,More than anything else, the REM strike shows one of the dominant symptoms of the disease of today’s Serbian society, which is the absence of any kind of responsibility towards those for whom that institution exists’’, says Ana Martinoli, media theorist and a professor at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade. She also says that however and whenever the strike is resolved, the interest of citizens or the improvement of the overall quality of the media market in Serbia will not be any factor in that process.
For Jelena Kleut, an associate professor of communication studies at the Department of Media Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad, a strike by any body that is responsible for protecting the rights of citizens on a daily basis is meaningless and should be explained in more detail, especially when it comes to what, for example, monitoring the media in the context of the protection of minors looks like while the work suspension is in effect. She adds that she understands the immediate reason – the swastika drawn at the entrance to the REM member’s building is absolutely reprehensible – but that she does not understand the part of the statement that talks about pressure.
’’If one body suffers pressures, it is in the interest of the public to find out where the pressures are coming from, and there are probably other institutions that could respond to these pressures“, says Kleut.
She thinks that in the context of REM and other institutions in Serbia that seems like an illusion: ,,It is clear that no institution will react, and that REM won’t go into details about the pressures either. REM readily complies, only if they come from the side that elected such a Council. By ignoring its own rules, REM ignores all data on media, ownership, pluralism and makes decisions arbitrarily. And precisely by deciding to operate in this way, REM allows for the unhindered influence of political and economic interests in its work“.
It’s a bit different in practice…
Ana Martinoli points out that in theory the position of REM is clearly defined by the Law on Electronic Media, which states that it is an independent regulatory organization that is functionally and financially independent from state bodies and organizations, media service providers and operators. In other words, it should operate in the interest of the citizens.
,,However, independence of REM in practice is perhaps best measured by its results, way of working and fulfilment of tasks to which it is obliged by law’’, Martinoli highlights.
In that context, she refers to the objective parameters such as one of the conclusions of the current Strategy for the development of the public information system of the Republic of Serbia for the period 2020-2025, which states that the independence of the regulator, although formally proclaimed, is not fully ensured in practice, partly due to shortcomings in the regulation, and partly due to the inadequate application or lack of application of the existing regulatory framework, which is visible in the procedure for selecting members of the REM Council, a multi-year work of the REM Council in an incomplete composition, non-approval of the Statute and untimely approval of the financial plan of REM.
According to Kleut, REM is a captured body that has no autonomy within a captured media scene: ,,In theory, that is, according to the law, the body is well conceived, following the example of similar bodies, even with high participation of different actors, such as professional associations, universities and civil society. But, in practice, any contact with politics makes REM vulnerable, whether it is the interference of the Parliamentary Committee for Culture and Information, voting for members in the parliament, the state as the proposer. All this led to the fact that no government resisted influencing the work of REM. And only this government subordinated REM to its interests completely”.
Both of them agree that REM is a mirror of the local reality, society and media scene we live in. Martinoli wonders how can one expect REM to be better, stronger and more independent than the whole system of protection of the rights and interests of society and citizens, embodied in instrumentalized, controlled, often and completely passivated public institutions.
There is hope that through the Media Strategy, which lists all the problems in the functioning of the REM, that is, the new legal proposals, something will be improved in the direction of greater independence of this body. The first check, as Jelena Kleut points out, will be whether legal solutions will reduce the influence of politics, for example by changing the ratio of authorized proponents so that politics participates with fewer, and other actors in society with more representatives.
Waiting for the fifth license
When it comes to the fifth license, everything is still uncertain. It is clear that it is being delayed, and it is known that the pain tolerance here, that is, tolerance for various delays, is quite high. Rumour has it that certain televisions in the making, the fate of the ownership of some others are being awaited and that the very possibility of awarding the license is a bait that should significantly reduce the critical stance of certain TV companies.
Jelena Kleut is not optimistic regarding the fact that REM will hurry with the decision and that considering the unpredictability of the work of the media regulator, it is difficult to say what the epilogue of the call will be. She states she is not surprised that ,,REM was rarely consistent in its decisions, it rarely uses its own analyses as a decision-making criterion, reacts with announcements completely ignoring the delicate role of the independent regulator, and is able to work on the edge of quorum for years“. Kleut summarizes that instead of REM being the supporting pillar of the media system, it is rather water that collapses the foundations.
Ana Martinoli has a similar opinion: ,,I am not sure what is the meaning and purpose of delaying the decision within the call for awarding the fifth license, unless it is supposed to serve as additional time for discreditation and attacks on some other television stations that applied as well, or maybe to have some future, potentially unexpected decision made at the moment when the public has already been completely exhausted and passivated by everyday tensions and numerous daily social and political problems“. She adds that the holidays are coming up, so maybe the goal is to prevent the majority of the Serbian audience from hearing the decision over the noise of celebrations, firecrackers and fireworks, whatever it may be.
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.