Several amendments submitted by members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the European Parliament (AFET) to Vladimir Bilčik’s draft report on Serbia mention Telekom Srbija as an instrument for increasing the influence of the ruling party on the media market in Serbia. European Western Balkans had an insight into the text of the amendments that AFET will declare at the end of April. Members of the European Parliament repeat their call to the authorities in Serbia to provide reliable results in investigations related to cases of high public interest, including the Telekom case.
One of the amendments submitted by the parliamentary group “Renew Europe” condemns the state financing of Telekom, which “gives the company an unfair competitive advantage and contributes to the collapse of the independent media in Serbia.”
The MPs called on the European Commission to investigate the loan of the European Investment Bank to Telekom “in view of the alleged abuse due to the dominant position on the market by the state to control the media environment in Serbia and neighboring countries”.
There is repeated “concern” about the operation of this telecommunications platform, which is majority owned by the state, with persistent allegations that “the ruling party is using it to increase its influence on the media market in Serbia through the purchase and financing of media companies”. The amendments also condemn the fact that Telekom Srbija enabled the transmission of Russia Today (RT) and call on the Serbian authorities to oppose hybrid threats and comply with the EU Council’s decision to suspend the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and RT.
Telekom has been on the radar for a long time
That Telekom is not a rare profitable state-owned company that provides telecommunications services became obvious as early as 2018 when the controversial transaction was carried out in which Telekom Srbija bought “Kopernikus Technology”. As Rakrikavanje wrote, Telekom Srbija was ready to invest as much as 195 million euros for Kopernikus with three percent of the market. Apart from the justified assumptions that Kopernikus was overpaid, a month later the owner of Kopernikus, Srđan Milovanović, the brother of a high-ranking official of the Serbian Progressive Party, bought two channels B92 and Prva from the Greek “Antena Group” for a similar amount of money. At that time, these were the only two televisions with national coverage where criticism of the ruling regime could be heard to some extent. Immediately after Milovanović became the owner of these two television stations, the editorial policy became dominantly pro-government.
Although civil society organizations, as well as opposition parties, have pointed out the controversial business of the state-owned company over the years, Telekom only became interesting to the international public a few years later. Almost all reports that mention Telekom express concern about the company’s operations and the impact on the media.
The European Parliament explicitly mentions the Telekom case for the first time in Vladimir Bilčik’s resolution for 2020. At that time, Serbia was called upon to achieve convincing results in the fight against corruption and organized crime, “especially when it comes to cases in which there is a high level of public interest, including the cases of Krušik, Jovanjica and Telekom Srbija”.
Serbian government weaponized state-owned Telekom to curb media freedom?
A year later, the resolution, in addition to the same call for an investigation, also adds that the European Parliament “is still concerned about issues related to media concentration in the Telekom Srbija case.”
That the ruling party with the help of Telekom is taking over the media becomes obvious to Freedom House Nations in Transit report for 2021. In that report, it is noted that the President of Serbia and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), following the “Hungarian model” of occupying the media, oversaw the introduction of slanderous campaigns and pro-government propaganda. According to the findings of this international non-governmental organization, this contributed to the victory of the ruling party in the elections and the formation of a parliament without opposition.
That year, the rating of independent media, which has been one of the worst ratings for Serbia for years, further decreased from 3.25 in 2019 to 3.0 due to the continuous and increasing pressure of the government on independent media and journalists, as well as the increasing “capture of the media through the state-owned Telekom”.
Although the European Commission has noted the problem of ownership concentration in the media in general terms for years, in the latest Annual Report on Serbia from October 2022, this state company is explicitly mentioned for the first time in the context of ownership in the media and active court cases. “Several legal disputes and proceedings are ongoing involving Telekom Srbija – whose majority stakeholder is the State – and private companies, both in Serbia and abroad, in the context of the high concentration of the media market in Serbia,” stated the European Commission.
In the Reporters Without Borders report for 2021, it is estimated that one of the problems in the field of media is their concentration and that the state-owned company Telekom Srbija and the private company SBB are fighting for access, programs, and users.
And the 2021 report on censorship in the Balkans by the Brussels-based international organization “Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI)” states that there is more and more evidence that state bodies are used to strategically consolidate control over the media, citing the case of Telekom.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that state entities such as Telekom Srbija are operating in a way that transfers control of significant areas of the country’s media landscape to owners or partners who are funded by state companies or have close ties to the SNS leadership. They use these measures to undermine providers of independent critical news and to blur the lines between independent and state ownership. All in a market that claims to be largely privatized,” the document states.
Why is Telekom’s business controversial?
The purchase of Kopernikus is not the only controversial “business” decision of Telekom that had consequences for capturing the media scene in Serbia. At the beginning of 2020, the cable operator Supernova, owned by Telekom, removed the channels N1 and Nova S from its offer, the only two television platforms that give significant space to opposition voices in the country.
Later in the same year, the vice-president of the Party of Freedom and Justice (SSP) Marinika Tepić showed the public a 38 million euro contract between Telekom Serbia and the company “Wireless media” owned by Igor Žeželj. As Tepić claimed then, Žeželj used that money to buy the Kurir tabloid, which before the purchase had from time to time a critical editorial policy towards Aleksandar Vučić and the SNS. After Kurir came under the ownership of Igor Žeželj, the reporting of that media is no different from the rest of the pro-government tabloids. In addition, representatives of the opposition made claims at the time that Žeželj’s production company “Firefly” had become a monopoly in the production of TV series in Serbia thanks to Telekom.
In December 2020, it was announced overnight that the Government of Serbia had found a buyer for the Tanjug agency, after several unsuccessful attempts to privatize this news agency. For exactly 628 thousand euros, the intellectual property rights and trademarks of the Tanjug agency were leased for 10 years by the company “Tačno”, which is 60% owned by the pro-regime RTV Pančevo and 40% owned by “Minacord media”, behind which are the singer Željko Joksimović and Manja Grčić, one of the corporate directors of the Greek “Antena Group”. From March 2021, “Minacord” media will have launched cable television K1, and together with Milosavljević in June of the same year, television “Tanjug TV”.
In the same year, documents were leaked to the public showing that Telekom Srbija intends to sign a contract with the private company Telenor (Yettel) in order to reduce the share of cable television operator SBB. At the end of January, Telekom Srbija confirmed that it had signed a contract with Telenor, according to which it will rent its optical infrastructure to this company. By approving the cooperation agreement, Telenor with Telekom’s infrastructure enters the field of internet and TV content as the third major cable operator in Serbia. In April of that year, the Commission for the Protection of Competition conditionally approved the agreement between these two companies, although the signed document states, among other things, that the partnership with Telenor will bring the state company the benefit of “the complete collapse of SBB on the market”. Since November of last year, Yettel, which, through the Venditel contact center, has been offering citizens a favorable subscription and taking over the costs of contract termination.
Read more: Do Telenor and Telekom endanger free competition on the media market in Serbia?
Also in 2021, Telekom Srbija reportedly bought the rights to broadcast the English Premier League for 100 million euros per season for the next six years, which would be shown on its Arena Sport channels. Telekom paid ten times more for broadcasting the English football league than United Media paid for its sports channel Sport Club in previous years. Even after this “business” move by Telekom Serbia, part of the public in Serbia emphasized that it was only a political decision and an abuse of the state company.