The issue of the unequal representation of political actors in the media has been recognized for years by international and domestic observers as a major problem when it comes to media freedom, but also the conditions for fair and honest elections. The recently published CRTA report on the media “Mapping the media landscape in Serbia 2020-2021” presents data from which it can be concluded that pluralism in the media, despite a noticeable improvement during the 2022 election campaign itself, still tends to deteriorate.
Back in 2020, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in its final report on the parliamentary elections in Serbia 2020 marked the dominance of the ruling party in the media as a matter of concern. The European Commission’s 2020 and 2021 reports also recognize this as a significant problem.
In the second phase of the Inter-party Dialogue, which was conducted in 2021, media pluralism was one of the important topics of discussion. In the end, the platform proposed by the European mediators envisaged the formation of a temporary supervisory body to monitor the media during the election campaign to ensure political pluralism and the professional expertise of the media.
MEPs could often be heard positively evaluating the success of this phase of the dialogue and the implementation of the agreed platform. In addition, the evaluations of the professional public showed that in the period from the announcement of the elections to their holding, the balance in the media improved to some extent. However, despite this short period of progress, we can notice that the situation has not only returned to the starting point but also worsened.
Crta’s research published in January 2023 states that during the election campaign itself, parties in power were represented in television news programs with national frequency 62% of the time, while opposition parties were represented only 38%.
Before the elections, from October 2021 until the start of the election campaign, 91% of the time was allocated to representatives of the government, and only 9% to representatives of the opposition. After the elections, these results were even worse, since after the elections the ruling parties were represented as much as 96%, leaving the opposition representatives only 4% of the time allocation.
The worst result was recorded in December 2022, where a figure of as much as 99% representation of parties in power and only 1% of opposition parties was recorded. These findings show that pluralism in the media with national coverage outside of the election campaign is practically non-existent.
These findings are even worse if the tonality is taken into account, since the coverage of the ruling parties was mostly positive or neutral, and the opposition representatives were covered more in a negative manner than positively month after month.
To understand the context, it is important to highlight the fact that during the first five months of 2021, televisions with a national frequency together reached an average of 59% of the audience share in Serbia, while the cable news channels N1 and Nova S, where the opposition was provided with a significantly larger space and cited as proof of media pluralism, reached only 2%. This fact represents another confirmation of the absolute dominance of national frequency televisions when it comes to informing the citizens of Serbia.
In its latest report on Serbia for 2022, the European Commission pointed out that the overall atmosphere for unhindered free expression must be significantly improved in practice. This report also mentions certain improvements in the presentation of different political views during the election campaign on public services, but it is pointed out that this later completely disappeared. One reason for concern is the political and economic influence of the media.
The final report of the OSCE Election Observation Mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights pointed out that the affiliation of most major media houses with the ruling coalition reduces media pluralism, which consequently undermines the supervisory function of the media. It was also observed that the public services reported comprehensively uncritically about the public office holders who were also candidates in the elections, while the media with national coverage focused the news on state officials.
The interlocutors interviewed by Crta during the preparation of the report explain that the media scene confuses citizens and reduces their ability to be aware of their responsibilities and obligations, turning them into people who are susceptible to manipulation by the government.
They state that after the democratic changes in 2000, despite existing pressures from politicians, “islands of freedom” existed on the media scene.
“The only difference was that some small specks of freedom remained and some opposition was present in the media, it’s not like there wasn’t a variety of opinions. The opposition does not have to be taken in the sense of politicians, just a different opinion and criticism that are now absent from the mainstream media,” says Crta’s interlocutor.
With the control of state institutions by the SNS, the methods used to control the media have gained variety and sophistication. Financing, but also media ownership in Serbia, is recognized as one of the most frequently used and most effective methods for media control. Additionally, the report notes that the refusal of government actors to appear in politically “inappropriate” and “disobedient” media is one example of political pressure on the media.
“The final outcome of the “vicious circle” the media in Serbia has been caught up in is paving the further path for the undemocratic society. On the one hand, such a society delivers frightened and obedient citizens unable to approach the media content critically, due to which they are easily manipulated. On the other hand, this society is driven by powerful individuals who abuse the institutions in order to achieve their personal interests or the interests of the political group they belong to,” says one of Crta’s interlocutors.
The consequence of the political and state control in the media sphere is not only a violation of the right to information and expression of citizens but also affects the degree of assessment of freedom of elections in the state. The evaluation of whether the elections are fair and honest is not only measured by the assessment of the situation in the media during the pre-election campaign but also by the context in the country and the conditions that exist in the period before the elections.
Despite the efforts of the MEPs, mediating in the inter-party dialogue, which was significantly praised as one of the successful initiatives, the situation did not improve in the long term, rather a completely reversed situation occurred. Therefore, without political will and consensus, the media field in Serbia will not reach a satisfactory level of autonomy, nor will the climate of the media market change for the better.