From Mon Oct 8 19:24:00 2001
Date: Sun, 7 Oct 2001 23:15:03 -0500 (CDT)
Article: 127819
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Media in Serbia twelve months on

By Veran Matic, Chairman of the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM), Belgrade, 4 October 4 2001


One of the first immediately noticeable results of the political changes of October 5, 2000, was opening up of the state and quasi-state broadcasters and print media in Serbia to the representatives of former opposition bloc and NGO sector. High hopes raised in the aftermath of the October changes that the media field would be efficiently and swiftly reformed in a just manner, that political influence on the media would be largely eliminated have nonetheless proved to be overly optimistic. Quite the contrary, twelve months after the political changes it appears that more substantial system changes have bypassed the media sphere.

Even more worrisome is the suspicion that utter absence of any changes in the media field is not the result stemming from the concurrence of adverse circumstances but conscious determination of the new people now wielding political power in the country to retain certain mechanisms formerly used as a convenient vehicle by the Milosevic regime to exert pressure on the media. Actually some of the events in the summer of 2001 have additionally stirred up such suspicions.


Legal framework for the work of the media has not basically changed since the day the political changes took place. New authorities did prevent further implementation of the infamous 1998 Serbian Public Information Act immediately, Federal Constitutional Court declared many of its articles unconstitutional in January, and the newly-formed Serbian Parliament repealed it in February 2001 (except for the articles regulating the process of registration, reply and correction of the published information).

Serbian Information Ministry was abolished. A moratorium on allocation of new broadcasting licences was declared. NGOs and media and journalist associations began enthusiastically their work on drafting new media regulations Public Broadcasting Act and Public Information Law. The representatives of the new government hailed the beginning of this process, but, with the exception of the Federal Telecommunications Minister, did not wholeheartedly engage in it.

Following the fall of the Federal Government in July 2001 and the abolishment of the Federal Telecommunications Ministry, the fate of the bills and other documents drafted with the European and US assistance by domestic experts remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that there has been some political opposition to the adoption of the new regulations, particularly in the part envisaging that the powers pertaining to decision-making and regulation of the media field are to be transferred from the government to an independent regulatory body as well as that the Serbian Government is to be stripped of the right to exert direct influence on the state radio and TV broadcaster which is supposed to be transformed into a public broadcasting service. However, the Serbian Government did return 11.4 million dinars of a total of 31 million dinars in fines imposed by the former regime on print media under the 1998 Public Information Act. Yet, no new regulations have been adopted, old telecommunications and public broadcasting acts have not been changed (except for the abolition of subscription fees for state broadcaster appended to electricity bills), no analyses nor audits of the business dealings of the quasi-state private media, which developed and amassed a fortune under the dictatorship, have been conducted.

The consequences of such a state of affairs are extremely unfavourable, above all, for the independent media which, despite the former regime's repression, enormously contributed to bringing about political changes in the country.

When it comes to the print media, the fact that there is no more an information ministry, though advantageous for the democratic image of the new Serbian Government, created a situation in which not a single member of the government is under obligation to systematically deal with the transition in the media field. This is why no tax exemptions were granted to the press in the ongoing process of tax reforms. Moreover, the percentage of unsold copies for which no sales tax is due was scaled down. The last one in a series of blunders was corrected in August but not until after strong pressure on Serbian politicians had been exerted by the domestic media with the help of international media associations.

As far as the electronic media are concerned, the immediate consequence of the moratorium on frequency allocation was the freezing of the inherited state of affairs in the media field on the day of October 5, 2000. In other words, those broadcasters privileged by the Milosevic regime which had granted them broadcasting licences for large area of coverage have retained all their privileges, while the independent media, viciously targeted by the former regime, have not been granted any allowances to redress injustices suffered at the hands of the Milosevic's henchmen (confiscated equipment has been returned to some stations, but not to the majority of the independent broadcasters, and in addition to this, no licences for an increased area of coverage have been granted). The moratorium and the delay in adopting new media regulations and announcing public competition for frequency allocation effectively curbed any development or strategy planning on the part of the independent media. The moratorium is supposed to be in effect until the adoption of a new Public Broadcasting Act which, however, was not enacted in June as previously announced. Moreover, the government's refusal to accept the drafts of new media legislation prepared by experts actually testifies to the intention of the new authorities to retain some mechanisms of control over the electronic media created by Milosevic.


Even though state broadcasters opened up to all political options after the October changes, they have not managed to solve the majority of the problems inherited from the past. However, it seemed that the most pressing problem of the state radio television broadcaster, namely, direct political influence on its editorial policy, was resolved, and that only financial and personnel-related issues needed to be addressed in the upcoming months. However, twelve months later, the situation with Radio Television Serbia (RTS) is even worse, apparently, than immediately after the changes.

Namely, there are, once again, apparent signs of the intensifying political pressure on RTS and its editors. National state broadcaster had operated for seven months without its management board. Finally, its members were appointed by the government. Then it took another two months to appoint new general manager. In July 2001, Milorad Petrovic, editor of the RTS central information programme “Dnevnik 2”, resigned from his post claiming that he had been under enormous pressure by some ruling political parties which might have led to political instrumentalisation of the national broadcaster. Public competition for editor-in-chief of the RTS information programming had been announced in July 2001, but was subsequently annulled since the general manager had not proposed a single candidate for the post of all the people who had applied for the job. Gordana Susa, president of the Serbian Independent Journalist Association (NUNS), was also one of the contenders. She stated, after the annulment of the public competition, that the rejection of her application was due to the opposition of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), the party headed by Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. These public statements of two esteemed journalists raise serious doubts and concern about the sincerity of new Yugoslav authorities with respect to the transformation of the state media into public service broadcasters.

The situation with finances, personnel or equipment in RTS has neither changed for the better. Debts amounting to about US$ 20 million, excessive number of employees (between 7,500 and 8,000) and outdated equipment are only the gravest problems of the national broadcaster. Since the abolition of subscription fees, RTS is financed from the Serbian budget which makes it totally dependent on the government. It is interesting that, despite the excessive number of employees, even the journalists the most loyal to the Milosevic regime have not been sacked. Milorad Petrovic stated that a large number of RTS journalists were incapacitated for an independent style of reporting going on to say that they expected from him, his being the editor at the time, to put specific spin of his own on their comments and reports. “Journalists… feel the need to belong to someone,” said Petrovic criticising his colleagues who forgot during the Milosevic's era that they should have their own opinions and views.

Local media, controlled by the local authorities, which also fall in the category of state broadcasters, are under an ever-increasing pressure of the local branches of the ruling parties. In addition to this, these broadcasters cannot be privatised without prior consent of local governments which is why their position does not fit the role of watchdogs for the public at the local level.

It may be inferred that the situation with the state media in Serbia is extremely bad. These media have been prevented from undergoing system transformation into public service broadcasters (Radio Television Serbia) or autonomous privatisation (when it comes to local and regional stations). The opportunities for autonomous financing have been limited and the politics has an ever-increasing direct influence on the editorial policy. Their financial and personnel situation has not been improved, and it will take a lot of time and efforts to help them reach the level of the corresponding media in other countries undergoing transition. Of course, only if there is to be no direct interference of the centres of political power with their editorial policy because there can be no transition while such influences exist.


Independent media have remained unbiased and objective in reporting after the political changes so that there is a sort of continuity in place with respect to the period before the Milosevic's ousting from power. Their main problem stemming from inactivity or negligence of the new authorities as mentioned above in the part of analysis on legal framework is that they have no opportunity whatsoever to compete on equal footing with the media privileged by the Milosevic regime because of either moratorium on frequency allocation (in case of broadcasters) or economic environment unfavourable for doing business (in case of print media lack of tax exemptions, tax on unsold copies).

Unlike independent print media for which it would suffice that the government places no restrictions on their activities, independent broadcasters have been brought to the verge of existence by the new authorities' measures (i.e. the absence of adequate measures in the media field). Due to the moratorium, the broadcasters which did not possess licences in the Milosevic era because they were treated as the enemies of the state have remained ‘pirates', while other stations do possess some broadcasting licences, but valid only for extremely small areas of coverage. Consequently, their potential for substantial revenues from advertising is extremely restricted. On the other hand, media moguls who created their empires thanks to close ties with the Milosevic-Markovic family have retained their broadcasting licences for national coverage; they have become closer to the new people now in power and thus maintained a lion's share of advertising market which is the main source of income for radio and TV broadcasters. Moreover, the stations of the swiftly “converted” media moguls from the Milosevic times have drastically enhanced their position on the media market by purchasing for the next couple of years the rights to the most attractive foreign TV shows for the territory of Serbia, and they have been able to do this owing to privileges inherited from the past. Delay in adoption of the new Public Broadcasting Act and the announcing of the public competition for broadcasting licences makes it impossible for independent broadcasters to work on development plans as no one knows what the conditions of the public competition for frequency allocation will be nor whether the independent media will be granted any licences at all. Finally, the major defect of the existing media system is that the independent media are not allowed to expand to national area of coverage which has been, up to now, reserved for the state television and Milosevic media ‘converts'.

It may be inferred that the independent media, especially the electronic ones, are going through an extremely difficult period which does bear resemblance to the situation during the Milosevic repression. True enough, the means used to suppress the independents are entirely different, or at least it appeared to be so until October 3, 2001. On that day, in the manner strikingly similar to the ways of the Milosevic regime and its brutal repression on the independent media, two Federal Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications ordered an ANEM member station, namely TV Pirot, to immediately cease broadcasting given that it did not possess a valid frequency licence as required by law. However, TV Pirot management board decided that it would not cease broadcasting. Even before this regrettable incident, there were lingering doubts that the segment of the media scene which were the most resistant to political influences has been put on a back burner. Neglect of independent electronic media and mutual rapprochement of the quasi-state media and the new authorities is a reason good enough for serious concern and it is unpromising in terms of further democratic media system development in Yugoslavia. Judging by the quality of content and the degree of critical stance towards the authorities, only the independent media possess the potential for an adequate social function which the media in a democratic society should have. If the new authorities, which have deliberately done virtually nothing to legalise the status of the independent media, would pursue their policy of neglect and ignorance or even closure, as in the most recent incident with the official ban imposed on the work of Pirot television broadcaster, this could seriously jeopardise the reformist processes and democratisation of the society.


In addition to the problems inherited from the past, journalists in Serbia once again have to fear for their lives. After the assassination of Slavko Curuvija by an unknown gunman during the NATO bombing, another journalist was murdered in Serbia: on June 11, 2001, in Jagodina, a central Serbian town, Milan Pantic, correspondent of Belgrade daily Vecernje novosti, who had been investigating crime and corruption in his town which had also been the reason for death threats he had been receiving before his violent death. Both murder cases have remained unsolved to date.

There are indications that there has been an attempt on the life of a Belgrade weekly general manager, who prefers to remain anonymous.

His being in an armoured car at the time of the attack has actually saved his life.

According to the estimates of experts in criminology, we may assume that investigative journalism delving into crime and corruption will increasingly expose journalists to grave risks. Namely, during the Milosevic era when top police officials were involved in criminal activities and corruption, criminals were not particularly concerned about articles in the press which might expose them because the judiciary and the police were unable to prosecute them as these institutions were steeped in corruption themselves. Today, however, a press article may indeed cost some criminal or corrupt public servant his freedom so they would not stop at nothing, including physical liquidation of “misbehaving” journalists. The most recent surveys suggest that journalists together with teachers and university professors are the least affected by corruption, unlike customs officers, policemen, lawyers, public servants in ministries, etc.

This piece of information is extremely important because it testifies to the fact that journalists have maintained a high degree of integrity in the past twelve months so that they are trusted more than people of other professions, particularly the politicians.

Bearing this in mind, it may be said that this is a very good starting point for a serious campaign against corruption, but also one of the possible motives behind attacks on journalists and media, which includes physical harassment and even murder.

Serbian journalists have remained the most consistent critics of corruption, war crimes and the ways in which Serbian nouveaux riches have amassed immense wealth during the past decade. Their fierce defence of acquired privileges leads to a conclusion that investigative journalism in Serbia is becoming an increasingly dangerous job.