The Republic of Serbia is a country still undergoing post-communist and post-war transitional processes. After the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian regime in 2000, the country became a parliamentary democracy, bound to improve the rule of law, build a market economy, improve freedom of media, establish a pluralistic society and move towards membership of the European Union.
After 2000, the media embarked upon a transformation, along with other sectors of the country. So far the changes have been rather slow, incoherent and incomplete because there seems a lack of political will to finish the structural changes in the media sector.
The Serbian media market is small and oversaturated with more than 1600 media outlets registered in the Serbian Bussines Registry Agency (SBRA). Due to a poorly regulated media system, the exact number of registered active media outlets remains unknown.
Serbia has two public broadcasters, RTS with national coverage and RTV, with a regional mandate and reach. Most of their revenues are provided from the state budget, which has an impact on their editorial policy, independence and objectivity. Besides state funding, RTS and RTV are also competing with other media outlets for a slice of the advertising market. In addition to this, a small part of revenue comes from the collection of subscription fees, 150 Serbian dinars (EUR 1.22) per household.
Media companies operate under harsh economic pressure. The average annual advertising market value in 2016 was around €174 million (Nielsen Audience Measurement), which cannot ensure the economic survival of all currently active media outlets. They all share a rather small advertising ‘cake’ that cannot secure their financial sustainability and independence. Due to a weak economy and chronic liquidity problems, the state still has a significant role and impact on the media market. It continues to control media through direct ownership, but even more dominantly through different models of state funding.
Public funds that are available for Serbia’s media are distributed arbitrarily and in a nontransparent manner, usually in favour of pro-government media outlets, without clear and measurable criteria, public control or evaluation. The amount of total state aid on the market, as well as the manner, extent and effects of state funding of various media outlets are still unknown. The state has for years been the biggest advertiser in the country through its Ministries, public enterprises and Republic agencies. On the other side is the growing pressure from media buying agencies, whose owners entertain close ties with the ruling party. Resulting from the financial dependency is a harsh editorial pressure, and those media that remain most critical of the government are attacked publicly. In 2012 public enterprises exerted pressure on Blic daily to change its (then) pro-Tadic (former President) and pro-Democratic Party editorial policy in exchange for keeping their advertising contracts. After Serbian tycoon Miroslav Miskovic was criticized on the Insajder investigative television show, his company Delta Holding canceled all advertising contracts on B92.
Media privatisation in Serbia was formally to end in 2016, but the process has not yet been completed. The state was supposed to hand over ownership of a total of 75 media outlets. Less than 50% of them have been privatized to this date. Out of 75 media outlets to be privatised, 50 were put on sale - of these, 34 were actually sold, while the others were closed down. Only a limited number was offered to employees for a management-buyout. All-in-all media privatization has given rise to local media ownership concetration.
Major media in Serbia are polarized and seen as split between pro- and anti- government. Pro-government media outlets are characterized as mouthpieces of the ruling party, preventing any serious public dialogue and directly favouring the ruling party while marginalising and obstructing the opposition in every sense. Independent media are critical towards the government, but under continiuos financial and editorial pressure.
When it comes to media content, sensationalist and tabloid rhetoric dominates the market as well as reality shows and glossy print. In 2015 reality show programs achieved a record in presence and ratings. A total of 36 hours and 25 minutes of the shows “Big Brother”, “Farm”, “Couples” and “Maldives” was aired daily on channels with national frequencies.
According to Reporters Without borders and its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, media freedom has declined ever since Aleksandar Vucic, Slobodan Milosevic’s former information minister, became Prime Minister in May 2014. While in 2014 Serbia ranked 54th among the world’s countries in terms of media freedoms it ranks 66th out of 180 countries today.
From the beginning of 2017, more than 38 physical and verbal forms of pressure, attacks and threats against journalists were reported to the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia. Journalists are poorly paid and the public reputation of the profession is very low. In the last 20 years three journalists were killed – Dada Vujasinovic (1994), Slavko Curuvija (1999), Milan Pantic (2001) – and the perpetrators have never been brought to justice.