Serbia has undergone three major waves of reforms in media laws since 2000. The first set of media laws was adopted in 2003, laying the foundation for current media market, comprised of public service broadcasters and the commercial media, reallocating radio and TV frequencies and establishing an independent regulatory body for electronic media, etc.
The second wave of regulation (2005-2011) was characterized by amendments in the Law on Public Information and other media laws, which further politicized the media sector. It has consequently caused delays in media privatization and weakened the mandate of the regulatory authority. This has firmly strengthened the influence of the political parties in power led by the Democrats.
Further regulatory reforms introduced in 2014 and 2015, under the current Government, led by Serbian Progressive party, which marks the third wave of media reforms, since the beginning of democratic transition in 2000. The set of media laws are comprised of three new laws – the Law on Public Information and Media, the Law on Electronic Media and the Law on Public Broadcasters.
The latter two, Lex Specialis, deal with specific segments of media sector (electronic media and the public broadcasters) while the Law on Public Information is overarching, setting base principles of media system. These include the definition of public interest in public broadcasting, editorial independence and prevention of censorship, specific rights and obligations of journalists (Chapter XI of the Law) such as presumption of innocence, prohibition of discrimination, libels, protection of minors, reporting on court cases etc.
The same Law also prescribes protection of media pluralism and the ban of monopoly or unlawful concentrations. Articles 45-47 prescribe thresholds for concentration, setting the bar quite high – horizontal concentration restricts managerial and ownership rights for papers with informative content passing the limit of 50% of annual circulation, while for electronic media ownership and managerial mergers reaching more than 35% of audience shares. The law also foresees the vertical concentration (Article 46), along the production and distribution chain. It forbids the same legal person to engage in media publishing and distribution, but obliges a legal person to carry out its second activity through an affiliated legal person.
Ministry of Culture and Information is in charge of controlling and assessing the state of media pluralism and concentration in printed press. So far, there were no public cases of the Ministry reacting to this matter, as concentrations thresholds are set high. Under the Law on Electronic Media, the independent Regulatory Authority (REM) is responsible for measuring concentration in electronic media (i.e. Radio and Television).
Increased transparency of ownership structures and their affiliated businesses contributes to prevention of concentration. For that purpose, the Law on Public Information and Media prescribes the establishment of the Media Register, run by the Serbian Business Registers Agency. Although initially foreseen as a positive transparency mechanism, the Register is only partially fulfilling its role, as information is often scarce and outdated.
New incentive for improvement of regulatory framework is expected through adoption of new media strategy. Although the document is not officially adopted by the Government, in its draft, several proposals are forwarded including improvement of ownership transparency (and improvement of work of Media Registry) along with proposals for new measurements to challenge concentration.
Serbia is a candidate country for accession into the EU and therefore has been upgrading its legal system under the supervision of the EU, as it has to be harmonized with the EU acquis. Laws might be well formulated due to EU’s leverage but the enforcement is lagging behind.
The latest EC progress report highlights that "The overall environment is still not conducive to the exercise of this right. Cases of threats, intimidation and violence against journalists are still a concern, while investigations and final convictions remain rare. Serbia’s legal framework needs to provide for greater transparency of ownership and funding of media outlets. Co-financing of media content to meet public interest obligations needs to be implemented in line with the legislative framework. This requires transparent and fair procedures without interference by the state administration, especially at local level".