Media Under Siege
Despite progress in the EU integration process and 17 years of democratic transition, the Serbian state still fails to safeguard media freedoms, which is one of the key preconditions for the consolidation of the country’s democracy.
Several media watchdog groups have noted a serious deterioration of media freedom in Serbia over the past few years. For example, the Reporters Without Borders 2017 Press Freedom Index ranked Serbia 66th among 180 countries, which is a drop of 7 places in comparison to 2016.
Similar to this, the IREX 2017 Media Sustainability Index noted that “the media sector still suffers from the miserable application of laws”, while “regulatory agencies and the Ministry for Culture and Information are incapable of ensuring the fair application of media laws and maintaining a competitive media market”.
Both Indices additionally note that independent journalists and media outlets still face constant pressure from government representatives or are targeted by pro-government outlets. This resulted in a deterioration in the quality of reporting, especially of informative programs. Serious talk shows have been cancelled, critical voices regarding government performance can hardly be heard in traditional media, while journalists not willing to mute their critical reporting are sacked from work. For example, dozens of journalists, editors and directors of the Vojvodina provincial public broadcasting service RTV lost their jobs after the Serbian Progressive Party won power in Vojvodina. In response, the ‘Support RTV’ movement brought several thousand people onto the streets of Novi Sad. Nevertheless, RTV editorial policy shifted, adopting a visibly pro-government line.
The watchdog role of most media has been suppressed, making them more propagandists of the ruling party rather than an objective and impartial service for citizens. Research carried out by Cenzolovka back in 2014 shows that Aleksandar Vucic, now President and then head of the government and ruling party, was on the cover pages of 10 dailies a total of 877 times, of which only 6 times in a negative context. A similar trend was visible in election reporting during the presidential elections in 2017, when Vucic (both PM and presidential candidate at the time) alone had ten times more airtime on national broadcasters then all other candidates combined.
With traditional media under strict control, online media are flourishing, seemingly being less vulnerable to censorship and open to various voices and citizen engagement. More than 500 online outlets are registered within the Media Register run by the Serbian Business Registers Agency. However, online investigative centers (such as BIRN, CINS and KRIK) and online platforms critical of the government (such as Pescanik) are subject to various online attacks and smear campaigns run by “bots” affiliated to the ruling party. The European Commission’s 2016 Progress Report states that “online, freedom of expression is also exposed to threats, especially in view of increased pressure and attacks against online journalists and bloggers. There has been no substantial progress in investigations into hacking attacks against websites which occurred in 2014”.
Apart from the overall environment which is not conducive to the development of free and independent media, the entire media sector faces increasingly difficult economic conditions. A small and impoverished media advertising market, worth approximately 160 million euros annually, is not capable of sustaining more than 1600 media outlets, the number currently registered within the Media Register.
Fierce competition for shrinking advertising pushes media more and more towards government funding, making them an easy target for various forms of pressure and even censorship. Nontransparent, uncontrolled and partisan allocation of public money is used as an effective means to favor or punish media as well as to obstruct fair market operations.
These include: subsidies to select media outlets, selective government advertising, public enterprises contracting directly with media outlets without competition or monitoring, regulatory manipulation regarding licensing and lack of ownership transparency, and preferential treatment of tax obligations, loan repayments and debts of media close to government.
There is no complete and publicly available data regarding state funding of media and state advertising budgets. The lack of transparency and record keeping remains a severe challenge in assessing the full extent and impact of this type of ‘soft’ censorship in Serbia.
As the BIRN, WAN-IFRA 2015 Soft Censorship report stated “state spending in Serbia’s media sector requires fundamental and urgent reform to ensure that taxpayers’ money is no longer used to impose soft censorship—and instead to offer public information through free, independent and pluralistic media that facilitates informed democratic participation. Without this, Serbian media faces further stagnation and decay, and Serbia’s democracy an uncertain future”.
Media Sustainability Index Erope Eurasia 2017
Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index
Godina ljubavi, Perica Gunjic, Cenzolovka, 2014
PREDSEDNIČKI IZBORI 2017. Monitoring medija: Apsolutna dominacija Vučića, Insajder.net, 2017
Serbia 2016 Report, Commission Staff Working Document, European Commission
Serbia Media Report Says ‘Soft Censorship’ Persists