Serbia’s public TV ‘is being used against the public‘

January 10, 2020
Protestors under the bannder 'Onein five million' demonstrate every weekend in the Serbian capital Belgrade.

Demonstrators against state capture of RTS. Photo: Twitter

The public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia, RTS, is highly popular and highly controversial. It tops the ratings. Yet, for more than 12 months, every Saturday, citizens of Serbian capital Belgrade have been protesting against RTS because of its pro-government bias.

The first anti-government citizens’ rally on 8 December 2018, named ‘Stop the Blood-stained Shirts’, followed an incident in which an opposition leader had been beaten before meeting his supporters in a provincial town. Along with widespread political violence, the lack of media freedom has remained the major issue amongst demonstrators’ grievances all along. Most of all, citizens are dissatisfied with the functioning of the public TV broadcaster. They say it makes a mockery of the RTS slogan ‘Your right to know everything’.

RTS had not only omitted to cover the blood-soaked shirt of the opposition leader but for months it kept silent about citizen protests – even when demonstrators whistled and shouted under the windows of its own TV offices. For more than a year, its prime-time news bulletin never reported live on the Saturday protests.  Nor did it air a single sound-bite of speakers at the rallies.

The protests are now named ‘1 of 5 million’ because the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic said he would not meet his opponents’ demands, even if they numbered five million people.

Fact and figures:

In 2018, RTS attracted 19,4% of viewers every day,

The top commercial channel TV Pink attracted 16,7% of viewers.

Out of 50 TV shows with the largest audience, 49 were aired by RTS.

The process of violating the citizens’ right to know was initiated in 2012, with the establishment of the new government, led by Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party. By 2017, starting first as the Deputy Prime Minister, then becoming Prime Minister and lastly President of Serbia, Vucic managed to turn Serbia into a populist autocracy, with his own strong  personality cult. The government controls all major financial transactions in the country. It nurtures clientelist relations with many economic sectors and social groups. It has placed party loyalists in all state institutions, including the independent oversight agencies. The judiciary is highly inefficient and guided by political forces.. Elections are held under unfair conditions and there is strong pressures on voters, especially those who are employed in public companies. Political opposition is strenuously delegitimised on a daily basis.

Media capture

The media form one of the strategic pillars of the Vucic regime. Pro-government content dominates all five TV companies with national frequencies, including public service broadcaster RTS,  and  all but one of eight national daily newspapers (four tabloids and two semi-tabloids). Radio is rarely an important news source, as most stations have shifted to playing music. There are numerous online media, but here there is massive interferences from trolls, engaged by the ruling party, who distort the “public debate”.

The media capture was made possible by a highly unregulated media system and weak regulatory bodies and state institutions in charge of the sector. The media market is small, poor, oversaturated, non-transparent and deregulated. There are no conditions for media sustainability: more than 2,000 media compete for about 200 million euros of advertising revenue  The media business is not profitable, even when it is highly commercialised. Journalists’ salaries are lower than the country’s overall average, which is less than 500 euros a month. Media owners are either close to the ruling party or they compensate for the losses in their media business by running profitable businesses in other sectors. The. owners of the major media advertising agencies are also close to the ruling party. Most media outlets, especially the local ones, are highly dependent on the public money. The Ministry of Culture and Information and the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media refrain from taking action on the functioning of the media under the pretense that they must avoid interfering with the freedom of expression.

Most media function on a “quid pro quo” basis: they receive advertising contracts, tax reliefs or subsidies and public funds for new production if they deliver favourable coverage of the government and negative coverage of its opponents.

The most powerful media function as the megaphones and record players of the government discourse, especially of the President, Vucic, who conducts a permanent election campaign. He makes public appearances almost every day, by holding media conferences, delivering special addresses, holding public events to celebrate government achievements, appearing as a guest in all kinds of media shows, giving special interviews, etc.

Some independent media do exist. However, there are only a few and their reach is very limited. They include a private news agency, the cable channel N1 (an affiliate of CNN), one daily newspaper with the lowest circulation of all papers, several news magazines, and several highly professional and internationally rewarded investigative centers (BIRN, Krik, CINS), whose work is ignored by the major media.

The role of RTS in the media orchestra

The pro-regime media function like a well-conducted orchestra, which provides specific messages to different segments of the population.

National commercial television networks and the tabloid press are characterised by a very low diversity of content. The two most popular television networks broadcast news and reality programmes which last up to 8 or 11 hours a day. The tabloids are focused on political news and show-business news.

Commercial television networks promote Serbia’s orientation towards the European Union (EU), which is the official policy, while the tabloid press prefer Serbia’s connections with Russia and emphasise the hostility between the EU and Russia.

Both carry out extremely harsh smear campaigns, sometimes lasting for months, against the opposition and opposition leaders and also all other organisations or individuals with critical attitudes towards the government. This is done by massive violations of professional ethics, using hate speech and fake news with the clear aim of de-stabilising the opposition. In three months during 2019, four tabloid dailies violated the Code of Journalists 1,880 times just in the headlines of their articles. Court processes for violations of human dignity in the media content are very slow and inefficient.

RTS differs significantly from both these media groups. Its content is very diverse – and no wonder, since it is the largest media company in the country, with 2,900 employees.

The RTS media discourse is decent. It does not offend, does not carry hate speech. Nor does it mount aggressive attacks on government critics. RTS’s strategy is to ignore them. It silences any opinion that criticises the government. Its agenda completely coincides with the government agenda. The RTS prime-time news bulletin, the most popular in the country, covers only government definitions of events and incidents and never problematises them. Nor does it investigate controversial issues. Therefore there is a popular joke in Serbia: ‘If I could only live in the country depicted in the RTS news’.

Mechanisms of RTS capture

Like most other media, RTS is dependent on government-controlled money. It gets 46% of its revenues from the licence fee, 28% from the state budget and 22% from advertising and other commercial activities. The Law on Public Media Broadcasters (2014) prescribes that their main source of finances should be the licence fee paid by citizens, 500 dinars a month (about 4 euros). However, the fee was introduced only in 2016, when the amount was 150 dinars (somewhat above 1 euros), while the government financed the public broadcasters from the state budget. This arrangement is still valid, since the licence fee is now set at 220 dinars (about 2 euros), which is the cost of a cup of coffee in a Belgrade restaurant.

This lack of financial independence is accompanied by the lack of editorial independence and independent governance. The Managing Board of RTS is elected by the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media. However, this body has not managed to obtain independence from political interests since its establishment in 2003. Its choices of the members of the Managing Board of RTS have always been controversial in terms of their professional capacities and susceptibility to political pressures.

The Managing Board elects the Director General and main editors, based on the the Director proposed candidates.  In 2017 researchers working on the control of the media interviewed journalists from RTS. They said their editors are subjected to daily pressures from government and ruling party officials on how to run their programmes.

Many RTS journalists believe that their responsibility is primarily to the state institutions, rather than to the citizens. Their professional culture gives priority to the government and ruling parties – often according to the number of seats they take in the Parliament – while the opposition is usually considered a negative political pole. The political culture of the Serbian political elite is also detrimental to public service broadcasting. Every political party, while in opposition, has promoted freedom of the media. But once they become the government, they accept the public service media as a further electoral gain and use various channels to influence its functioning in their own interest.

Serbian nightmare

Serbian citizens are experiencing the nightmare of captured media for the second time since political pluralism was established in 1990. In contrast to Central European countries which embarked on dismantling the state control over media after the first multy-party elections, Serbia under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic faced a retrograde process. The relative autonomy of state media under liberal Yugoslav socialism was completely abolished. The media – TV in particular – were turned into a classical propaganda apparatus for mobilising the Serbian nation against their surrounding ethnic enemies in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Critics of Milosevic’s nationalistic and warlike policy were banned in the state media and discredited as traitors and foreign mercenaries. The regime collapsed in 2000 and then Serbia started its media transformation process, lagging 10 years behind the other post-communist countries.. There was a widespread belief that the practices of journalistic dishonesty that were commonplace in the 1990s must not be repeated.

However, the new structure of the media system has not developed strong enough safeguards against the new process of media capture. Almost all the media are now privatised but the media is controlled by unregulated and non-transparent funding instead of through state ownership. The broadcasting Regulator fails to implement the media laws. The lack of protection for media and journalists’ independence and their precarious economic position mean that they are unable to resist the pressure of vested political and commercial interests.

The role of the EU

Another important difference is that in the 1990s the European Union helped the Serbian independent media a great deal, since they promoted peace and democratic discourse against the practice of the Milosevic regime. The European Union today supports the regime of Aleksandar Vucic, who was an extreme Serb nationalist in the 1990s, when he served as the Minister of Information and was known for imposing harsh financial punishments on the independent media. Under the auspices of the EU, as a candidate country for EU membership, Serbia is allowed to disregard many important reforms that would make her close to EU standards and values as long as its leader, as a typical strongman, provides stability in regional relations and keeps promising to settle the issue of Kosovo, which is an important security threat to stability in the Western Balkans.

Serbian political actors who support media freedom and democracy are left alone to fight the autocratic populism, which very much resembles that of Russia, Hungary and Turkey.

Propping up media freedom is the most important issue in their attempt to secure conditions for free and fair elections, which are scheduled for spring 2020. On behalf of protesting citizens, an expert group has formulated demands for change in order to normalise political communications in Serbia.These demands and recommendations are supported by the main opposition group, the Alliance for Serbia. Their demands concern changes in the communications of the President, Ministry of Culture and Information, broadcasting Regulator and Agency for Fighting Corruption, and in the functioning of the public service broadcaster RTS. It is required to provide coverage of topics of greatest interest to the audience, greater pluralism of news and more debate programmes with genuine confrontation between relevant opposing views long before the election campaign starts.

In the autumn of 2019, the new EU Parliament facilitated a dialogue between the government and opposition regarding the conditions for the election. Unfortunately, the media were not given the importance they deserve in these negotiations. The EU Parliament representatives were satisfied. But the citizens of Belgrade still continue their protests every Saturday.

Dr Jovanka Matic was a research fellow at the Belgrade Institute of Social Sciences for 25 years until 2019, specialising in media freedom and the role of media in democracy. She is the author of  7 books and around 70 learned articles on the subject.

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