Serbia´s struggle for full democracy

By Ana Pastor

The European Union is outspoken in its support for press freedom, but its efforts to instill that value in aspiring and new member states is faltering. This is the first of two articles that examine how the EU deals with the issue of freedom of expression.

BELGRADE, Serbia – Hundreds of journalists took to the streets of Belgrade and other Serbian towns on Jan. 27 to protest problems with media freedom. The uproar started in December, after Defense Minister Bratislav Gasic told journalist Zlatija Nabovic, “I like these female journalists who kneel down so easily.” He made the comment as she knelt to avoid being on camera during a news conference.

Goran Petrovic, acting head of Serbia’s regulatory body for electronic media (REM), Peter Burkard, OSCE head of mission, Tim Suter, media expert, and Ljubisa Kuvekalovic, REM legal expert, left to right, at an OSCE debate, April 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of OSCE/Milan Obradovic

Goran Petrovic, acting head of Serbia’s regulatory body for electronic media (REM), Peter Burkard, OSCE head of mission, Tim Suter, media expert, and Ljubisa Kuvekalovic, REM legal expert, left to right, at an OSCE debate, April 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of OSCE/Milan Obradovic

Although NUNS, the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, has called for his firing or resignation, this has not happened yet. A movement called “Journalists don’t kneel” has been launched by media professionals in the country.

The deterioration of media freedoms in Serbia is worrying and surprising at the same time, as Serbia has advanced further than most countries in its candidacy to join the European Union. The EU believes freedom of expression is a basic pillar for any democracy; thus, candidate countries must protect this human right if they want to join the club.

In Serbia, as well as in the rest of the Balkan region, media freedom is a sensitive issue due to the dark past during the 1990s. These countries have experienced the manipulation of news media that helped foment the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the descent into ethnic slaughter.

Improving the level of freedom of expression and independent media has been a priority in the country since then, although the Serbian leaders who came to power after the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic did not modernize or reform the media landscape. In fact, they also used the media as a tool to gain support for their fragile regimes.

In 2012, when Serbia achieved the status of “official candidate” to join the Union, changes started to happen. A media strategy was drafted and in August 2014 that strategy was translated into three new media laws: The Law on Public Information and Media, the Law on Electronic Media, and the Law on Public Media Services. They comply with what the EU has asked Serbia to do.

Candidate countries have to adopt the EU’s Acquis Communitae (the common rights and obligations that bind all members), as well as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. They also must fulfill accession requirements, which are known as the Copenhagen criteria.

On top of these, the European Commission issues reports during the accession process that may bring extra requirements such as, in the case of Serbia, privatization of the news media and the state’s withdrawal from control over the media.

“In Serbia, privatization was required because it was deemed the best way to preserve state-owned media from political and financial control,” according to an official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists. “But the control of the process was weak. We suspect that the new owners have links with the government, but we cannot prove it yet,” he added. The OSCE has had an official mission in Serbia since 2001, and has been involved since then in its transition to democracy, addressing several areas of democratic governance such as elections, media and local administration.

Serbian journalists interviewed for this article, including Gordana Knezevic from Radio Free Europe, Katarina Subasic from AFP, and Tamara Spaic, former journalist at BLIC, shared the OSCE official’s concern that, although  the government no longer owns the media, friends of the government do.

With the passage of new legislation, Serbia promised to withdraw the State from the media, regulate the ownership structures of media outlets, apply anti-concentration laws, and switch over to digital TV. In other words, Serbia is doing everything it has been asked to do, at least on paper. The reality, however, is far from this ideal as there has been no implementation.

Subasic, a journalist with AFP news agency, said that “the media market has been privatized, but there are no rules for how to do it, and the same for financing of the media.”

Dragan Kremer, Open Society Foundations representative in Serbia, said this lack of action occurs because “the approach of the EU is very mechanical; they are too easily satisfied with the politicians here.”

The main problem, as Kremer and Subasic see it, is the lack of monitoring and control over the way these laws are being implemented. Even the October 2015 progress report from the European Commission expressed serious concerns about the implementation of the laws.

Tanja Maksic, program coordinator at BIRN, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, said that Serbian Prime Minister Alexander Vucic, who was Minister of Information during the Milosevic regime, “understands quite well how media works.”

“All media was put under control when he came into power,” Maksic said. “In the first six months of government, everything was cleared out. There is no critical media. This government is paying a lot of attention to media. They really understand its power.”

In recent years, Serbia has seen the cancellation of important political TV shows. Sarapin problem and U centru were cancelled in October 2014 by TV Studio B, but the most notable case is that of Impression of the Week, hosted by journalist Olja Beckovic, on B92´s TV Channel. The show had been running for 23 seasons and was one of the most profitable shows on B92, an independent radio station that was a symbol of resistance during the war. The official reason for the show’s closing was the lack of funding.

“You do not cancel your most profitable show if you are struggling economically,” said Gordana Knezevic, the Balkan desk editor at Radio Free Europe.

The story, apparently, is more complicated. In September 2014, B92 moved Impression of the Week to its less popular channel, B92 Info. Although the program had been very popular, on this channel it reached a small audience, and Beckovic, the presenter, quit over what she saw as censorship. The program disappeared.

Behind these changes there are rumors of a more serious threat: non-transparent ownership structures and their relationship with political power. Through off-shore companies, the Greek shipping owner Minos Kiryaku controls TV Prva and B92, two Serbian media outlets.

Serbian law does not allow foreigners to own media that has national coverage, and the law also states that one person cannot own more than one media outlet with national coverage. This principle has been changed in the new Law on Electronic Media that replaces the Broadcasting Law. Many believe that the law was changed specifically to favor Kiryaku. After the change, Kiryaku’s B92 cancelled Impression of the Week. He has not granted interviews, which has contributed to speculation about the reasons.

“We should be able to talk to the owner of any media,” said Knezevic.

“Vucic did not like Beckovic. You could see it in the way he talked about her,” said Tamara Spaic, former journalist at the internet news-portal and newspaper BLIC.

On top of this, another prominent journalist, Antonela Riha, editor of the political section at NIN magazine, was fired in April 2015 without warning. Balkan Insight reported that Riha’s firing raised media freedom issues. Subasic said that she and other journalists see the firing as a political manoeuver.

News programming is in decline, replaced by entertainment programs, and self-censorship is a prominent problem. The transition of some news media outlets to a more commercial basis has happened gradually. Therefore, citizens may still believe these outlets are independent and professional, although the outlets may offer only “infotainment.” Lack of qualifications among journalists undermines the profession.

“There is a code of ethics, but it is broken all the time,” Subasic said, adding that “the school of journalism is not good. Most journalists don’t have degrees. It’s a bad profession with very low salaries.”

“People here believe that freedom of speech includes hate speech, that you can discriminate,” Kremer said. “There is no proper, efficient regulation for this. You can see it in front page tabloids, accusations without any basis, [a] very slow judicial system.”

When standards are low, it is easier to influence editorials and self-censorship becomes common. The pressures on journalists are unseen.

“The best ones left after the war,” Nenad Pejic, editor-in-chief of Radio Free Europe, said of Serbian journalists. “The quality of journalism went down directly.”

Those who challenge the status quo by reporting on sensitive issues, such as corruption or war crimes, face attacks and threats. In 2014, the website Pescanik’s database of more than 15,000 articles was hacked more than 27 times. When the government was criticized for slow responses to floods in 2015, hackers deleted 13 articles from different media. In 2014, 20 websites suffered attacks. In January 2015, after BIRN published a report suggesting that the Serbian government had paid more than necessary for Air Serbia airline, the news outlet was subjected to a smear campaign by media close to the government.

With the EU being rather quiet regarding this worsening situation, it is not a surprise that journalists and citizens took to the streets in January. The protests also called for the investigation of the surveillance of journalists allegedly ordered by interior minister Nebojsa Stefanovic. According to NUNS, journalists in the city of Pancevo, in the north of Serbia, have to join Vucic’s party, the Serbia Progressive Party (SNS), to keep their jobs. They told Reporters Without Borders that there is more political pressure on the media today and that they are being accused of being “mercenaries in the pay of foreign powers.”

Kremer of the Open Society Foundations says that “it is necessary that the EU changes its priorities” in light of the media situation. He and the journalists interviewed said the EU focuses on prodding Serbia to recognize independent Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, and has relegated freedom of expression to a second tier. The OSCE official agreed, saying that “the EU cannot pressure everywhere at the same time, and they have chosen Kosovo as a priority.”

“It is a huge mistake to put Kosovo as a priority,” Spaic said. “Institutions are weaker and weaker, and after we resolve the issue of Kosovo, we won’t have institutions, only one man.”

If the EU is to help the Balkan country achieve full democracy, freedom of expression and of the news media is fundamental.

The EU may need to create its own media department as the OSCE has done to monitor the implementation of policies. Lack of attention to media independence can have severe consequences for democracy, as seen even in member states such as Hungary, Italy and Spain.

Studies, such as those by Ulrich Sedelmeier about Europeanisation in new member and candidate States, and Othon Anastasakis’s “The Europeanization of the Balkans” have shown that the EU has more leverage with countries when they are candidates than after they become member states. Candidates are trying to join the club and, therefore, are willing to sacrifice more of their sovereignty, at least temporarily. Once they become members, they are not punished even if they backtrack.

To avoid having members backtrack on basic freedoms, the EU should ensure that countries meet the criteria not merely as a way to get into the club but also because they believe in those values, including independent media.

After all, the last step towards joining the EU is in the hands of the citizens. They will vote in a referendum on whether or not to join. In order to choose what is best for their country, citizens need to be well informed.