After a public discussion, OSCE’s objections, amendments, and petitions that the laws be withdrawn, the new Law on Public Information and Media and the new Law on Electronic Media were nonetheless adopted in a marathon vote by the Serbian Parliament on October 26, 2023. Opponents of such solutions maintained that with the entry into force of these laws, media darkness will be further exacerbated, because the state-owned Telecom will be formally authorised to acquire media outlets. The Government as the proposer and the ruling majority claim that the citizens “will be even better informed” and that everything “is in accordance with the media strategy”.

It is highly unlikely that anyone will convince the ruling majority that there are any flaws, especially as the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, found time to praise these media laws in her brief speech of just a few minutes following her meeting with the President of Serbia on October 31, a day before the 2023 Elections were called for December. Admittedly, von der Leyen did say that now “we should apply them”, but she did not explain what she meant exactly. For example, in the new Law on Public Information and Media, it is written that “public information is free and not subject to censorship. Direct and indirect discrimination of media editors, journalists and other persons in the field of public information is prohibited, especially according to their political orientation and beliefs or other personal characteristics”. If at least paragraph four were to be applied, everything would be much simpler, because below, just like in the version from 2016, it says: “The free flow of information through the media, as well as the editorial autonomy of the media, must not be endangered, especially by exerting pressure, threatening, or blackmailing editors, journalists or sources of information”.

Those who believe that this part of the Law is being upheld can also believe that it matters what is written in the rules for becoming a media publisher. According to the new Law, a publisher can be an entrepreneur or a legal entity not established by the state, province, or city, except when it comes to a “capital company engaged in electronic communications”. This is the article that the Government insisted on retaining and which the opposition has criticised as a way for the state-owned Telecom to acquire more media outlets and further limit the space for any criticism of the Government. In the Parliament, ministers kept reiterating that Telecom was independent and “worked in the interest of the citizens of Serbia”.


Press Council – it remains to be seen

In the draft Law on Public Information and Media, the proposer attempted to introduce an article that would significantly reduce the role of the Press Council in the criteria for selecting projects to be co-funded through competitions, just before submitting it to the Assembly. Let us remind you, the decisions of the Press Council should have been limited exclusively to the media that recognise its jurisdiction. After pressure from the public, this was changed and it was adopted that the media outlet applying for funds should prove that in the year preceding the competition, no measure was imposed on it by the regulatory body in the case of electronic media, or that no act was passed by the self-regulatory body of the Press Council – for printed media and online media, for which it had been established that they violated the legal provisions, that is, the standard of professional ethics. Up until now, it has happened that the media that violate the Code received the most funds at public bids. Quite often local self-governments have given an impressive portion of the funds to the Belgrade tabloids close to the regime mostly for the advertising-like projects “Get to Know Serbia” or “My Alphabet of Belgrade” or “Infrastructural revival of the Kings” or something similar that was judged to be of the most tremendous importance for the citizens. So, only the analysis of the application of this Law will show how the members of various competition commissions, “media experts” and media experts deciding on money will behave in the future.


Is the composition of REM independent and without anyone’s influence?

One of the articles of the Law on Electronic Media that the minister proposed bragging, was the change of institutions that propose candidates for the Council of the REM, as according to the old Law candidates were nominated by the competent committee of the National Assembly and the competent committee of the Assembly of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.

Proposals were also made by universities, associations of electronic media publishers, associations of film artists and associations of composers, associations dealing with child protection, national councils of national minorities as well as churches and religious communities.

In the new Law, a concession was made, as the Minister of Information, Mihailo Jovanović explained: “Instead of parliamentary committees that proposed three members of the Council, we now have as one joint proposer the Protector of Citizens, the Commissioner for Equality and the Commissioner for the Protection of Information of Public Importance. The following entities can act as independent proposers:  universities accredited in the Republic of Serbia, associations of electronic media publishers, journalist associations, film associations, stage and drama artists, composer associations, associations whose goals are to achieve freedom of expression, associations whose goals are to protect children, national councils of national minorities and churches and religious communities”.

What the Minister failed to mention, but is nevertheless well-known, is that independent institutions such as the Commissioner or the Protector of Citizens are also elected by the National Assembly. More importantly, no matter who the proposer is, the decision on whether someone will be a member of the REM is made by a simple majority, so the ruling coalition does not have to negotiate with anyone or agree to candidates who are not to their liking. “In the event that none of the proposed candidates receives the required majority of votes, the procedure for nominating candidates is repeated”. This is stated in Article 11 without specifying how many times. Moreover, authorised proposers, such as the Commissioner or the Protector of Citizens must agree on one candidate, or journalist associations that can only have 300 members, which opens up the possibility of participation of a number of ‘phantom’ organisations and associations.

It is positive that, at least on paper, the members of the REM should not be those who question the reputation and independence of the Regulator. Nonetheless, anyone who has ever attended a meeting of the current REM President, Olivera Zekić, with the owners and editors-in-chief of television stations that promote immorality and violence, seen embraces and displays of closeness, and, eventually, the allocation of national frequencies, is aware of the fact that this provision is there only for those who read the Law, and not for those who live in Serbia. Because the Law states that no one has the right to influence the work of Council members and that they are not obligated to accept anyone’s instructions. And if that is what it says, and if they themselves claim that they really think that all of Serbia should watch television programmes that promote reality shows and conspiracy theories, how can you not believe them?!


REM during the elections

CRTA’s observation mission submitted 29 complaints to the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) against media service providers who violated their obligations in relation to the election campaign. Of these, 24 complaints were submitted against TV channels with national coverage (TV Pink, TV Prva, B92, and TV Happy), while the remaining five were submitted against local TV channels. CRTA’s complaints primarily pointed to intensive one-sided attacks and negative campaigning against opposition leaders. Some of these cases also include hate speech against opposition representatives. In addition, many complaints were filed for violating the principle of representation without discrimination and for allowing state officials to campaign in their official capacity. 

During the election campaign, the REM Council did not consider any of CRTA's complaints, nor has informed CRTA to date about the outcome of the proceedings (if any) initiated against the reported TV channels. Only after the elections ended REM delivered five answers saying that there is no basis for initiating proceedings. 

This is particularly problematic considering that the new Law on Electronic Media, which came into force immediately after the elections were called, obliges REM to decide on initiating an investigatory procedure within 48 hours upon learning of the facts and circumstances of a probable violation of the Law or other regulations governing the conduct of media service providers in relation to the election campaign. Moreover, when initiating the proceeding, REM is obliged to conclude it by issuing a decision within 72 hours. REM has not adhered to these legal deadlines in any case where CRTA has reported law violations. 

CRTA's complaints were included on the REM Council meetings' agenda for the first time after the election day. Based on the published agenda of the REM Council sessions, CRTA learned that at the meeting held on December 22, 2023, the REM Council considered reports from the REM’s Supervision and Analysis Service regarding four cases reported by CRTA. At the session held on December 29, 2023, eleven cases from CRTA's complaints were considered. However, the transparency of the REM Council's sessions is lacking, as their outcomes remain unknown. Minutes from these sessions are also not available to the public.

Author: Mirjana Nikolić, journalist in Istinomer

Poslednji put ažurirano: 08.03.2024, 17:48