Blogging Jesenská: Ivan Angelovski, Serbia
The Sad Truth About Serbian Media
A ministry that pays hundreds of Euros to a newspaper for positive coverage; a telecommunications company which spends one third of its marketing budget for press services – the Serbian media is almost completely dependent on the country’s political and business elite, a new critical report has shown. Not surprisingly, none of the newspaper, TV, radio or Internet media outlets in Serbia covered the story.
There were no analytical reports in newspapers. No public debates on TV. Radio did not broadcast it, and it was removed from the Internet. You could not read about it anywhere. Well, almost – only if you knew exactly what you were looking for.
The Anti-Corruption Council of the Serbian government issued a “Report on Pressure on and Control of Media in Serbia”. The results were shocking. It showed evidence that some of the most influential Serbian media is almost completely dependent on the political and business elite.
The Council organised a round table and gathered the most important media experts in Serbia to present the report. Fifteen members of the press attended the conference, so the public could be well informed.
Unfortunately, almost none of the newspaper, TV, radio or Internet media outlets covered the story. And if they did, it was completely stripped of all the juicy details.
As Vukasin Obradovic, head of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, predicted at the round table: “We will get the answers to all the questions raised at the meeting […] when we see which media will publish the reports from this meeting and to what extent.”
Only two dailies and two TV stations featured a story about it. A short one.
“Journalists from one Internet based media said they had published the story about the round table, but they had to remove it, after people from above had told them to get rid of it”, the Council claims.
This is the sad truth about Serbian media.
The report showed that the ‘freedom of speech principle’ in Serbia is confronted with a full scale of problems.
Media is open to unknown private and political interests, thanks to a lack of transparency in their ownership and the fact that major parts of their income are generated through various types of budget payments by state-owned companies and institutions. They are on the government payroll.
In the very first paragraph of the report, the Council claims: “[…] the media in Serbia is exposed to strong political pressure and, therefore, full control has been established. […] There is no longer a media from which the public can receive complete and objective information […].”
Allegations are serious and the evidence, gathered after few months of research, is hard.
The Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, headed by Oliver Dulic, a ruling Democratic Party member, paid half a million Euros to newspaper Blic, owned by German-Swiss publishing network Ringier Axel Springer, to publish topical appendices about the environment.
As a result, during 2010, Blic published a number of texts, with Mr. Dulic in a positive context: “Dulic Is Taking 200 Builders to Kraljevo”, “Environment Better Than in Previous Year”, “1,633 Apartments Will Be Built Next Year”, etc. At the same time, they turned a blind eye on conflict of interest accusations that his private computer hardware company, DG Comp from Subotica, was doing business with 70 federal institutions. This was a big scandal in 2010. The same scheme goes for other media as well.
The Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Health, both headed by ruling coalition member party G17plus, spent one million Euros in total on different media services, such as TVB92, TV Pink, daily Politika, daily Blic, TV Avala, daily Danas, daily Vecernje Novosti, RTS (Serbian Public Broadcasting Service) and magazine Status. Thanks to this, Mladjan Dinkic, former minister of economy, and his party colleague Tomica Milosavljevic, former minister of health, had the largest number of positive articles about them in aforementioned media, although both are very controversial.
Telekom Srbija, a state-owned telecommunications company, spends 30m Euros a year on marketing, out of which one third goes to media services. During 2008 and 2009, they spent most of this money for advertising on RTS (2.6 m Euros), RTV Pink (2.2 m Euros), RTV B92 (1.4 m Euros), Blic (1.02 m Euros) and Vecernje Novosti (934,000 Euros). The head of Telekom Srbija is the former secretary general of Serbian President Boris Tadic.
“This is probably one of the reasons why it was almost impossible to find a text that would critically examine the problem of the sale [of Telekom Srbija] or an analysis of its business operation”, the Council says.
Besides paying for different sorts of advertising, the government and media established seven different models of procurement: from “specialised information services”, to different “research services”. For example, the Serbian Agency for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises ordered research services from the company Ringier (publisher of daily Blic) for 44,800 Euros – the job the Agency itself is registered for.
The Council concluded: “Such jobs for which federal institutions hire media, which are not professionally qualified for research, such as this one, were used to hide the actual nature of the cooperation between the media and party officials, who are in charge of state institutions, because the subject of such transactions is actually a free political promotion of party officials.”
Opposition politicians are using a somewhat different principle. They do not pay the existing media, but rather establish their own, so positive stories can also be published about themselves. That is the case with daily Pravda, owned by members of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). This also applies to the publishing company Vojvodina Info Group, which publishes various regional print media and whose owners are, among others, members of the Democratic Party of Serbia (of former prime minister Vojislav Kostunica). Besides publishing positive stories about their owners, those media are the harshest critics of the ruling elite – this is considered major ownership abuse.
The same kind of abuse is indicative for the media owned by controversial businessmen, in the shadows behind foreign and offshore companies.
Two Austrian companies and one from Cyprus own Vecernje Novosti, a major national newspaper. Until recently, the real owner had been concealed; but then Milan Beko, a controversial Serbian businessman, admitted that he owns the paper. Considering the editorial policy of the daily, this fact had been obvious even before it was announced. Novosti are well known as defenders of big businessmen like Beko, or his partner Miskovic, portraying them as “patriotic businessmen”, “intelligent business persons” and the like.
Austrian company Greenberg Invest GmbH, established by Viennese lawyer Johannes Krauss, is the co-owner of Serbian TV Avala, and, until recently, owned the weekly magazine Standard. It is widely suspected that the actual owner is Zeljko Mitrovic, who also owns the biggest Serbian TV station Pink. This is contrary to Serbian broadcasting law, forbidding that someone can own more than one TV station with national coverage.
The same conflict is behind TV Prva and TV B92. The complex ownership structure of those two TV stations actually hides the fact that Minos Kiryaku, a Greek businessman, owns both.
Letter to the PM
“The Council’s reports are always ignored by the government and the media. That’s exactly why we have started this research – because without [objective] media there’s no fight against corruption. Because corruption in media itself makes objective informing pointless, and public surveillance of budget spending impossible”, says Verica Barac, head of the Anti-corruption council of the Serbian Government.
The results that have emerged only confirmed her assumption.
“Lack of media reaction means that the ruling elite is immune to any kind of control. They are so safeguarded within their media domination that no report can ever hurt them”, Barac states.
The Anti-Corruption Council is a body of the Serbian government. Unfortunately, it is one of those bodies, which government has established only to comply with EU standards. Although they have discovered many corruption scandals, none of their reports have ever reached the ruling elite. The same fate happened to this report.
“Corrupted government is keeping Serbian media at its service, so it can hide its own crime and corruption”, Barac continues. “The government is responsible. They need to regulate this field and make media-independency possible.”
As with all other reports, Barac has sent this one to Serbian PM Mirko Cvetkovic, along with a cover letter proposing a meeting to discuss its findings.
She is still waiting for his response.
Ivan Angelovski is an investigative journalist at the Belgrade TV station B92 and was a Milena Jesenská Fellow at the IWM in Vienna from October to December 2011. Furthermore, he participated in the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence in 2010.
The Milena Jesenská Blog with all posts can be found here.
IWM, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author & World Literature Today. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from the author and World Literature Today.