Concerns mount over increasing state control of Serbian media


Serbian lawmakers have passed two contentious bills this week, stoking fears of heightened state influence over the media in the Balkan nation. The legislation includes a law governing public information and the media, as well as another pertaining to electronic media.

The key concern is the potential for state-owned telecoms provider Telekom Srbija to acquire media outlets if President Aleksandar Vucic signs these bills into law, a practice that was previously prohibited. This development has prompted apprehensions about state interference in media affairs and its potential ramifications on journalistic freedom.

Maja Sever, the president of the European Federation of Journalists, expressed concern, stating that the votes have raised “fears of state influence and state pressure” on the media. Opposition MP Robert Kozma, from the Green-Left Front party, asserted that the government’s intention is to “legalize the role of the state…in (the) media market,” warning that this could lead to “the spread of media darkness.”

While the Ministry of Information and Communications views these new laws as a positive step toward enhancing the media landscape in Serbia, critics worry about the implications for press freedom. The government has maintained that the legislation guarantees freedom of opinion, expression, and press, aligning with international standards.

The spotlight is on Telekom Srbija, the country’s largest telecommunications operator, with nearly 53 percent of users. Despite its significant market share, it currently does not provide access to independent N1 or Nova S television channels. The European Parliament has previously expressed concern over Telekom Srbija’s dominant market position, with allegations of the ruling party using it to expand its influence over the media market.

This development has raised questions about Serbia’s commitment to European values and principles, particularly as it seeks EU membership. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) asserts that allowing Telekom Srbija to establish and acquire media outlets suggests selective acceptance of these values.

Critics of President Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party holds a majority in parliament, accuse him of employing restrictive measures to stifle opposition and exert control over media outlets. Recent data from a social research think tank, BIROD, indicates that from September to mid-October, Vucic occupied a significant portion of primetime political news programs on national television and N1.

In a concerning trend, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that public media provided “uncritical” news coverage during Serbia’s April 2022 general elections. Private TV channels with national coverage allocated a vast majority of their news programs to the president and government officials.

One contentious aspect of the new bills revolves around the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM), responsible for media monitoring. The European Parliament has called for the body’s independence, but critics argue that the bills do not mandate REM to monitor the presence of the president and other officials in the most-watched media during election campaigns and inform the public about it.

Furthermore, last year, the REM awarded all four national frequencies for an eight-year period to the same television channels as in the previous period, despite prior warnings for violations of their legal obligations. Since the bills do not compel REM to address viewer complaints, concerns persist about a lack of oversight regarding professional standards and the potential spread of biased content.

The situation has had a noticeable impact on Serbia’s press freedom ranking, with Reporters Without Borders placing the country 91st in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, a significant drop from its 79th position in the previous year. As these concerns continue to mount, the future of media freedom in Serbia remains uncertain.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.