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Neither here nor there

The long-awaited Draft Strategy for Development of the Media System (which would be a better title instead of the Public Informing System) would have been perfect had it been adopted in 2001. Ten years later, it does not necessarily reflect the current social context. It offers no new solutions in comparison with the principles that have constituted the basis for the regulation of the media sector, and which have led to numerous problems. All the fundamental principles specified by the Draft Strategy are acceptable – freedom of the media; pluralism and diversity; successful privatization; non-discriminatory competition in the market; transparency of ownership; prevention of excessive ownership concentration; special function of public service broadcasters; project-oriented financing etc. However, the elaboration of these principles failed to take into account the most significant problems of the latest phase of media development, high-priority goals in the next five years, as well as specific solutions that would turn these principles into practice in a completely new technological environment characterized by digitalization.

The section entitled 'The Public Interest In the Media System' should have identified the acute problems in the media sector, apart from the basic principles. If the Government would accept that the problems that have been most prominently mentioned during the public debate are precisely the ones that prevent the realization of the public interest, that would offer a possibility to attempt to solve them, in accordance with guidelines specified in the Strategy. Identification of these problems – incoherent and obsolete legal regulations; excessive number of media outlets in a poor market that prevents their financial sustainability; incomplete privatization; continued existence of illegal broadcasters; non-transparent media ownership; existence of oligopolies in the advertising market; sliding toward monopolization in the press market; inadequate functioning of the Republic Broadcasting Agency (RRA); struggle for survival of many local media outlets; frequent violations of the freedom of the media; general commercialization and tabloidization; inadequacy of the content offered by public service broadcasters; the lack of pluralism and diversity of media content; disregard for the needs of children and youth; difficult economic position of journalists; low respect for journalism; poor educational level of journalists – would have made the Strategy more credible and faced the decision-makers with the consequences of the several decades of neglect for principled reforms in the media system, creating a pressure to take immediate steps. Description of general principles without any mention of high-priority problems cannot offer an accurate basis for definition of a successful media policy in each year of the specified period, which is supposedly the main goal of the Strategy.

A major shortcoming of the Strategy is its complete failure to take into account the economic background of the media situation that would serve as a rational basis for selection of high-priority goals and individual solutions. The text of the Strategy does not offer any reference to economic imbalances of media functioning, nor the expected effects of digitalization and whether they would aggravate or improve the financial position of the media, both short-term and long-term. For example, immediate closure of illegal broadcasters is not mentioned, although such a step would improve the position of certain local media outlets and create a basis for confidence in the reform-oriented policy of the government.

Insistence on the withdrawal of the state from the media ownership is certainly welcome. But the provision that stipulates that such a step should be taken "without delay, and not later than 18 months after the adoption of the Strategy" is ridiculous. This solution has already been adopted as a part of the Law on Public Informing in 2003 and the state has failed to implement ever since. The 18-month delay probably considers that the state will be unwilling to disturb the status quo before the next parliamentary elections. This is nothing more than a compromise with the government. This compromise accepts the right of the ruling political parties to continue violating the law in a way that benefits their own political interest. It gives the government an alibi for the previous disregard for the law, and offers an excuse to any future government for further delay in implementation of the law. The arguments for an immediate withdrawal of the state from ownership over Politika and Vecernje Novosti – which has absolutely no legal justification – should have been based on European standards and the Government's strategic goal of becoming a candidate for membership in the European Union. Withdrawal of the Government from these media outlets would prove its commitment to European values and, in the case of Novosti, its commitment to fight against organized crime – which in this case has been exposed by the latest report issued by the Anti-Corruption Council.

The section dedicated to the print media lacks a commitment to stimulate certain types of media outlets that have a special significance for strengthening of democracy and pluralism, which are mentioned in the Strategy. High-quality daily and weekly press – especially the local press, socially relevant news agencies, and terribly neglected children's and youth press (or web portals) – should have been viewed separately from tabloids and fashion magazines. It would have been perfectly legitimate to propose – in the public interest – a reduction in tax that is applied to such media outlets, since it is very difficult for them to survive in the market, despite their social significance. In the next period, such incentives could be allowed to some other types of print media. Instead of this, another non-obligatory and compromising provision has been offered: a "possibility will be considered" to "significantly" reduce the sales tax for all print media outlets. Such incentives should have been offered to civil sector media outlets as well; these outlets are a neglected part of the media scene and have not been mentioned in the Strategy, except in the context of media outlets in minority languages.

The public service broadcaster has been given appropriate attention. Insistence on introduction of content in minority languages (outside of Vojvodina) in the programme of Radio-Television Serbia should be praised. However, other specific programme obligations of the public service broadcaster have been defined as non-obligatory recommendations ("the number of re-runs should be reduced"; "higher accountability of managing and editorial boards is needed"), without any mention of the need to introduce clear indicators for appraisal of their achievement. A general obligation to "improve programme content" has been additionally relativized by the mentioning "existing limitations", although the total amount of the educational, cultural, artistic, and children's programme – which is the type of programme that should differentiate the public service broadcaster from commercial broadcasters – is almost equal to its advertising and commercial programme. Improvement of productivity of public service broadcaster employees has not been mentioned anywhere. The same can be said for the strategic goal of better profiling of the Channels 1 and 2 of the Radio-Television Serbia, and for the issue of marginalization of what is left of the programme production of the Channel 2 due to forthcoming airing of parliamentary sessions. If public service broadcasters are offered the possibility of requesting more channels, the Strategy should have at least defined the priority forms of such programme content, without leaving it up to the management to decide.

Should there be any regional public service broadcasters? It is a shame that authors of the Strategy have not offered a better explanation for abandonment of this idea. If such an option is claimed to be unrealistic at this moment, perhaps a possibility should have been given to develop such broadcasters after 2016, while at the same time offering a temporary solution.

Jovanka Matic

About the authors

MC Newsletter, June 17, 2011

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