Serbia must revise the media reforms to respond to disinformation challenges in line with EU calls
The Serbian parliament recently passed two media laws but, in the European Union’s view, progress in this area is still limited. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the Serbian government to adopt the European Commission’s recommendations in order to improve media regulation and combat Russian disinformation more effectively.
In its annual report on EU enlargement, to which RSF contributed and which was published on 8 November, the European Commission considers that Serbia has made only “limited progress” with regard to media freedom. This is because of frequent and virulent verbal attacks by the authorities against journalists, the lack of independence of the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (REM), the lack of transparency about media ownership, and the dissemination of Russian disinformation by many media outlets.
The formation of a new government in Serbia in October 2022 raised new hopes. A year later, a law on public information and media and a law on electronic media were passed by Serbia’s parliament, which is dominated by the ruling conservative party. These new legislations, for which the media sector was consulted, codify the role of the Press Council and make the public co-funding process more transparent and accessible.
But the new laws have received fierce criticism, especially because they provide for the possibility of the State to buy up media outlets via Telekom Srbija, the Serbian state-owned telecommunications operator, and they have made no meaningful change to the work or composition of the REM.
“We welcome the adoption of these two media laws in Serbia, which contain real solutions for improving press freedom. However, these reforms are not up to the challenges. The possibility of a return to state ownership of the media and the lack of a real overhaul of the REM are prompting concerns about renewed pressure from the Serbian authorities and a prominent place for Russian propaganda. As a candidate for accession to the European Union, Serbia must be more ambitious in its reforms. We call on the government to review these laws in light of the recommendations in the European Commission’s report.
RSF calls on the Serbian government to follow the European Commission’s recommendations to:
- Take measures to combat the dissemination of Russian disinformation
To combat the dissemination of Russian propaganda, the European Commission urges Serbia to “take urgent action to counter anti-EU narratives propagated by numerous media outlets, and to counter foreign information manipulation and interference, most notably in the context of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.”
- Ensure the independence of the media regulatory authority
The European Commission pointed out the REM’s role in the spread of disinformation, saying it “fails to demonstrate its independence in a consistent manner and to exercise its mandate to the full safeguarding media pluralism and professional standards.” Last June, RSF called for an end to toxic regulation of the media in Serbia and for the REM’s overhaul in order to make it more efficient, impartial and transparent.
- Protect journalists against all forms of violence and intimidation
As RSF already reported, the European Commission is concerned about “threats, intimidation, hate speech and violence against journalists” and “the increase of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), notably launched by members of national and local authorities, that may produce a chilling effect including self-censorship." To address this, the Commission recommends “ensuring that high-level officials refrain from labelling or making verbal attacks on journalists and any threats and cases of physical and verbal violence are swiftly followed up and, as appropriate, publicly condemned, investigated or prosecuted."
It should be noted that certain amendments to the two laws, including the one on state ownership of the media, were proposed at the last minute by the government, after consultations, and were adopted late at night. The by-laws (“zakonska podakta” in Serbian) have to be issued. So, the government could still improve, or on the contrary, toughen some of the laws.
Serbia is ranked 91st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.