Serbia: RSF urges the authorities to put an end to the toxic regulation of media
Massive anti-government protests hold pro-government channels partly responsible for the climate of violence in the EU-candidate country after two mass shootings. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the authorities to reform the media regulator, to promote journalistic ethics and to combat the proliferation of violence in the media.
In what are the biggest protests since the fall of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, tens of thousands of people gathered in Belgrade on 3 June to request the dissolution of the media regulator and the withdrawal of broadcast licences of pro-government channels. The protests organised by the opposition parties blame the culture of violence in the media for the death of 18 people in two mass shootings. On Saturday, which marked one month of the killings that took place on 3 and 4 May, demonstrators gathered for the fifth time.
In this context of mistrust and contestation, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) has a vital role to play in guaranteeing and promoting a pluralistic and responsible media environment where journalistic ethics is respected.
“The toxic regulation of the media in Serbia must stop now. We urge the government and parliament to adopt a wide-ranging reform of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) in order to make it more efficient, impartial and transparent. In the meantime, the authority has to apply its existing powers and consider sanctions against media which violate the law by inciting hate and calling for violence. REM must use its powers in the public interest, not against it.
Reality shows on Serbian pro-government private media regularly show violence. TV Pink has pledged to stop broadcasting from next week the programme “Zadruga” which featured a criminal convicted of drug crimes and robberies by whom the suspected perpetrator of the May 4 massacre was allegedly inspired. A star of reality shows, the repeat offender was seen on screen insulting and attacking other participants, and even strangling his partner.
But the pro-government channels also have the habit of amplifying political attacks on journalists of the independent media in unsigned TV spots. A few days after being targeted by the government and appearing in one such campaign on TV Pink last April, the journalist of the channel Nova S, Marko Stepanovic was physically threatened by another car while driving on a highway.
As early as after last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, RSF asked the newly elected officials to make sure that national broadcast licences are allocated in a transparent manner free of political influence and only to the media that respect the Journalists’ Code of Ethics. In the recommendations drafted with Serbian experts and published in April 2022, the organisation also proposed specific measures to guarantee REM’s effectiveness, impartiality and transparency. RSF recommended depoliticising the selection of REM’s council members, which has even been discussed by the government with media experts and journalists’ associations as part of a new media legislation. In fact, the Serbian government committed to the reform in its own media strategy and a related action plan.
But the lack of their implementation was denounced in the reports, for which RSF was consulted, of both the European Commission and the European Parliament overseeing Serbia’s integration to the European Union. Instead of respecting its international commitments and discussing the reform in the parliament, Serbia has been doing the exact opposite. In July 2022, the regulatory authority renewed the national broadcasting licences of four pro-government channels including TV Pink despite their flagrant breaches of law. RSF requested the fifth national frequency to be attributed to a media that can more credibly guarantee editorial independence and journalistic ethics than the four current licence holders. While the process was stalled, REM approved in May 2023 the request for broadcasting of Informer TV launched by the tabloid newspaper of the same name, which peddles government propaganda.
And instead of promoting media pluralism and independence, the authorities put the independent media constantly under pressure. Vice-president of the parliamentary Committee for Culture and member of the ruling party SNS, Nebojsa Bakarec, baselessly accused the independent channels N1 and Nova S – which don’t have national broadcasting licences – of “creating a sick atmosphere in the society, conducive for tragic events such as mass shooting”. The political attacks preceded the breach of N1’s premises by 30 individuals, while the police failed to act. On 2 June, a group tried to disrupt again the work of the journalists of the independent channel.
After having lost 12 positions, Serbia is ranked 91st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index.