Serbian media regulator must defend media pluralism and independence, RSF says
Following a much criticised decision by Serbia’s Electronic Media Regulatory Agency (REM) to continue allocating four national TV frequencies to pro-government channels, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the REM to comply with legal requirements and to protect the right to reliable, pluralistic news and information when allocating a new, fifth frequency.
“Serbian media landscape is polluted by propaganda, influence peddling and fake news, a scourge that plagues the entire Balkans as Serbia’s TV channels are also broadcast in neighbouring countries. It is vital for the right to information and media pluralism in Serbia and beyond that the REM applies the law that is in effect and assigns the fifth national frequency to a media that can guarantee editorial independence and journalistic ethics more credibly than the four current licence holders.
The crassness of these influential TV channels and the regulator’s readiness to ignore their excesses have been highlighted yet again in recent days. The new example was the result of a verbal dispute on social media between Pink TV owner Zeljko Mitrovic and Serbian YouTuber star Bogdan Ilic. The dispute came to a head when Mitrovic threatened to produce a TV documentary exposing his critic, and then went ahead with his threat on 8 September, violating journalistic ethics and editorial independence by broadcasting a report on Pink TV accusing the YouTuber of “criminal acts”, “homosexual practices,” paedophilia and spreading STDs.
Aside from defaming Ilic, Pink TV also broke the law by misusing a national frequency to satisfy the personal interests of its owner, the think-tank BIRODI pointed out. This is just the latest example of law-breaking by Serbia’s four national TV channels without any sanction from the regulator, which raises questions about its independence.
Despite flagrant legal breaches denounced by Judita Popovic, the only member of the REM’s Council appointed by the opposition, Pink TV's licence was renewed for the next eight years on 29 July, as were those of the other pro-government channels – Happy, B92 and Prva (the last two of which have the same owner).
The only hope for an independent TV channel on the national airwaves now lies in the ongoing call for tenders for a new fifth frequency - a long-standing project in Serbia. REM will start reviewing tenders on 11 October and must make a decision by 26 November.
REM decision criticised
Explaining its decision to renew the four existing licences, the REM said, “it particularly appreciated the guarantees given by the candidates in their programme development proposals, which will help to protect media pluralism.” The REM said it also took account of their past work and their economic viability.
The REM decision’s many critics include two of the TV channels that were denied a licence, N1 and Nova S, which have filed legal challenges. Inter alia, they accuse the REM of ignoring the obligation to promote media pluralism, pointing out that all of the four TV channels whose licences were renewed take a similar political line in their programming.
Two Serbian NGOs, the Slavko Curuvija Foundation and the CRTA, have referred the decision to Serbia’s administrative court, accusing the REM of violating Article 28 of paragraph 1 (3) of the Compendium of Rules on the Minimum Conditions for the Provision of Media Services. This article says the REM must evaluate compliance with regulations and with journalistic standards and media ethics. This requirement could not have been satisfied because the four TV channels ignored warnings and reprimands issued by the REM during the previous licence periods, the NGOs argue in their complaint.
Popovic, the opposition’s only representative on the REM’s board, criticised the decision in an interview with the Belgrade daily Danas. She said she thought the REM deliberately neglected its obligation to contribute to the development of freedom of thought and expression and that the decision therefore broke the law. But, when contacted by RSF, she said she was not optimistic about the chances of any of the legal challenges being successful. The president of the REM’s board, Olivera Zekic, did not respond to any of RSF's requests for a comment.
Montenegro sanctions Pink TV
Some of the newly re-licenced TV channels broadcast in Serbia are also accessible in neighbouring Montenegro, where the local regulator, the AEM, provided further evidence of their lack of journalistic ethics on 5 September when it banned the Pink TV morning show “Novo jutro” for the next six months. The AEM said that, by broadcasting content inciting hatred, Pink TV had violated the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Transfrontier Television (which has been ratified by both Serbia and Montenegro), in particular, paragraph 1 of Section 7, which says broadcasters are responsible for respecting human dignity and the fundamental rights of others in their programmes.
In a post-election plan for supporting press freedom and the reliability of news and information in Serbia proposed last April, RSF urged the country’s newly elected officials to establish a legislative and regulatory framework that guarantees media independence. Inter alia, this means ensuring that the REM is impartial and effective, allocating national frequencies in a transparent manner, independent of any political influence, and only to media respecting the Code of Ethics for Journalists, and taking account of European standards on professional journalistic procedures, such as the Journalism Trust Initiative launched by RSF.
Serbia is ranked 79th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2022 World Press Freedom Index, while Montenegro is ranked 63rd.