Political influence and concentration distorts the Serbian media market. The resulting lack of plurality can be detected in Television and Radio, but also in the printed press.
This is one of the results of the three-month-long investigative research that Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have jointly carried out. The results of the “Media Ownership Monitor Serbia” are presented in Belgrade today. They shed light on the Serbian media market disclosing who owns and ultimately controls Serbian mass media.
The results of the project are accessible in Serbian and English on serbia.mom-rsf.org. The site offers comprehensive information about the media landscape in the country as well as a database of major outlets, companies and their owners to the general public.
“MOM allowed us to uncover the weaknesses of this sector which in Serbia is economically starved and therefore vulnerable to political influence.” – stated Nafisa Hasanova, RSF-Project Manager of MOM in Serbia. Tanja Maksic, Programme Coordinator at BIRN thinks that “our research showed a major discrepancy between the national and local outlets. Where national outlets get all the attention and profits, the local media – more than one thousand outlets – remain under-regulated, underfinanced and prone to illicit practices, non-transparent ownerships and dealings in general.”
HIGH MEDIA AUDIENCE CONCENTRATION
The survey has also revealed that the media market in Serbia is highly concentrated. The top four owners in Serbia’s Television market, one of them being the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS / RTS), reach an audience of almost two thirds of the viewers (62%). An equally high concentration can be observed in print, where the top four owners (Ringier Axel Springer Media AG, Adria Media Group, Insajder Tim and Kompanija Novosti) have a combined readership of 63 percent. In Radio, still more than half of the audience (51%) is attributed to the four market leaders – S Media Team, Maxim Media Group, Public Broadcasting Service and Antenna Group. This poses a high risk to media pluralism in the country.
The research also revealed a high level of cross-media concentration of the audio-visual, print and online sectors. With high audience shares across TV, Radio and online, the state-owned Public Service Broadcaster takes the lead. It is followed by Pink, Antenna Group, S Media Team and Maxim Media being the strongest private, commercial players in the broadcasting sector. However, in Serbia cross-media ownership remains separate between audio-visual and print sector. There is no single company active in all four media sectors. Major owners of TV outlets tend to have radio outlets as well, whereas publishers of print outlets tend to have online editions of their outlets. In print and online, Ringier Axel Springer Media, Adria Media and Insajder Tim (publisher of Informer daily and online) dominate the audience shares.
STRONG INFLUENCE OF THE STATE
The Serbian market is small and over-saturated with the outlets working under harsh economic pressure. There are more than 1600 outlets registered in the Serbian Business Registry Agency (SBRA), although due to a poorly regulated media system, the exact number of registered active media outlets remains unknown. The two public broadcasters – RTS with national coverage and RTV with regional – receive most of their revenues from the state budget. Besides that, they are competing with other media outlets for shares on a shrinking advertising market, which according to Nielsen was worth round 174 million Euro in 2016. This cannot sustain the economic survival of all currently active outlets.
Due to the permanent lack of capital, the state still has a significant role and impact on the media market. It controls media through ownership, but dominantly through different models of state funding. Public funds are distributed arbitrarily and in a nontransparent manner, usually in favor of pro-government media outlets, without clear and measurable criteria, public controls and evaluations.
For years the state through its Ministries and public enterprises has also been the biggest advertiser in the country. Besides, it exerts pressure on the media market through selective enforcement of tax laws: While the bank accounts of a newspaper critical of the government may be blocked due to “unpaid income taxes”, another outlet may stay untouched although owing millions of euros in unpaid taxes. The total amount of state aid on the market and state advertising budgets is unknown to the public, but only 20 percent of state funding to media outlets is awarded through competitive processes.
The dependency on state funding makes most media rather propagandists of the ruling party than objective and impartial providers of information for citizens. This became visible during the presidential elections in April 2017, when Aleksandar Vucic – both prime minister and presidential candidate at the time – had ten times more airtime on national broadcasters than all other candidates combined. Critical reporting on government politics is found mostly in online media and investigative centers such as the Center for Investigative Journalism Serbia (CINS), the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), BIRN and the news sites of Istinomer, Insajder, Cenzolovka, Juzne vesti and Voice.
NO FULL OWNERSHIP TRANSPARENCY AFTER MEDIA PRIVATIZATION
In a process of media privatization, that began in 2015, the state was supposed to give in an ownership of 75 media outlets. Until today, less than half of them have been privatized, although the privatization process is formally finished. Only 34 former state-owned media were actually sold, while many others were closed leaving more than 1000 journalists without a job. Media privatization has given rise to local media ownership concentration with businessmen buying several media outlets at a time in some regions as was the case with businessman Radoica Milosavljevic and the Kopernikus Cable Network, both close to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).
In the sample of 48 media, investigated by BIRN and Reporters Without Borders, seven had intransparent ownership structures. Particularly, the two leading papers – Vecernje Novosti and Politika – have unresolved, opaque ownership structures and are effectively state-run. For the majority of the outlets and related companies, ownership data was at least publicly available at the Serbian Business Register’s Agency (SBRA) and other public registers. Much of the transparency scoring goes to public broadcaster PBS (RTS), legally obliged to publish details about its ownership proactively and comprehensively. Still, record keeping and data available in public domain could further improve, especially, through the Register run by SBRA, where current available data is incomplete and outdated.
LOCAL CONCENTRATION BELOW THE RADAR
The work done by the print, electronic and online outlets is regulated by well-formulated laws specific to the sector with an exception of online outlets. Yet the enforcement of these regulations remains problematic. The threshold for media concentration is set rather high, alarming only at a level of 35 percent of audience shares. Numerous concentrations of local outlets, influencing media pluralism and fair market competition, thus remain under the radar and out of the public eye. Local and regional media hardly reach one percent of the audience share and several of them, when combined under one ownership structure, do not fall under concentration in legal terms, but are de facto changing the local information landscape.
This post is also available in: Italiano