Can a public broadcaster operate independently from the influence of the executive authorities, if a good part of the broadcaster’s total revenue comes from the state budget?
Experts are divided – some say that the public broadcaster’s independence does not depend on money, others that, in such conditions, there is no chance for objectivity and independence.
Media expert Maja Divac points out that in a country with an authoritarian government and a depleted democratic substance, there is only one rule that should be followed when it comes to financing public media – most of the funding should not come from the state budget.
She says that extending the current model of financing of Radio and Television of Serbia (RTS) – partly from a fee paid by the citizens, partly from the state budget – for another two years, “coincides with the next regular parliamentary elections which are scheduled for 2020”.
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In all likelihood, this was a political decision, as was the case when the TV subscription was cancelled or when an inadequately low fee of 150 dinars was introduced.
For the past three years, public media in Serbia have been financed in accordance with the Law on Temporary Regime for the Collection of Fees, and not according to the Law on Public Media Services, which stipulates that the fee cannot exceed 500 dinars and that this amount is decided by the Steering Board of a public medium.
“Due to the fact that the money collected from the fee is insufficient for the public broadcaster to function properly, it has become dependent on the money from the budget, which makes them vulnerable to possible influences and pressure from those who decide on budget allocations. By abolishing the former fee of 500 dinars, the already insufficient annual revenue of public broadcasters has been reduced dramatically, “Divac estimates.
The state allocates 4 billion dinars to public media from the budget of the Ministry of Culture and Information, of which 3.1 billion dinars goes to Radio and Television of Serbia (RTS), and 900 million dinars to Radio and Television of Vojvodina (RTV).
Sasa Mirkovic, from the Faculty of Media and Communications, points out that 50% of the RTS’ revenue comes from fees. He also recalls that public services have advertising restrictions (ads should run no more than 6 minutes per each hour), while commercial television stations have the right to 12 minutes of ads per hour.
“There is an opinion that it would be best for a public broadcaster to be financed via subscription, such as the BBC, and that this is the only way to ensure independence. Our country is not the only one that finances public broadcasters from the state budget, and in other countries with a similar situation, no-one questions the independence and objectivity of public media. I think that it is not crucial for independence where the money comes from, but that money is secured in line with other regulation. Since 2014, the Law on Public Media Services has been in force in our country. The Law guarantees independence, but not funding,” Mirkovic adds.
In the last five years (excluding 2018 for which no financial reports have been published yet), RTS’ had the biggest budget in 2014 – 16.2 billion dinars. This is also the last year that this public broadcaster received funding via subscription. Later, the subscription was transformed into a fee, which, unlike the subscription, is involuntary, it is considered a parafiscal charge and it is paid as a part of the electricity bill.
In 2016, RTS collected 4.2 billion dinars from the fee, while in 2017, this amount stood at 5 billion dinars. Since January this year, the fee has been increased from 150 to 220 dinars. In 2016 and 2017, RTS made a profit of 1.3 and 1.5 billion dinars respectively. In the opinion of the independent auditor, the fact that at the end of 2017, RTS’ short-term liabilities amounted to 6 billion dinars, which is much higher than the broadcaster’s working assets, indicates uncertainty about RTS’ ability to continue its operations in a current way.
Also, there is the issue of RTS’ efficiency. In 2015, salaries made up 30 per cent of total overhead, and in 2017, this percentage stood at 44. According to the financial report on salaries, 3.7 billion dinars was spent on salaries alone, which means that the state subsidy does not ever cover the cost of salaries.
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