Snjezana Milivojevic: The 2011 Report of the Anti-Corruption Council on the media reads like a mistery novel leading to the key institutions of government. We see the same clues and the same pattern in the 2015 report. There are systemic links between media, tycoons and political elite. One may say that this is all a déjà vu, that all such patterns are already known. I think things are much worse now because processes have metastasized.
European Commission issued their report, Amnesty International also spoke out and a report of Reporters without borders was published early this year. They registered a setback of Serbia by 13 places. Now, Serbia is among three or four countries which have regressed the most in the last three years. What is particularly disturbing is that this dramatic decline was registered in the year when our government boasts with the new media law. So, while the government is emphasizing the new media law as a big step forward, the huge setback is registered in the same year.
All warnings from international political organizations, professional associations, organizations dealing with freedom of expression, not to mention the conflict with Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE representative for the media, point to the fact that the regression is evident.
Miroslava Milenovic: We developed this report based exclusively on data obtained from state authorities. Commissioner for Information, Mr. Sabic, helped us in the cases when they did not want to give us information. It is a paradox that the Anti-Corruption Council, which is a governmental advisory body, must address the Commissioner to get certain information. We have no other mechanism. Only in the first 4 months of this year, the Council required the Commissioner’s intervention 25 times.
So, everything written in this report is based on documentation that was collected from the state authorities. We followed the flow of money. This means traces of the flow of money and traces of property of political and economic elites in the media. And, now, this opens up all kinds of questions – why are there individuals which act as media owners, while we all know that they are not. And then you have a paradoxical situation when the regulatory agency says “yes, but we cando nothing if two people on some private yacht agree to share ownership”. In the report, we say that we all know that they shared ownership, all employees know it, but a regulatory agency is acting blind.
We have observed, for the period 2011-2014, manipulation with the spending of budget funds, the allocation of resources to political allies or favorites. This manipulation is not a product of the government, but this government embraced it with great pleasure.
Snjezana Milivojevic: I think that Serbia’s system exhibits many characteristics of what is now called the “new authoritarianism”. It is a system where power holders present themselves as democrats, they try to build a democratic image, while doing everything to oppress, destroy and prevent any criticism. So, wherever we turn in Serbia today, this becomes evident, from the attack on the Ombudsman, the decimation of the people in the media, silencing intellectual criticism and so on.
This new type of authoritarianism is developing in conditions which some refer to as non-liberal democracy, i.e. the one that has the characteristics of a democratic order, but none of the liberal content, where there are free elections, and even attempts to build institutions, whose work is then, in many ways, hindered. But that authoritarianism is developing in the world of open borders, functioning global media and knowledge-based economy which increase the importance of information. This kind of new environment brings new censorship, very creative and innovative ways to control and prevent the exchange of ideas and information.
In this sense, I consider censorship and self-censorship to be parts of the same package. I think that self-censorship is, in fact, the best indicator of censorship. It is a new censorship where the media products are not banned, the texts are not censored, where the people are not prevented to do their jobs directly. It is a whole system of bribery of the media, which is involving the media in the circle of institutions that have relatively easy access to a variety of social resources, from doctoral diplomas to access to funds, turning a blind eye to tax incentives, grant accessibility, accesss to desirable contracts.
Miroslava Milenovic: In this report we dealt with the issue of the tax debt. Simply, you do not have the same criteria for all taxpayers, and that means that one tax debtor will have his accounts blocked for a very small tax debt, while some other tax debtor’s large debt will be tolerated; he could owe millions. In the case of the largest private television Pink, we noticed that they failed to comply with the rescheduling of the debt they signed off to. Now, according to the law, if you don’t pay one instalment of the debt, you have to pay the entire amount immediately. Tax Administration informed us that Pink got another rescheduling, which was signed off by the current Minister of Finance. And when we started to ask new questions, ‘so how many taxpayers got something like that, according to which criteria and how?’, they referred to the article of the law which gives discretionary rights to the Minister of Finance. It is a totally corrupt law. I don’t even want to mention the grace period, ridiculous interest rates – all of this is a direct incentive for a private television station.
And, here, we come to a new big problem. We keep saying that the state should get out of the media, that privatization of the media is incredibly important, that the state should no longer be the owner of the media. And in this particular case incentives were given directly to a private owner. When we compare that with the time the ruling party gets in that television’s program, we see that the focus of the government is not on the public service, but on certain private broadcasters and private print and radio media.
We wrote about the printing company Borba, which is a huge tax debtor. We stated the Director’s letter to Tax Administration Director which says, ‘You’re right, we owe that much, we didn’t comply with the rescheduling… and, once again, I’d like to stress that we didn’t pay following the recommendation of the Prime Minister”. I think that this is terrible.
Let’s look at, for example, privatization of Politika. Even today, we don’t know who the owner is and I have to say that, with all the documents we had gathered, we failed to find proof that Mr. Bogicevic is the owner of Politika. The traces lead to Russia, to some strange address, to P.O. Box, to no one. When the traces lead to no one, we call that phantom-firm. And now the question is: how could the prime minister say that he no longer cares who the owner is?
If we have to privatize all the media by July 1st, what are the chances that we would get a credible new owner who will sit down to negotiate with someone who is unknown. It’s almost unbelievable. It’s even more amazing that certain payments are taking place. Money leaves traces. It is impossible not to know who paid or on whose behalf.
Svetlana Lukic: Dozens of media have to be privatized by July, about 80. And those aren’t small media, but Politika, Tanjug, Vecernje Novosti, Dnevnik, many local media…
Snjezana Milivojevic: The government assures us that the privatization of over 80 state-owned media will be finished in the remaining two months. They will sell them, even if they don’t know what they’re selling. I really think that the only aim of this privatization is to close all the media, except for a couple of big ones, Politika, Dnevnik, Novosti… None of them will survive, except for a few big ones. And I think that, even though it’s called ownership transformation, it has no transformative effect, but its only effect will be closing of the media.
The state is trying to get rid of the media, they’re too expensive. You know, there will be a lot of layoffs, there will be many problems with these media. Why would the state want to get involved in it, when its loyal friends could become owners? On the other hand, with relatively little money which will be distributed through projects, or through the systems of co-financing, the government will be able to control all these newly privatized and commercial media.
Therefore, this report says: media ownership is not the key point for media control. The fact that the state will cease to be the owner will not cause the media to be better and freer. The state has countless instruments to continue to control the entire media scene through a system of financing which is non-transparent, developed to promote corrupt links with the media and very well coordinated. This means that the vast support of the European Union, all tremendous efforts implemented in order to enact the laws by media standards which would cancel the state ownership, will not contribute to higher quality and better media scene.
Miroslava Milenovic: Media privatization will not differ from the privatization of the whole industry in Serbia. It was deeply marauding, its goal wasn’t to provide new jobs or resume production. It was all for taking some office space, some land, to demolish something and build some apartments. There are serious indications at the local level that this would, in fact, just be handling the local media to aunts, uncles and family members. See, if you’re the favorite of the authorities at this moment, and if they secure the operational funding for you, it’s not a problem to get a loan from a friendly bank and buy that media company.
Snjezana Milivojevic: This Council’s report is a book of irresponsibility. We see a number of key state institutions that are in many ways responsible for the media, saying that they do not know what is going on, that they have no way of knowing, and that they do not know who knows. Property issues are only one set of problems. However, particularly important aspect of the report is that it indicates the repertoire of measures through which the state can influence the editorial policy of the media it doesn’t own. This will become even more important in the future.
The entire system, from direct funding from the state budget, state advertising in various media through advertising agencies which are close to the state, to purchase of media services and systems of co-financing of the media, or the content of the public interest – those are the mechanisms through which the state will be able to control the media in the future, unless clear instruments are set up.
Miroslava Milenovic: One of the examples of the sources of the money for the media: whether it’s coming from the Ministry of Information, or from other accountsis the example of the media in Kosovo and Metohija. We use this to demonstrate how alarming this is; in 4 years, from 2010 to 2014, only two legal entities, the network Most and public company Panorama, received 6 million euro from the Office for Kosovo and Metohia, while in the same period, all other media in Kosovo received 30 times less – around 200 thousand euros.
And now, the fact that 6 million euros was given to two media from Kosovo and Metohia, which employ negligible number of people and produce almost no program, shows that this money was distributed politically and that there is no control over the spending.
What particularly tickles the imagination of people are the media owned by politicians. Minister of defense commented on the facts stated in this report and said that he has been the owner of television for more than 20 years, and that he came into politics in 2008. There was no dispute about it; the fact that he owns a television station in Krusevac wasn’t news for us. We only showed how well that television is doing and pointed out that the minister now has three television stations, since his party came into power in Krusevac in the republic. Then we showed that that television’s account is blocked for 2.8 million dinars, that the founding company of that television has its account blocked for 41 million dinars, that the blockade has been on more than a thousand days – this is three years we’re talking about, not two days – and still everything is functioning great, meaning that there is a program, employees. It’s all completely wrong.
Regarding RTS, we found that its annual revenue from marketing is an amazing 10-15 million euro. Notice this difference, 5 million euro! This has been a golden hen of all governments. And it’s no secret that all that money is going through marketing agencies, but the secret is that it’s going only through a couple of marketing agencies. For example, a very powerful marketing agency owned by Goran Veselinovic – where the prime minister himself used to be employed – which is doing very well, but he can say with clear conscience that he doesn’t have a contract with RTS during SNS government. And it’s true. We found that he’s been using Srdjan Saper’s agency to conduct this business. So, the situation is that only a couple of marketing agencies are doing business with RTS, while, in fact, they work for a pull of other marketing agencies, and those agencies have their own pulls, and so on – and, so, you can’t determine the price of the TV second.
Snjezana Milivojevic: Any state, particularly a serious one, would be shocked at this report. This is a collection of incredibly depressing data reflecting the fact that we, the public, have lost a very important institution. This repression is selective, but control is all-encompasing, because the journalists and media exposed to repression serve as examples which define silence as the standard.
I don’t like to speak about fierce confrontation between the government and the public, but the new aspect of this new censorship is the fact that its goal is no longer to fabricate the public opinion in accordance with conventional ideological expectations. Its main function is to glorify the leader and to enable him to remain in power for as long as possible.
We are truly living in the times when institutions and hard won freedoms are hijacked and their content altered. Although a lot of people here have lost the democratic will to persistently and constantly fight the same battles, the media are the best ally for this kind of battle. Any government with autocratic, repressive capacity is very sensitive to this. So, this is the first thing which has to be eliminated.
And institutions are becoming completely closed. In the parliament, the opposition is unable to articulate its opinions in any way, except for protest. This is already being transferred to the streets. Regardless of the fabricated or the real public support. Significant part of the public probably supports this government, but exactly at the moments of this great support should the government remember why criticism is so important – because we who don’t support it are also members of this society and we preform important public duties.
Translated by Marijana Simic