Serbian Government officials announced the adoption of the “Media Strategy of the Government of the Republic of Serbia for the period 2020 – 2025” during their February 2020 meeting with the newly appointed EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, and Members of the European Parliament Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik. The Strategy is seen as the Government’s answer to continuous concerns voiced by the European Commission regarding the lack of progress in the field of media freedom in the country.
The European Commission regularly assesses media freedom as part of the political criteria for Serbia’s EU membership, falling under the negotiating Chapter 23, which deals with the judiciary and fundamental rights. The Commission’s 2019 report, as several times before, stated that Serbia should, among other things, create an environment in which media laws are respected and freedom of expression is unhindered and not endangered by intimidation, threats and violence against journalists. One of the rare instances in which the country was actually praised in the field of media freedom was the adoption of the 2011 Media Strategy. The positive assessment, however, was conditional upon an inclusive and transparent implementation of the document.
Various problems were addressed by the first Media Strategy, adopted in 2011 by the previous government for the period up to 2016. On the basis of that document, the reform process was initiated and a widely-praised set of media laws, harmonised with Brussels, were adopted. However, the initiated reforms stopped halfway due to the lack of political will among key actors in Serbia, which resulted in a further accumulation of problems in the media sphere. An illustrative example of this negative trend is Serbia’s annual placement on the Press Freedom Index of the French non-governmental organisation “Reporters without Borders”: Serbia dropped from a height of 54th place in 2014, when the current media laws were adopted, to 90th position in 2019.
The aforementioned joint visit will be best remembered for Tanja Fajon’s statement on media freedom as a necessary precondition for the upcoming general and local elections in Serbia, topped by the announcement by key opposition parties that they would boycott the votes. Her statement: “Freedom of the media, freedom of the media and freedom of the media!” brought it back to reality, stating that the strategy is an important but legally non-binding document. It defines, in principle, key directions for the future drafting, amendment and practical application of media laws. Bearing in mind that the Action Plan should be drawn up and adopted within three months, it is clear that work on the long-awaited Media Strategy has not yet been completed.
For nearly three years, the text of this eighty-five-page document was distributed in several different versions between the Ministry of Culture and Information, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet and the European Commission. In a general confusion, a draft version of a document sent by the Government was, accidentally or deliberately, sent to Brussels this summer, causing the Prime Minister to subsequently apologise publicly. During the years of drafting, the mandates of the State Secretary and Assistant Ministers involved in the process were prematurely terminated, which, following the departure from the Working Group by representatives of key journalistic and media associations, formally pushed the Ministry of Culture and Information out of the process.
The ministry’s absence, following a meeting between President Vučić and OSCE High Representative on Freedom for Media, Harlem Desir, in April 2018, was offset by the influence of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, which, with the support of the European Union delegation and a number of donors, became the pivotal force in the process of drafting a new Media Strategy text from scratch.
It is certain that none of these actors will be able to influence the expected technical mandate of the Government, which will start when the elections are announced in early March. This means that the adoption and implementation of the Action Plan could coincide with the future Government. In other words, after the election of a new Minister, the Working Group should be formed instead from the Prime Minister’s Cabinet – in the Ministry of Culture and Information, which is logical and envisaged by the Law on Government. Considering the upcoming summer vacations, numerous meetings of the Working Group, and public and parliamentary debates, it is not realistic to expect amendments to the existing laws before 2021. The results of the implementation of the laws could only be visible in several years, which seems a distant future given the current media situation.
This is where we come to the question of the purpose of drafting such documents. An insight into the official version of the Media Strategy, it is indisputable that it outlined the key media problems here, as well as proposals and measures for solving them. This includes, inter alia, removing political dominance and increasing the transparency of state influence in the media market and in project co-financing, distancing the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Media from political influence and improving the economic position and security of journalists. Although indisputable, problems arising from the lack of implementation of the existing media legal framework can hardly be solved at such a slow pace of development and implementation, thus counteracting the upcoming and growing technological and political challenges. How else can we explain the noticeable obsolescence of certain parts of the Media Strategy, which, given the three-year drafting of the text and the additional two to three years required for the preparation of legal changes, formal adoption and concrete application in practice, could not have been anticipated?
Critics would say that, although transparent and inclusive, this method of drafting a strategic document is ideally designed to give authorities the opportunity, over the course of many years of drafting and practical implementation, to make time for devising tectonic media changes. It is already visible in examples such as the repackaging of ownership in the media scene, four years of illegal work by a legally-extinguished news agency, abuses at all levels of government in project co-financing, reluctance of regulators to step in, conflicts among cable-distribution operators, as well as further existential and security threats to journalists. With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the text of the Media Strategy is a bucket list with a very critical analysis of the implementation of the previous strategic document for the period from 2011 to 2016.
It is nice to see that in an official document a Government could admit their mistakes. One would conclude that this is also cathartic because it indicates a distance from the past and a clear shift towards the future and a change in past practice. It will be rather that this self-criticism is the result of speed and superficiality in giving the opinion of various ministries on this document before its adoption at the Government session. Adding to this the deliberate marginalisation of the Ministry of Culture and Information on various grounds, it can be concluded that such criticism was the ideal scenario to calm down the discontent of a frustrated journalistic and media community in the country.
This is another argument in support of the thesis made by Tanja Fajon after her visit to the region, which concluded that she felt that there were “two parallel countries, parallel worlds, institutions and media” in Serbia. With its content and future implementation, the Media Strategy may only confirm these words.
Photo: Government of Republic of Serbia