Is Media in the Balkans Really Free?

Poor management and few financing options mean that most outlets are in thrall to political powers.

Beatrice Tridimas

For several months, the homepage of independent Serbian news site Južne Vesti has featured a picture of its editor-in-chief Gordana Bjeletić next to opposition politician Dragan Đilas.

The accompanying headline accuses Bjeletić of being offered 595,000 US dollars by Đilas to bring down the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) government.

But the site is not the real Niš-based Južne Vesti. It is a hoax with the same name and shade of burnt red for its banner, devised to discredit the site and its editor-in-chief.

“It's a really confusing, scary situation because you're aware that there is nothing that you can do,” Bjeletić said, adding that a Južne Vesti investigation had revealed that businessman Zran Majdak, an SNS member, was behind the second website. “It's unthinkable that anyone would steal your name because it’s forbidden by the law and you think that laws protect you.” 

The site has been in place for two months and has not yet been removed, despite repeated complaints. 

Experts view incidents like this as a direct attack against Serbia’s independent media in a country whose government is increasingly seeking control over its news outlets. Since 2014, Serbia’s rating on the World Press Freedom Index has declined from 54 to 93.

Media platforms across Bosnia and Serbia face structural weaknesses, with poor business management, a weak market and few financing options meaning a large proportion of media outlets are either directly or indirectly financially dependent on political powers. 

The lack of funding for non-state affiliated channels has led to an absence of independent media in the region.

“Money, at the end of the day, is ruling the world,” said Lejla Bičakčić, founding member and executive director of the Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIN) based in Sarajevo. “One way or another, political centres are controlling the money that is available.”

The majority of media companies in Bosnia rely on public funding or private ownership, often by individuals or companies close to the government. 

“There is plenty of public money but it is distributed through the politically affiliated channels, so you have to be ‘good’ in order to get access to the money,” Bičakčić said. She estimates around 100 million BiH marks (60 million US dollars) of government money is distributed to the media each year. 

In Serbia, the Media Ownership Monitor, a partnership between the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Reporters Without Borders, found that eight out of ten television outlets were owned or controlled by individuals with known political affiliations. 
The same was true of 11 out of 14 radio stations and eight out of 14 print outlets.

Television is the most popular form of media consumption in Serbia. There is one private station, N1, but Bjeletić said that it was not easy to access.  

“The old type TV stations which are covering the whole of Serbia, all five TV stations are doing propaganda,” she said.

The media has become extremely politicised in Bosnia, with outlets choosing what topics they cover and from what angle according to the political affiliation of their financers. CIN, who are funded by international donors, offer free reprinting of their investigative pieces. 

Bičakčić said that many other outlets “were trying to tame the truth” to suit their political financers. 

Denis Džidić, director of BIRN for Bosnia, said that it was less a matter of outright censorship and more of pressure on “how to report on them”.

Independent journalists also struggled to get access to information. 

“[The authorities] don’t implement freedom of access to information laws, they just do not reply to our questions. They simply block information,” Džidić said.

The job market for journalists across the region is poor, with the typical monthly salary for reporters in Serbia in 2018 around 40,521 dinars or 387 US dollars, about two-thirds of the average.

“Journalists are sinking into the self-censorship model, where they would rather get their salary at the end of the month and be ready to disregard standards in order to make their job secure,” Bičakčić said.

Independent media outlets across the region also face indirect intimidation and obstacles to doing their work. 

Ivana Stevanović, the executive director of the Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation (SCF), said that Belgrade had grown shrewd in its attitude towards the media.

“Now, they have these subtle ways of controlling media through access to financial means, through access to advertising, buyers, because everything is controlled by the government and through sending various inspections to independent media.”

Južne Vesti, for instance, has been subject to invasive tax inspections since 2013, one of which lasted six months as authorities sought to find irregularities that did not exist. 

Bjeletić said that these more understated means of control allowed a façade of media freedom, with the independent media to some extent protected from more overt threats like arrests or shutdowns. 

“They wouldn’t allow anything like that to happen to us because that would be obvious that they did it. We are so useful for them.”

She said that Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić is “still internationally accepted as someone good enough to speak about media freedom” despite his repeated criticism of local journalism. He recently dismissed a BIRN report on Covid-19 as “not authentic” as well as accusing investigative outlets of having “made up” stories. 

In December, the Serbian government initiated the Working Group for the Security and Protection of Journalists. The SCF joined, but left three months later.  

“We deeply believe that this group was formed just to demonstrate to the international community that government wants to do something, but we never saw any results,” Stevanović said, noting that the government had failed to respond to their primary demand, which was to stop publicly discrediting independent journalists. 

In fact, from the beginning of 2021 to the end of February, they counted “37 mentions of independent journalists in the parliament in a very negative context”.

The effect is that attacks against the media have been allowed to proliferate, fuelling public distrust.

“They made really bad people out of us… and that’s so scary,” Bjeletić said. “A big part of my job is to fight for my rights as a journalist, but not only my rights. People are afraid to speak, they are afraid to do normal things, so you need to fight for the society, you need to try to make that society better.”

In Bosnia, Džidić feels encouraged by the success of media reports over the past year leading to an investigation of Fadil Novalić, the prime minister of the Federation entity, over the purchase of Covid-19 ventilators from a fruit processing firm. 

But for journalists in Serbia, the way forward is uncertain. 

“As time goes by, the truth is coming out more and more,” Stevanović said. “And as that happens, the government gets more and more nervous.”

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