Flash Report: Serbia

Flash Report: Serbia
Will Serbian national public broadcaster be pushed back to direct government financial control or will it gain a new chance to aspire for a model “established by the public, funded by the public, and
A Step Away from Captivity
The future of Serbian national public broadcaster is at new crossroads: will it be pushed back to direct government financial control or will it gain a new chance to aspire for a model “established by the public, funded by the public, and controlled by the public«? A decision is to be taken by the government this summer. The government is forced to choose between two rather antagonistic options: to strengthen the present mandatory nature of subscription fee or to replace it with direct budget financing. Another source of public broadcasters funding, commercial advertising (half the amount allowed for commercial broadcasters), will remain intact.  The consequences of the decision will be far reaching not only for Serbian public service broadcasting but for a new wave of media reforms that was initiated in 2011, as well.
A push for budget financing of public broadcasting comes from the most inappropriate place - from the public broadcasters. There are two of them in Serbia – the national service Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and the provincial service Radio Television Vojvodina (RTV). Both have been operating with losses for years. RTS ended the year 2012 with 11 million euros (1.261 million RS dinars) in the red. As far back as 2008, independent auditor of RTS business operations, confirming an annual loss of more than 20 million euros (1,941 million dinars), warned that the ability of RTS to carry on its business was suspicious. 
RTS general manager Aleksandar Tijanic (serving in this position from 2004) has been sending SOS messages for saving the sinking public broadcasting service for very long. His appeals are directed at the state. In fact, he keeps blaming the state for RTS’ financial instability. During the last year he intensified the frequency and dramatic nature of his pleas to the government: the public service is going to disappear if the government does not step in. In December 2012, he made a prophecy that RTS will not face middle February next year if the government did not start providing 3 million euros a month. In February 2013, the government gave RTS a free loan of 1,8 million euros. RTS did not disappear. The latest appeal for help came in July 2013, this time from the RTS Management Board, with the same message that the survival of the public service broadcasting is at stake. 
All outcries from RTS claim that financial problems of RTS are caused by a drop in collection of subscription fee. This drop, in turn, is caused by the economic crisis and a drop in citizens’ incomes. As the crisis is going to last, the argument goes, the government must find a new way of funding RTS.
The subscription collection rate indeed dropped in the last years, from about 70% in 2006 to about 30% in 2012. This is again according to RTS data. The main problem with RTS financing is that it is completely secretive. Almost nothing is transparent in the way RTS gets revenues, even less about the way they are spend. RTS general manager Tijanic preferred to pay a penalty fee than to obey 8 binding orders issued in the period 2008-2010 by the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance to deliver the data on RTS financial operations. 
Until 2012, the most recent publicly available documents on RTS’ financial situation dated from 2008. The Republic Broadcasting Agency forced RTS to display on its website the financial documents on the missing years. However, these documents do not show how much RTS earns from subscription fees, from advertising and from other sources, how much it spends on producing own programming and on buying imported programming, how much it pays  “RTS stars”, etc. Rumours about misuse of funds in RTS are numerous. Some of the examples of fund abuse were indicated in the 2011 report by the Anti-Corruption Council, but could not be proved because of the lack of official data. 
The current media legislation does not allow for an insight into neither financial nor program-related decision of public broadcasters. No institution tackles regular assessment of the public service broadcasters’ business operations. The regulatory body for broadcasting monitors only the participation of programs in Serbian language in the total broadcast program, portions of own production and external independent production, distribution of programming genres in the annual output, aggregate participation of the programs intended for specific social, coverage of election campaigns and compliance with the Advertising Law. Management boards, the institution in charge of managing both the financial and programming activities of public broadcasters, serve only to approve the operational decisions taken by the general manager and his team. The way they do their job is nicely illustrated in the official report on the meeting of the Management Board of RTS (1 July 2011). The agenda of the meeting included the topic “General Manager’s report on RTS performance in the previous period”. The report consisted of one sentence: “RTS manager Aleksandar Tijanic said that everything was alright at RTS.” 
One of the problems of RTS that the management occasionally mentions is over employment. According to officials, out of 3.250 employees, about a thousand are a surplus. They cannot be laid off, because there is no money for their compensations. RTS keeps them although their work contribution is very low, because, allegedly, it is cheaper to pay their salaries. 
Still, everyone has bought the RTS storyline that RTS losses are equal to a drop in revenues coming from subscription fees. Why there were no efficient efforts to increase the subscription collection rate - since it is mandatory - is another story. The question nobody raises is who is responsible that Serbian citizens fail to see the public service broadcaster as the instrument of safe-guarding their interests in public communication and have no will to pay 5 euros a month (500 RS dinars) to sustain it. It is worth 3 packs of cigarettes.
RTS management surely does not want to discuss this question. It does not see the failure to ensure at least 50% of subscription fee collection as its own failure, nor does in any way associate it with the quality of the program offer. It does not see the need to explain why children program took only 3,8% of the 2012 programming of the most watched First channel, education program took 2,0% and culture and arts 0,69%. This is when taking into account only the duration of 207 days of programming. The rest of time equalling to duration of 158 days was taken by replays, live sport broadcasting and advertisements. 
The new Serbian government, established in 2012, embraced warmly the RTS’ appeal for financial help. It suggests direct budget financing as the best solution, temporary though – for the next two years. It wants to abolish the subscription fee and, thus increase the family budgets by 5 euros. 
Budget financing of public broadcasting is a perfect opportunity for the authorities to put it under political control and simultaneously carry out the election promise not to interfere with freedom of media. 
The previous government also accepted the responsibility for securing a stable financing of public service broadcasting. It promised large media reforms in 2011 (in a document known as “Media Strategy”), especially in regard to budget financing of media. State ownership in media should be abolished, and all state financial interventions in the media market regulated as controlled, transparent and neutral state aid. In regard to public broadcasting, media reforms include better subscription fee collection as the main form of funding and balancing of income from the subscription fee and commercial revenues. Budget injections were proposed as subsidiary possibility, but only under strict state aid control rules which forbid putting the public money into commercial purposes. 
Except for formulating the direction of media reforms and its desired aims, the old government, however, did nothing to actually start them. It postponed the implementation of the Media Strategy for after the 2012 elections, which it had lost. 
For a year after taking power, the new government has also not made any changes in the media sector. It did something though on preparing a new legal framework for media functioning. Part of this effort is the new regulation of public service broadcasting and the way of public service broadcasting funding. If the government decides to abolish the subscription fee and replace it by budget financing – even for a temporary period, this could be a sign that its repeatedly expressed commitment to implement the Media Strategy is not credible. Further postponement of media reforms could have disastrous effects for the Serbian media.     
In December 2010, one third (33,2%) of duration of all sound bites in the RTS ten central news program belonged to government officials. The next most prominent group of news actors was heard and seen in 10,3% of sound bites. In January 2013, government officials were again given a privileged position – they were pictured in 30,5% of duration of all sound bites in seven analyzed news bulletins. If the discourse of RTS news was in fact the discourse of the government at the time when 40-30% citizens provided funds for news production, what would it look like if the funds came from the government only? 
Media Integrity
Media Policy and Reforms
Public Service Media