Media discounts to political parties raise concern

Media discounts to political parties raise concern
Contribution at the Regional conference on anti-corruption in the media systems in the countries of SEE ”Media integrity matters,” Ljubljana, 1 December 2014
Anti-Corruption Agency of Republic of Serbia analysed corruption risks in draft media laws and most of its recommendations have been accepted.
Tatjana Babić is the Director of the Anti-Corruption Agency of Republic of Serbia.
In my presentation I will highlight some of the experiences and challenges the Serbian Anti-Corruption Agency is facing in its relations with the media or in addressing the risks of corruption in the media system in Serbia. The Agency was established by the Law on the Agency that was adopted in 2008 and came fully into effect on 1 January 2010 It is an autonomous and independent state body with numerous authorities – it resolves conflicts of interests, issues directives and gives opinions on the implementation of the Law, keeps a register of officials and a register of their assets and income, monitors property status of officials, initiates proceedings and takes measures in the case of the violation of the Law, issues guidelines, monitors the adoption and implementation of integrity plans and drafts and publishes integrity assessments related to the public and private sector, acting on whistle-blowers' complaints. In addition, the Agency performs tasks in accordance with the law governing the financing of political activities, acts on complaints, supervises the implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy, launches initiatives for amending and enacting regulations in the field of combating corruption, organises coordination of the state bodies' operation aimed at combating corruption, introduces and implements education programs in this field, organises research on corruption, etc. The general public is mostly interested in conflict of interests, property status of officials and the financing of political activities.
When it comes to corruption, one very general but indisputable comment is that the Serbian media are swamped with sensationalism while lacking investigative journalism. Arrests are the most important topic and the presumption of innocence is rarely respected. Issues involving prevention of corruption are often considered boring for the general public. 
High expectations of the public
The above-said also holds true when it comes to media reports on the Agency’s activities. The expectations of citizens are high and the “bombastic” name of the Agency easily misleads citizens as regards its real mandate. Accordingly, we have to constantly repeat that the Agency doesn't have criminal investigative powers. It only conducts so-called “administrative investigation” and, when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the criminal offense has been committed  – non submission of assets report or false reporting on assets – the Agency files criminal charges against the suspect. In order to maintain our impartiality and objectivity, we periodically inform the public about the filed criminal charges, reporting only the names of officials, without any other details, and always with a note on the presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, the media reports about criminal charges are often selective and have the characteristics of a media lynch. On one occasion, within a day of filing charges a tabloid published their content, despite the fact that we had taken all the necessary measures to secure confidentiality.   
In cases when there is suspicion that some other criminal offense has been committed – like bribery, trading in influence, money laundering, tax evasion, etc., we adhere to the verbal agreement with the public prosecutor's office not to go public even with the names of officials. Put differently, although such reports contain complex criminal charges, we inform the public only that a certain number of reports have been submitted, which represents an obstacle when it comes to the presentation of results of our work.
Publicity of our work is limited by the law which prescribes that the procedure before the Agency is closed to the public. At the same time, as I have already mentioned, the public expresses a great interest in the work of the Agency, so to ensure publicity of our work, we inform the public about the initiation of a procedure and the findings. When it comes to press releases, our list of addressees is extensive and includes not only press agencies but also local media. There is also a small group of journalists who have been following the work of the Agency for years and, in fact, a few analytical articles published in the media have been written by these journalists.
Election campaigns and the media
During election campaigns, the public is focused on the financing of political parties. The largest amount of their funds, during campaigns, the political parties are using for media advertising and the interest of media outlets is to be as competitive as possible. Free competitiveness, in terms of the Law on financing of political activities, has certain limitations, and that is, above all, the setting of the identical discounts for all political parties, since the services given under conditions that differ from the commercial ones, represent the gift to the political party. During the last couple of years, the discounts to political parties during the election campaigns ranged from 30 to 60 percent, while higher percentages inevitably raise concerns. For example, during the local campaign in 2013, one media outlet had approved an 82 to 92 percent discount to one political party. Moreover, not a single other political party advertised with that media outlet and that left us with no option to compare whether these conditions differed from the commercial ones. The other big problem is the debt of political parties towards media outlets. 
We have also noticed that when reporting on the activities of officials during campaigns, media do not make it clear whether the official acts in the capacity of the public official or as a representative of his/her political party. In 2014, the Agency for the first time initiated a procedure during the very campaign, against a minister who more than apparently mixed the two mentioned roles in the public appearances, regardless of numerous public warnings to all officials issued by the Agency.
Media ownership
When it comes to transparency of media ownership and prevention of media concentration, the case that is currently under investigation is that of the broadcasting company B92. The Commission for Protection of Competition had investigated evidence that led to the presumption that ownership concentration had occurred but that was not reported to the Commission, and that it involved the change of the ownership structure of B92. The Commission justifiably assumed that Astonko Holdings Limited, Cyprus had gained indirect control over B92 and related companies through the connected company, Аstonko, Belgrade. The Commission indeed pointed out the inadequate regulation of ownership transparency in Serbia. As a consequence, many media outlets in Serbia are founded by companies registered abroad, so the real owners remain unknown.
In this connection, let me briefly mention the case of the daily Press. During 2012, the Agency was investigating the ownership of the daily Press following the media reports alleging that its real owners were the former Mayor of Belgrade and former President of the Democratic Party, Dragan Đilas, and one of the biggest businessman in Serbia, Miroslav Mišković, recently arrested on the charges of tax evasion and money laundering. Đilas, as a public official at that time, submitted the declaration of assets to the Agency but did not declare any share in the companies that were the daily Press owners. The Agency collected all relevant data from the Business Registers Agency, Tax Administration and banks, but these did not confirm allegations that Đilas had connections with the companies that were the daily Press owners. Đilas himself stated, at the request of the Agency, that neither he nor any person associated with him had a share in the ownership of this daily. The collected evidence had not established a link between Mišković and Press either, although Mišković had declared in public that he would renounce majority ownership in the daily Press. However, according to available data, the 50-percent owner of the daily is an off-shore company from Cyprus. This example clearly shows how complex the tracing of media ownership is.  
Finally, three new media laws have been recently adopted in Serbia – the Law on Public Information and Media, the Law on Electronic Media and the Law on Public Media Services. The Agency, as one of its activities, analysed corruption risks in the drafts of these laws and most of our recommendations have been accepted. The newly adopted Law on Public Information and Media includes the obligation to declare data on legal entities and natural persons which/who directly or indirectly own more than 5 percent of a publisher, information on their associated persons and data on other publishers in which those persons have more than 5 percent of shares, which is an improvement in the legal framework, compared to the previous one.
Media Ownership and Finances