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The Future Is At Hand – State Broadcasting Returns

Public broadcasters working under constrained independence, administrative and financial, risk default to State broadcasting. Those separated barely a generation from dogmatic control face stiff resistance to new and open practice. Authorities always prefer a pliant mouthpiece.

new world orderMedia watchers noticed, warily, when a key executive with Serbian regional public broadcaster Radio-televizije Vojvodine (RTV) was abruptly dismissed in early May. Shortly after RTV program director Slobodan Arezina was fired and more than a dozen news staff “reassigned,” general director Srdjan Mihajlovic and news director Marijana Jovic resigned. ”As far as I can see, the political system here tries too hard to influence the work of the media”, European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) president Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, quoted by Serbian news portal (May 22). A joint statement from the European Union (EU) delegation in Serbia and the Organization of Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE) mission in Serbia said the groups are “closely monitoring” the situation.

At RTV, based in Novi Sad, a new management board was named shortly before provincial elections in mid-April by Serbian media regulator Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM). RTV has operated separately in the autonomous northern province from Serbian public broadcaster RTS with the REM maintaining oversight. The conservative/populist Progressive Party (SNS) of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic won majorities in the April provincial elections, shifting political winds.

According to Mr.Arezina, RTV succeeded in expanding the reach of its news programs in Vojvodina over the last four years by offering an alternative to Serbian media, public and private, “in the service of the (Progressive Party).” RTV refused to comply with the prime minister’s policy of requiring reporter’s questions submitted in advance of interviews. Officially, Mr.Arezina was dismissed because of “commercial reasons,” said (May 25).

“Things there are happening according to the law for the first time,” said PM Vucic, quoted by (May 19). “Why should I be concerned if things are happening according to the law? No one is dismissing people and bringing in people from Belgrade on partisan grounds, as they did in other years.” Serbian news media is widely supportive of the Progressive Party and PM Vucic, who this past week paid a victory-lap visit to Moscow meeting with Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin.

Pressures on public broadcasters related, arguably, to political winds in have popped out all over the Western Balkans, though the region is far from unique. A populist/nationalist government in Poland moved quickly earlier this year to root-out “cyclists and vegetarians,” connoting urban elites, from public radio and TV. Five years on the Hungarian government has brought public broadcasting and most private-sector media in line. After an abrupt election turn to the right, politicians in Croatia turned their sights on public broadcaster Croatian Radio Television (HRT).

Winding through a two-month process the newly appointed HRT supervisory board, named after members of media regulator Council for Electronic Media (CEM) were replaced, fired director general Goran Radman in early March for “accounting inconsistencies.” Culture Minister Zlatan Hasanbegovic, associated with ultranationalist and anti-semitic views, began pushing “cultural responsibility” on HRT. An acting DG was appointed and 70 HRT staff, mostly assigned to news production, have since been terminated. Radio and television programs critical of ultranationalism – including satire – have been cancelled.

“I am worried… when we witness such harsh changes in television and public radio,” said Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks, quoted by (May 11). “There's a pattern that is worrisome as it aims at undermining pluralism in Croatia. It’s necessary to keep pluralism alive and that is why the public media are important: if pluralism ceases to exist, even in that context, then it will be a huge blow to society.”

The European Commission sent independent experts to Podgorica last week to investigate “control of the public broadcaster by the Montenegrin parliament.”

An agreement among political parties in mid-April led to the removal of Radio Television Montenegro (RTCG) TV director Radojka Rutovic, several TV news reporters exited thereafter. One party, the center-left Social Democrats of former parliament president Ranko Krivokapic, considered Montenegrin public TV under Ms Rutovic a “mouthpiece” of the other, center-left Democratic Party of Socialists led by Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic. Of course, elections are coming in October.

Ms Rutovic did not bow out quietly. "I believe that my resignation, as well as the cry for changes to public broadcasting by Ranko Krivokapic and those from other parties who have agreed to be part of his political entourage, will not cure anyone's vanity, nor beautify their faces in the mirror," she said to online news portal (April 15). RTCG director general Rade Vojvodic named replacements, all internal, within days, a move seen to create a single news operation across radio, TV and online platforms. A week after that, the RTCG Council president resigned, citing health reasons and the endless battles with politicians.

RTCG operates two television channels, a national radio channel and an online portal. Funding is effectively through the State budget, roughly €7 million a year. A household license fee was attempted in 2007 and was withdrawn shortly thereafter due to low compliance. With a population of 650,000, Montenegro has 21 commercial TV channels, 35 commercial radio stations and seven daily newspapers. There are about a dozen publically funded community radio stations. Online news platforms, most attached to existing media outlets, have developed large followings.

The forever beleaguered public broadcaster Radio and Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BHRT) was given a May 31st deadline by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to settle CHF6 million (roughly €5.4 million) in arrears fees. Broadcast sports rights arranged through EBU, notably the 2016 UEFA European Championship, are at risk. “BHRT is facing financial collapse, due to insufficient and insecure funding, which prevents it from meeting its public service remit,” said the EBU Members statement (May 24).

BHRT operates one national TV channel and one national radio channel. It is functionally separate from other public broadcasters in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH); Radio-Television of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (RTVFBiH) operating Bosnian and Croatian language radio and TV channels, Radio Televizija Republike Srpske operating Serbian language radio and TV channels. EBU has actively participated in the organization – and re-organization – of public broadcasting services in BiH since 2000. A recent academic conference in Sarajevo (May 19th 20th) on public service broadcasting in the Western Balkans was titled, ominously, “Never Ending Transition?”

In late April EBU suspended membership of Romanian public broadcaster TVR for arrears fees, forcing its exclusion from the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest. With the Rio Summer Olympic Games and other popular sports broadcasts looming large, talks among EBU, TVR and the Finance Ministry continue. Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Ciolo, clearly irritated, said “no emotional and sentimental pressures can solve structural problems (at TVR),” quoted by Romania Libera (May 20).

The issue is money, as it is with many public broadcasters, and the power of the purse. The household license fee is collected through fixed-line telephone service subscriptions, which have fallen dramatically with the rise in cheaper mobile subscriptions. BiH public broadcasters asked lawmakers to amend rules to collect the license fee through cable TV and mobile phone subscriptions, which was approved in March but doesn’t take effect until June 30th, the expiration date for the previous collection agreement with fixed-line service providers.

The BiH Public Broadcasting Board (RTV) presented a proposal to parliament’s Transport and Communications Commission for a new license fee funding plan that lowers the monthly rate but extends the obligation to owners of all audio-visual devices. That plan stalled as some Commission members found it “complicated,” reported Glas Srpske (April 30), and wanted a bit more distance from the general election scheduled for October 2018. The RTV also asked for an “emergency” increase in hourly advertising from 6 to 10 minutes.

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