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05. 06. 2008

The Role of Media Associations in the Final Phase of Transition

Sasa Mirkovic, ANEM Chairman

A lot of work is necessary to further develop and advocate the idea of corporate social responsibility which is still in its infancy in this region.

It is highly symbolic that we had to wait until the eighth year of transition to complete the allocation of national, regional and local radio and television frequencies. This allocation was an important precondition for further steps leading to the final phase of transition processes in the media field.

We are aware of the fact that, several years ago, many media laws were drafted, proposed and adopted with an aim to make up for the time lost during the dark decade of the nineties.  But, the reality intervened. Waiting to be adopted, numerous laws were modified beyond recognition by political deals among those concerned with their personal rating and benefits to their party.

A permanent, but unnecessary struggle

We have seen that arrival to power, as well as the fall from power, have dramatically changed politicians' attitudes toward the necessity to regulate media environment in accordance with the European standards. Unlike the politicians, during all these transition years media associations and organisations were the best advocates of better working conditions for media professionals. Because of this unenviable position, many of them were targeted by various politicians, ministers and lobbies representing interests of those who wanted to prevent and delay the changes.

Energy was often wasted on struggles which were not necessary nor needed. It is clear now that we will need a lot of energy, because only now, after the allocation of frequencies, a new and challenging chapter has been opened in activities of media associations and organisations.

Expectations are bigger now, because all those outlets who have received frequencies wish to prove themselves, survive and develop in accordance with market principles. At the same time, the market is relatively small, with regulations and their enforcement sometimes chaotic. Donors are also less numerous – those who stood by us during the nineties and who still persevere in their fight for better media environment can be counted on fingers of one hand.

Media outlets often associate and make an organised approach, trying to protect their interests and effect the change of certain provisions of the Law, excessively limiting rules and high tariffs.

Associations for Survival

ANEM has certainly had the most prominent role in this area, and it continues to lead the progress, now joined, in a much wider movement, by numerous broadcasters who are aware that it is in their interest to improve the conditions the media are working in.

The latest such example is the establishment of the Association of Commercial National TV Broadcasters, which brings together six national TV broadcasters who have, despite all their past conflicts and differences, joined forces to defend their mutual interest in several different areas.

Financial obligations are increasingly becoming a crucial issue. They are often unreasonably high, which is the consequence of obsolete regulations and monopolistic positions of certain players in the media scene who are doing their best to retain their positions. This is especially important if we have in mind that market competition has made control of expenses increasingly important to media outlets.

Of great importance is also the issue of unreasonably high fees paid to organisations for protection of intellectual property rights and performing rights. The fees are too high in comparison with stations' revenues and are caused by these organisations' attempt to introduce European standards in the local market without regard to the fact that our society, and the media themselves, are in transition.

Many media outlets are forced to cooperate with the public service broadcaster, RTS, which has the network of transmitters it rents at very steep prices. The Law on Broadcasting specifies a formation of a special company to manage the existing transmitters and the network, ensuring equal conditions for all broadcasters in accordance with market principles. The reality is markedly different, and for the last several years RTS – one of the broadcasters – has had a discretionary right to choose the competing broadcaster with which it would make an agreement on the use of the strongest and most developed network covering the whole territory of Serbia, as well as the terms and conditions of such agreement.

We should not expect the existing private broadcasters to fund and establish their own, parallel network of transmitters. Therefore, they have to continue their struggle through associations and organisations which demand full enforcement of the Law, which provides equal conditions for everyone who was issued a license, for which they pay not inconsiderable amounts of money.

Dichotomies Everywhere

The issue of the TV fee, and RTS' efforts to increase the collection of the fee, are one of the key issues of the local broadcasting market. At the moment, RTS has the right to collect the TV fee, as well as to broadcast a six-minute commercial block per hour.

If the collection of the fees increases, the RTS would not need to broadcast commercials to finance its massive system, and in the future the advertisers would turn to local, regional and national commercial broadcasters. This issue should be a challenge for media associations in the final phase of transition, because this model of public service broadcasting financing has been successfully used in Great Britain (BBC) for decades. Its experiences and lecturers have already been actively used in the education of local broadcasters. This discussion mostly involves representatives of two ministries, led by two ministers, one of which has a strong inclination toward freedom of the media, while the other strongly promotes partisan interests and aims to win the vote of national minorities.

While the Ministry of Culture is making efforts to protect freedom of the media, defending at the same time minorities' right to have access to public information, the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government is trying to reverse the process of privatization and media reform, and take it back to the beginning, jeopardizing freedom of the media in the name of protection of minority rights – at the same time re-introducing the concept of government's ownership of media outlets which is detrimental to those same rights, creating chaos in the media field, and paralysing the bodies authorized to implement the state's obligations in the media reform. It is clear that rights of minorities cannot be protected in this way, because it hinders the process of privatization and directly prevents the enforcement of the Broadcasting Law and the completion of a huge task which is a necessary precondition for future steps in the reform of the local broadcasting environment.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Far from perfect, the Broadcasting Law contains provisions which should be revised and amended in the future, as should the Law on Advertising, parts of which are not too friendly towards the advertising and promotion of non-governmental organisations and the civil sector. In this area, media associations and organisations, and representatives of the non-governmental sector, should act proactively and jointly inform the public, the politicians and ministers in order to adjust certain provisions of this Law to the modern concept of the role and significance of the civil sector in today's society. To achieve this, it is necessary to spend efforts on further advocacy and promotion of the idea of corporate social responsibility, which is still in its infancy in this area. It is highly desirable to spread the idea that, apart from financial sustainability, one of the goals of the activities of the media is the education of the population and the public in order to stimulate them to actively participate in humanitarian activities which aid those parts of the population that most urgently need help.

We have sincerely hoped that, after the democratic changes, attacks on journalists and the media would stop. Unfortunately, lately we have witnessed increasingly serious threats delivered in a turbulent political period and environment. It is regrettable that certain officials express their understanding for such attacks and indirectly instigate them.

Possible forms of protection include the activities of associations and organisations which should demonstrate a joint stand against the threats, expressing their solidarity and creating a bulwark against such intolerable behaviour of certain representatives of the government and instrumentalized and aggressive groups and individuals.

Election Campaigns – Again

Again, everywhere around us, electoral activities. Unfortunately, it often happens that in such periods media rules are changed between elections. This kind of approach puts radio and TV stations in an unenviable position, since they are forced to adjust to rules imposed without regard to reality and problems encountered in everyday activities. The opinions of associations and organisations should be considered more carefully, because they reflect the attitudes of a significant part of the population of media professionals and journalists, who are awaiting new laws to allow them to work easier and more transparently.

Frequent elections and political turbulence are the reason for so many laws still waiting to be adopted in the Parliament. It is regrettable that we often fail to use experiences of the surrounding countries and countries that have already passed through the period of transition. In this way, we would prevent the waste of time, energy and resources that could solve the specific local problems and challenges in the media sphere. We would be able to focus on specific challenges, allowing us to catch up with the international environment in the areas of digitalization, European and global media integrations and the use of new technologies.

I am saddened when I see that the experiences of our Association of Independent Electronic Media have not been used more widely, because ANEM, with all its members and their editorial policy, has been one of the driving forces of the democratisation of society.


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