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07. 05. 2002

Untouchable Privileges on the Air One Year On

It's perfectly clear to everyone by now, even from the official documentation: while the teargas and smoke were flooding into Nikola Pasic Square on October 5, 2000, and the Federal Parliament and Radio Television Serbia buildings burst into flames, marking the end of the Milosevic regime, it was business as usual in the Federal Government building in the office of the telecommunications minister.

Deputy Minister Aca Stevanovic was at his desk that day. He was the right and left hand of Ivan Markovic (who vanished into thin air on October 5) and his predecessor Dojcilo Radojevic. This trio presided over the Serbian airwaves for four years, treating this natural resources as though it were their private domain, the property of the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Yugoslav Left. Television and radio was the regime's political resource. Once it was obvious that loss was inevitable, at least the political fallout for many unprotected Socialist-Left broadcasters could be reduced. With this in mind, Markovic's deputy and accomplice, Aca Stevanovic, was looking after the shop even on that October 5. It was essential to secure the legality of the media to enable them to stay on air until the good times rolled around again.

Channels without challenges

Under a ruling signed by Aca Stevanovic, the Federal Government permits the use of channels by the following television stations: Globus in Kragujevac, Most in Novi Sad and Most in Raska, TV S in Uzice, TV S in Sombor, TV S in Cacak, Global in Nis and TV KI in Kikinda. All of these channels are within the STV Mreza system. This company was founded in late August, 2000, by the Socialist Party's Central Committee, the founding documents were appointed by Gorica Gajevic and Nikola Sainovic was appointed head of the board. The directors were recruited from Radio Television Serbia, first Zoran Zivkovic and then Dragan Kolarevic.

These television stations might have gone unnoticed if it hadn't been for the arrest of former finance minister Borislav Milacic on charges of purchasing equipment worth 2.5 million dollars for them, from state funds.

The Mreza affair has still not been resolved, but its radio and television stations have come under the scrutiny of the local authorities.

Thus it was established that the manufacturing conglomerate Zastava in Kragujevac had been plundered and left short of several million dinars used to subsidise TV Globus. There similar cases in other towns as well. The founding and financing of eight Mreza branch offices is yet to come under scrutiny by state investigatory bodies.

In the course of 1999 and, especially, the election year, 2000, Ivan Markovic and his deputy Aca Stevanovic made increasingly free use of their discretionary powers to make room on the air for the regime's favourites and those who paid homage to the image and the work of Slobodan Milosevic and his wife.

In this way, RTV Pink was granted twelve channels in August, 2000, alone. TV Kosava was given seven television and two radio frequencies in April, 2000. Radio Fan, part of the private company Madona, from Pozarevac (owned by Milosevic's son Marko) was awarded eight radio frequencies, TV Palma got three television channels, Studio B got four, Yu Info four, Radio Television Serbia and BK TV, TV Art, TV SOS, TV Politika and another ten operators got one each.

Our research indicates that during those two years the Ministry permitted the use of a total of 98 television and 65 radio frequencies, without once releasing the information to the public. The minister for telecommunications was exercising his discretionary right with great discretion. The criteria for doling out these channels were always the wishes and personal interests of the former regime, rather than any sort of technical assessment. For example TV Jedinstvo in Novi Pazar was given four channels, TV Arilje (which, according to municipal leaders is owned by Deputy Minister Aca Stevanovic) received nine channels! Stevanovic signed these licences personally and presented the documents for these channels to himself on October 1. They were valid for a period of ten years! The same day BK TV was also presented with five channels, but only for a period of two years, in order to extend its coverage into south-eastern Serbia.

Below the Line

The expert committee from the Association of Independent Serbian Journalists and the Belgrade Media Centre which was charged with drafting new broadcasting legislation was faced with the current chaotic situation on the air. Not only are there a vast number of broadcasters, but also a range of inherited privileges, repression, illegal decisions and corruption. In the absence of any explicit legislation, and the regime's apparent unwillingness to pass any, the committee decided to apply the criteria of justice to the situation.

The proposed provisions of the new law rule draw a line between the 1998 open competition for frequencies and the minister's discretionary rulings which were valid in 1999 and 2000 and which weren't a right under the law but a licence for privileges.

If this draft legislation becomes law, all documents signed by Aca Stevanovic and his boss Ivan Markovic will become invalid once the first open tenders are called under the Broadcasting Act in line with a detailed plan for radio frequencies based on international regulations and criteria.

The Amnesia of the New Authorities

When he first accepted his portfolio in November, 2000, the former minister for telecommunications, Boris Tadic, spoke of the necessity of putting an end to any further populating of the airspace. As a first measure he imposed a moratorium on the issue of licences, a measure which neither fooled nor daunted the new broadcasters. At the time this statement was issued about 95 per cent of the existing seven hundred broadcasters didn't have a valid licence. Either their licences had expired or they had never held one. The new authorities were helpless and unable to do anything about the broadcasters who sprang up after October 5, despite the moratorium. In order to apply the law on communication systems they would have had to close down all these stations, because the changes of October 5 had no legal basis. Tadic didn't want to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors by applying the law selectively.

Faced with this all or none dilemma he chose the latter. This decision suited the former lapdogs of the Belgrade regime (Pink, Palma, Kosava and BK) who held onto their television channels and their potential millions of viewers, an enormous advertising market. It also suited the rookies.

Municipal radio and television stations didn't feel their status put them under threat. Most affected were the independent and private local broadcasters which had survived years of repression and expected to at least be given legitimacy as a reward for the victory of the democratic opposition. They also expected that the regime stations would lose their privileges.

None of this happened. Quite the opposite did: the number of radio and television stations has grown each month and the pressure on the advertising market is becoming unbearable because of the increasingly unfair competition. It is cold comfort that political competition on the wild market has ceased to exist because most of the independent electronic media which welcomed the political changes of October 5 are on the verge of bankruptcy. There is no justice in sight for them and the clear political boundary between regime and non-regime media has now vanished. It appears that the new authorities are suffering from amnesia and the claim of the independent broadcasters that nothing has been done to address the situation is certainly justified.

Amid the lack of regulations, and political will within DOS, Minister Tadic clutched at a straw by accepting an offer by the Association of Independent Serbian Journalists and the Media Centre to set an expert working party to draft new broadcasting legislation. And the credit for the fact that this first broadcasting bill was delivered to the Serbian Government in August, 2000, goes to Tadic, as former minister.

The authorities are now in possession of draft legislation on broadcasting which is in line with European standards, in line with the law and in line with justice. The only question now is whether DOS is ready to accept this solution.

Still it seems that the new authorities have forgotten the violations of the law, corruption, and self-serving of the former heads of the Ministry of Telecommunications. The electronic media will show their true colours once they announce their own positions on the broadcasting legislation. Let's hope that happens soon, because too much time has already been wasted.

Slobodan Djoric
(The author is the secretary-general
of the Spektar Media Association)

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