Last month, a member of a news crew tried to film the building of a company whose alleged involvement in corrupt activities was being investigated. He was told by a security guard to move away, and was warned that he might be “shot like a rabbit.” This incident vividly depicts the extent to which the journalism profession has been degraded in Serbian society. This was just one of more than 150 cases of attacks on journalists this year, on the twentieth anniversary of democratic changes which were supposed to have shifted Serbia towards guaranteed and substantial freedom of expression.
Several major waves of media legislation reforms took place in Serbia over the past twenty years. The first wave was repeal of the 1998 Public Information Law, which was used in the late nineties to financially ruin independent media, and which is still considered one of the symbols of the repressive regime of Slobodan Milosevic. By doing this, the new authorities showed their intention to break with the practice of stifling media freedom, as practiced by the previous regime. The new government started drafting a new set of media laws, called "modern" at that time. This new regulation was creating conditions for media privatization, the establishment of public media services, and a regulatory authority in the field of electronic media. For the first time, an independent and autonomous regulatory body became a part of the media’s legal environment. The regulatory body had significant responsibilities, among others issuing licenses to electronic media, and supervising their program content.
However, it soon became apparent that depriving the traditional government agencies of their authority to license and monitor electronic media would be an arduous process. Since the creation of the Council of the new Regulator, in 2003, there were doubts and accusations about the credibility and impartiality of its members. In 2006, when the Council granted licenses for nationwide television and radio broadcasts, the process was assessed by the critics as non-transparent and politicized. This early period of the Regulator's work was also characterized by legal amendments that undermined the authority of the regulatory body, and gave the legislative and executive authorities greater competencies over the institution.
Simultaneously with the turbulent process of forming the regulatory body, the transformation of the state Radio Television of Serbia, and the regional Radio Television of Vojvodina, into public media services also came to the forefront. The transformation of these broadcasters was intended to lead to the development of programs relevant to the public, which would support citizens in exercising their rights, exchanging ideas and opinions, and fostering tolerance. Still, this transformation was slow and several times delayed.
The parties that came to power in 2000, after the October 5 democratic changes, did not manage to build strong foundations for the new institutions, before they were replaced themselves. After the 2012 parliamentary elections, the government changed, and Ivica Dacic, a former spokesman for Milosevic’s party, became the prime minister. Aleksandar Vucic, the Minister of Information in 1998, at the time when the infamous Public Information Law was adopted, became the first deputy prime minister, and in 2014 the prime minister. The new government remained formally committed to the goals set in the 2011 Media Strategy. In 2014, the government adopted a new set of media laws that had the potential to depoliticize the regulatory authority, but also to further affirm public media services as true forums for public debate.
However, in the following years, the political influence over the Regulator and the RTS's editorial policy became more blatantly obvious. The Regulator, which has not met public expectations since its establishment, was completely paralyzed after the 2016 parliamentary elections. Its reports recorded the disproportionate representation of the ruling party, but were never made public. After that, the 2017 presidential election campaign, and the 2018 local Belgrade elections were not supervised by the regulatory authority at all.
On the other hand, the public media services never freed themselves from the state’s control. Today, instead of defending and promoting democracy, the public media service has joined an organised effort to suffocate it. Instead of nurturing the pluralism of political ideas, and protecting the public interest in their programs, they have become a platform for the ruling parties’ narratives. Serbian citizens, who primarily get information from nationwide television, receive messages about political issues only from the perspective of the ruling coalition, which uses every opportunity to discredit its political opponents, speak about its successes, and disregard its accountability in many ongoing affairs.
Journalists that report against these dominant narratives are targeted by smear campaigns and portrayed by media and state officials as enemies of the state. In recent years, media freedom in Serbia has been assessed by the Reporters Without Borders World Index of Media Freedoms as constantly falling. In 2020, Serbia ranks as 93rd out of 180 countries, 34 rungs lower than in 2016. The decline in media freedoms in the last four years corresponds to an increase in the number of recorded attacks on journalists. However, the responsiveness of the judiciary to these attacks remains far from enough to provide journalists with substantial institutional protection.
Weak independent institutions that do not defend the public interest, even though they have the authority to do so, coupled with the extremely poor position of media and journalists, who are punished when they act as watchdogs, have resulted in the government's almost unlimited ability to spread whatever information it deems opportune. With the adoption of a new Media Strategy in January 2020, a new wave of legislative reform was announced. However, the experience of the last two decades warns us that the actual state of media freedom will not primarily depend on what will be written in those acts.