4 December 2003, Volume 5, Number 38
THE IMAGE OF AN IRRESPONSIBLE SOCIETY: IS THERE A PUBLIC IN SERBIA FOR SERIOUS MEDIA?
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Rade Radovanovic of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service with Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac and Grujica Spasovic, editor in chief of the daily "Danas."
RFE/RL: When we say "media," we must think of some 1,500 radio and TV stations and hundreds of dailies, weeklies, and monthlies in Serbia. Many of them do not even deserve to be called newspapers or stations.
Grujica Spasovic: That is exactly what I was talking about, and what Mr. Korac just mentioned. The government has not yet managed to create an environment conducive to serious journalism.
I am not talking only about the laws that haven't been adopted yet or about the state of the Broadcasting Council. I am also talking about putting the media on a sound financial footing.
There are so many media here, especially electronic ones, but the number of print media also exceeds our literacy rate.
At the same time, all those that barely survive still depend on some power center or other. Those who were wreaking havoc in this country during Milosevic's rule are still very powerful.
Journalists are still miserably paid, which means that you cannot train a young journalist without risking losing him as soon as he realizes that there is no money in this business and that he would have to live from day to day. This is why so many people have left journalism.
On the other hand, there is money to be made in sensationalist journalism.
Once again I consider the government ultimately responsible for this state of affairs. [It does not employ any positive economic discrimination to foster serious journalism....]
RFE/RL: Mr. Korac, do you agree with my colleague Spasovic? Is it true that the government is actually part of the problem?
Zarko Korac: No. I do agree that a problem exists, but it is part of a bigger picture, which is far more complicated. First, the professional journalists' association does not truly look out for the interests of the profession....
Let me give you just one example. A journalist from the list of those charged in the Zoran Djindjic murder case -- I think he is Number 44 on that list -- returned to journalism after being released from jail. Furthermore, new charges were brought against him recently for publishing the results of the investigation -- which were supposed to be secret. Why does the journalists' association tolerate such behavior in its ranks?
But Mr. Spasovic has just raised another major issue, about which I agree with him, namely ensuring the survival of the serious media in the midst of vicious media-market competition.
That is an important question, but I think that for the moment there is no answer.
RFE/RL: Excuse me, Mr. Korac, what do you mean: "there is no answer?" Aren't the authorities supposed to enforce the law and reduce the total number of 1,500 radio and TV stations in Serbia to 150?
Korac: That is going to happen very soon. The so-called Telecommunications Agency is being formed to solicit applications for frequencies over the next two or three months. Then comes the Broadcasting Council, which will decide about the broadcasting rights or licenses....
But let's not get into that now. I do agree with you that we got started very late [in enacting media legislation]. But let's be realistic: we have a situation here in which the main tabloid in Serbia has the same print run as the [venerable] daily "Politika"....
But that is not a phenomenon peculiar to Serbia alone. One finds the same situation in Great Britain, where tabloids have the same print run as the well-established newspapers. It is not so easy to say what the government can do about it....
Public broadcasters like Radio-Television Serbia (RTS) disappeared practically everywhere in Eastern Europe following the adoption of laws just like ours. Do your listeners know what Hungarian public television looks like compared to the private stations? It is the worst and the weakest of the lot, reduced to one channel only....
This means that public broadcasting is losing the battle with the private stations, and as far as the printed media are concerned, tabloids are winning the battle with the serious media.
I agree with Gruja that this is the key issue, but, unfortunately, it is not easy to say what the state might do about it because the state has no right to interfere. It must treat all media the same for tax purposes. [The popular and sensational press finds a market more readily than do the serious papers. And if the state favors one newspaper over others, it is accused of bias and interference....]
RFE/RL: Mr. Spasovic, save me from the temptation to react to what the deputy prime minister has just said.
Spasovic: When we had talks with Mr. Djelic and the rest of the government -- and I think that Mr. Korac was present, at least during some of the talks -- it took us two years to persuade them to give us a 20 percent tax reduction.
Of course, I am well aware of how difficult it is to draw a line between the serious media and those that should be taxed. Another issue is [that some media may be propped up with money of questionable origin or by people pursuing their own economic or political interests....]