The Republic of Serbia is still a country of prolonged post-transitional processes. Following the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević’s authoritarian regime in 2000, the country became a Parliamentary democracy on the path to improving the rule of law, building a market economy, increasing media freedoms, establishing a pluralist society and moving towards EU membership.
After 2000, together with all the other sectors in the country, the media also began a process of transformation. Until now, the changes have been rather slow, inconsistent and incomplete because there appears to be a lack of political will for the structural changes in the media sector to be implemented in full.
The Serbian media market is small and oversaturated, with over 2000 media registered with the Agency for Business Registers (APR). Due to the poorly regulated system of registration, the precise number of registered media is still not known.
Serbia has two public broadcasters – RTS with a national frequency and RTV with a regional reach. Both broadcasters get most of their funding from the state budget, which influences their editorial policy, independence and objectivity. Aside from state funding, RTS and RTV also compete with other media houses for a part of the advertising market. Moreover, a small part of their income comes from gathering subscriptions fees which amount to 220 dinars per household.
Media companies operate under great economic pressure. The average annual market value of advertising over the last few years has stood at around €175 million, with the market growing since 2018, its value now totalling €197 million (Source: IPSOS, Nielsen AM, marketing agencies), still not enough to ensure the economic survival of all presently active media.
Because of the weak economy and constant problems with liquidity, the state still has a significant role in and influence over the media market. It continues to control the media through direct ownership and even more through different models of state financing (public tenders for media projects, public procurement of media services and direct advertising contracts).
Public funds intended for the Serbian media are distributed arbitrarily and in a non-transparent manner, in most cases to the benefit of pro-government media, without clear and measurable criteria, public control or oversight. The total value of state aid in the market, as well as the manner, scope and effect of state financing of various media are still unknown. For years the state has been the biggest advertiser in the country, through its ministries, public companies and state agencies. On the other hand, there is strong pressure from marketing agencies, whose owners maintain close ties to ruling parties. The pressure on editorial policy is a product of financial dependence, with media which are critical of the government being deprived of advertising contracts or state assistance, along with being branded as ‘enemies of the state’.
The leading media in Serbia are polarized and it is widely felt that they are divided into pro- and anti- government camps. Pro-government media act as the public voice of the ruling party, standing in the way of serious public dialogue and directly favouring the ruling party while at the same time marginalising and obstructing the opposition in every way. Independent media have a critical stance towards the government but are under constant financial and editorial pressure because of it.
When it comes to media content, a sensationalist and tabloid rhetoric dominates, along with reality programs which are broadcast via national TV channels.
According to the data of Reporters Without Borders and the Media Freedom Index for 2018 which the organization publishes, the freedom of the media has been declining ever since Slobodan Milošević’s former Minister of Information, Aleksandar Vučić, became Prime Minister in May 2014. While Serbia was ranked 54th in 2014 in terms of media freedoms, it has now fallen to 76th of 180 countries. The decline in media freedoms is also noted by the European Union through its annual progress reports, where the media sector receives one of the poorest assessments.
Since the beginning of 2018, the database of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) notes a total of 102 attacks against journalists – including 7 physical attacks, 72 unpermissable forms of pressure and 23 verbal threats. Journalists are poorly paid and the profession enjoys a very poor reputation in society. This year, it will be more than 20 years since the murder of three journalists – Dada Vujasinović (1994), Slavko Ćuruvija (1999), Milan Pantić (2001) – yet the investigations into their murders have still not been concluded. Meanwhile, 2018 saw one of the worst attacks against a journalist when the house of Milan Jovanović from local online media Žig was set on fire.