Media Ownership Matters
Mass media influence the way facts are viewed and debated in the society. Independence and pluralism in media, public opinion and views— including criticism of people in power— are the safeguards of a healthy democracy. Monitoring and ensuring ownership pluralism is the first step toward independence and freedom of choice.
How can people evaluate the reliability of information if they don't know who provides it? How can journalists work properly if they don't know who controls the company they work for? And how can media authorities address excessive media concentration if they don't know who is behind the media's steering wheel?
Ownership structure may also affect the way the media industry manages its resources. It shapes the economic strength and efficiency of the media sector, which is of particular interest to potential investors.
MOM thus aims to create transparency and to answer the question “who eventually controls media content?” in order to raise public awareness, to create a fact base for advocacy to hold political and economic players accountable for the existing conditions.
Western Balkans countries still have much in common despite decades of independence.
To varying degrees they suffer from state interference, partisan reporting by media reflecting their owners’ vested interests, poor standards, legal and physical intimidation of journalists, financial instability, weak data about audience and market share, a trend towards concentration, and a regulatory framework that might sound good on paper but in practice is weakly enforced.
Counteractive forces of cultural bonds and political fragmentation
This Media Ownership Monitor’s extensive regional research, carried out by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, has highlighted that the lack of cross-border regulation can be a problem in an area where media in one country can easily reach audiences in another through shared language.
This has also made it easier for governments from elsewhere, such as Russia, to set up regional media to spread propaganda directly or via local partners.
The region knew little but state-run media until communism collapsed in the early 1990s in isolated hardline Albania and in Yugoslavia, which fragmented violently into different states.
The northern two of these – Croatia and Slovenia – have joined the European Union and the others to follow suit, with many obstacles, including those to media freedom, needing to be overcome.
Serbs, Montenegrins and Bosnians (as well as Croats) can basically communicate in the same language, while insisting on their distinct version of it, which many North Macedonians also understand. Many media target some or all of these audiences.
Ethnic Albanians speak a very different language, as the majority in Albania and Kosovo, and as minorities in North Macedonia and Montenegro.
In the 1990s many outside media, mainly from the EU, rushed into what they hoped would be a lucrative new market but have since largely pulled out, finding it too hard to turn a profit in countries whose incomes are still far below the European average.
But pan-regional media companies remain, either reaching their audience from one base or setting up local media in each target country. Details on their structure, owners and market share were at times hard to pin down.
They include Switzerland’s Ringier, Austrian media companies and United Group, owned by a British private equity firm but of regional origin. It targets all former Yugoslavia with subscription television – as now does state-owned Telekom Srbija which broadcasts sports channels across the region from Belgrade.
Foreign state-backed media also broadcast in local languages, like Qatar’s Al Jazeera Balkans, headquartered in Sarajevo, or Russia’s RT Balkans based in Serbia, whose pro-Kremlin line is also widely repeated in Serbian media, to the consternation of the EU where RT and Sputnik are banned as a source of state-controlled disinformation. The Montenegrin regulator followed the EU’s path and blocked Russia-backed media.
Local flavours of ‘give and take’
With foreign investors largely gone and commercial media finding it hard to survive in small markets, local businesspeople have taken over influential media outlets, using their subsidised channels as mouthpieces for their economic and political interests.
They often stay sweet to the state in the hope of smoothing the path for their business operations, but governments have additional ways of keeping control of media.
These include outright or indirect ownership, selectively allocating grants or official advertising spend on which many media depend, or reserving broadcasting or publishing licences for friendly outlets.
Serbia, by far the region's largest country, took a worrying step back in autumn 2023 when a new law removed a years-old ban on some kinds of state-owned stakes in the media. The most obvious beneficiary is Telekom Srbija, which now owns some media as well as the internet or cable providers used to disseminate them, a case of “vertical” concentration of power, i.e. controlling different parts of a supply chain (while horizontal concentration is, for example, owning a major share in newspapers or television stations in one market, or in all branches of a country’s media).
In Albania political control over the media – largely via private owners close to political parties - was also found to be worryingly high.
As expected, print is in decline across the region, Kosovo being the first country with no more daily print in circulation, and with online media growing, though not yet attracting the big bucks, which remain in television.
The EU has strong leverage over the six governments in the region. As part of the accession process they must align with its norms and values, including a free and transparent media with strong regulation, limited state involvement, protection for journalists, and a level playing without concentrated ownership that could stifle free competition.
While on paper, many of the model laws and regulations exist, in reality rules are often creatively circumvented or not effectively enforced.
MOM’s research found that across the region, a lack of data – which should be publicly available – can make it hard to clearly say who really owns which media.
Similarly, a lack of reliable audience and market share figures hampered efforts to determine the extent of concentration of the most popular media in just a few hands.
A mixed picture of progress
In its latest report about the region’s progress to improve the media, the European Union’s overriding attitude was one of “could do better”.
Reporters without borders (RSF), an independent press-freedom organisation, gave lowest marks in its 2023 survey to Albania, followed by Serbia, the only country slipping backwards, whose people trust the media less than anywhere else in Europe.
North Macedonia and Montenegro were deemed to have the best environment in the region for a free media.
This MOM has analysed the region with a set of twelve comparable indicators to assess the risk to media pluralism, which can be explored on this site and in each of the six chapters.