The Limits of National Regulation

Media regulation in the Western Balkans works well in parts, Media Ownership Monitor research found, but in other areas, goals written on paper are failing to be met, amid complaints of political interference and inefficiency.

The media landscape of the region also raises a particular question: how can national bodies effectively regulate – to ensure competition, variety, transparency and decency – when the market in some respects ignores frontiers?

 

CROSS-BORDER DILEMMA

There is no cross-border regulation in a region whose shared languages, culture and history allow for a shared media market to some degree.

This problem is not unique here, but is exacerbated by the uneven size of the countries, politically sensitive ethnic-minority audiences, the relative youth of competitive media markets and, even more so, of the regulatory frameworks trying to police them.

“Western Balkans” is shorthand for Albania and those parts of former Yugoslavia that, unlike Croatia and Slovenia, are not already members of the European Union. 

For decades 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.

Media in one country (even outside the region, like Croatia or Bulgaria) can target an audience in another, whose regulator will have little control unless there is an official local subsidiary.

This mainly benefits powerful media from the bigger countries, i.e. Albania and Serbia whose people speak the two main cross-border languages, or from outside the region.

Serbs, Montenegrins and Bosnians (as well as Croats) all communicate within the same family of language, which many North Macedonians also understand.

Ethnic Albanians speak a very different language, as the majority in Albania and Kosovo, and as minorities in North Macedonia and Montenegro.

 

National regulators oversee terrestrial broadcasting licences but have little control over television stations channelled into the country via cable or satellite, or over online media whose importance is growing.

In the Western Balkans, where ethnic tensions remain high after the wars of the 1990s, this has led to accusations of interference by neighbouring governments (particularly by Serbia) via state-backed media.

Many Serbian media toe a pro-government line which can influence Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro. The same is true of Albanian media, which can reach Kosovars and North Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians. Croatian media also have a strong reach in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

The bigger regional or multinational media groups have set up subsidiaries in target countries which are then subject to national regulation, such as Albania’s Klan Media which is active in North Macedonia. In this case, there is no need for cross-border regulation, just robust national oversight – which itself is often lacking.

But in other cases, there is no local offshoot – or not any longer. Serbia’s Pink Media  ended up selling off its local television subsidiary in 2018 following regulatory action. But now, Pink Media continues to broadcast into Montenegro directly from Serbia. 

Several Montenegrin officials continue to accuse Serbia of using Pink to exert political influence, especially around elections. Pink denied this.

 

REGIONAL MARKET DOMINANCE 

There has been constant media change since the 1990s. Then, many big European media companies (like Germany’s Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung) piled into what they hoped would be a lucrative market in the newly democratising Balkans, only to quit  later when it proved too hard to turn a profit. A few have remained.

Major companies today include United Group, which is owned by a British private equity firm but of regional origin and which targets all former Yugoslavia with subscription television.

Swiss-based Ringier has a big presence in Serbia, and Austrian actors also have subsidiaries in the region.

 

Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) found it hard to obtain reliable data to gauge media concentration at a national level, let alone transnational data which would be needed to check if a company had a worrying grip across the region’s wider language markets. 

For lack of mandate, this is not something national regulators look at.

Concentration may not even be a bad thing in itself, if transparent; in a region of small markets, a strong cross-border presence may well be one of few ways to secure a viable business model.

 

Worrying regarding outside influence are various state-owned media which have set up in the region in recent years, though their audiences are too small to cause concern over market share itself.

Most successful of these is perhaps Sarajevo-based Al Jazeera Balkans, owned by Qatar’s state-controlled Al Jazeera Media Network, which is most popular in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but attracts viewers across the region and is in the top five foreign news stations watched in Serbia. It avoids the often ethnically partisan news found on local channels.

State-run China Radio International runs Serbian-language radio programming and web content.

Russian state media remains visible this region, such as Sputnik’s news portals and radio services in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and RT (formerly Russia Today) which was banned by the EU through its sanctioning regime, but continues to broadcast in English and Russian across the Balkans via cable and satellite.

RT has launched a Serbian-language web and TV offshoot called RT Balkan.

Serbia is Russia's closest ally in the region and pro-Russian sentiment is strong. Sputnik and RT content is widely re-distributed by Serbian media.

“Serbia needs to take urgent action to counter anti-EU narratives propagated by numerous media outlets, and to counter foreign information manipulation and interference, most notably in the context of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine,” the EU said in its 2023 Serbia report.

 

NATIONAL REGULATION 

Nationally, the media have good legislative and regulatory frameworks but suffer from a lack of available data on media markets and owners, and often a lack of will to challenge politicians.

Regulators should ensure a free and fair, pluralistic media landscape by preventing pressure from the state or ruling party, upholding ethical and professional standards and preventing the control of media falling into too few hands.

This concentration of ownership could be “horizontal” – an outsized share in one newspaper, online, radio or television market, or in all together – or “vertical” where one owner controls different parts of a supply chain, such as the people who create the content and the means of distributing it, like cable or mobile data networks, even a printing press.

In most Western Balkan countries completely distinct laws and regulatory bodies govern broadcasting and telecommunications each, meaning that vertical concentration is not checked. Many also have separate rules for different media sectors, allowing one owner to build up a sizable market share across broadcast, print and online media.

 

Serbia made headway on this with changes in 2023 to laws on public information and electronic media, but progress was overshadowed by surprise amendments which meant that for the first time in a decade, telecommunications firms could buy up media, something state-owned Telekom Srbija had apparently been doing for years anyway.

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Since the last MOM research six years ago, media pluralism has continued to decline in Serbia, in part due to weak institutions and regulatory systems.

The European Commission, the EU executive, has said Serbia’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (REM) “fails to demonstrate its independence in a consistent manner and to exercise its mandate to the full safeguarding media pluralism and professional standards”.

The journalism watchdog Reporters without borders (RSF) called for an end to “toxic” regulation of the media, with criticism focused on REM’s allocating national broadcast frequencies to pro-government media.  

 

As everywhere, the internet is rapidly growing as a source of news and information but regulation has not always kept up. 

 

Kosovo – where the average age is around 30, compared to 43 in Serbia - has one of Europe’s highest internet penetration rates and leads the region in social media usage.

MOM research into Kosovo media owners has revealed a lack of transparency, stemming from a legally muted framework. Efforts to reveal beneficial owners (those who really hold the power, rather than proxies in whose name a company might be registered), had limited success. A legal foundation to stop one person owning too much of the media is also missing, MOM found.

The regulator, the Independent Media Commission, has been promising new steps in this direction for five years. In late 2023 it published draft rules that would among other steps limit foreign ownership of any media to a minority stake.

The RSF watchdog said the regulator had been ineffective, while two staff members, the Chief Executive Officer and the director of Administration were charged in a corruption case. However, RSF  balanced its assessment with encouraging comments: the government had made significant progress in depoliticising the public broadcaster, regulatory bodies and media legislation.

 

In Albania, laws only cover audiovisual media and do not define media concentration, leading MOM to rate the risk of such concentration as high.

 

The EU has given North Macedonia a relatively good appraisal for media freedom but urged parliament to finalise appointments to the media regulator and programming council of the public broadcaster, as both have been delayed for years.

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its complex political structure, only has a national law on communications, which partly regulates online media, and a law on public broadcasting. It still lacks laws on media ownership transparency and on advertising. Authorities in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-run part of the country, have started drafting new laws, but journalists complain the process lacks transparency or proper consultation.

RSF said criminal penalties for defamation, abolished in most of Europe but reintroduced in Republika Srpska in July 2023, hurt civil society and restrict freedom of expression.

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