State Control – Can You See It?

The Media Ownership Monitor’s research has found that many Western Balkans governments still wield influence over the media, even though constitutions or other laws prohibit this.

The Media Ownership Monitor’s research has found that many Western Balkans governments still wield influence over the media, even though constitutions or other laws prohibit this.

Just over three decades ago, the state controlled all or nearly all media in communist Albania and Yugoslavia, the federation to which the other five states all belonged.

A more pluralistic and diverse landscape ensued in the wake of a traumatic and in places violent transition from communism to free markets, with foreign investors coming in the pursuit of profits, and later leaving again.

Today the state still has the upper hand in some countries like Serbia and Albania, while others have gone further in distancing those in power from those in the media meant to be holding them to account.

A detailed picture of the political control over content, distribution network and the funding of media is provided through the MOM risk indicators, which can be compared here, and in the six chapters of this regional cluster for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

A government or those in power can control or intimidate media in many ways: direct or indirect ownership; controlling regulators who hand out media licences; ownership by allies; allocating grants or official advertising spend on which many media depend for survival; or just plain intimidating journalists.

 

DIRECT OWNERSHIP

Across the region, state broadcasters have been transformed into public broadcasters, at least by name and to a varying degree of success. The former were mouthpieces of the party; the latter are still publicly funded, by licence fees or other means, but should be at arm’s length from state influence, with independent governance and an impartial editorial line.

The reality often differs, and political involvement starts at the top.

In most cases, parliament appoints the public broadcaster’s leaders. In a vibrant political system full of different parties, political checks and balances may be achieved – or endless in-fighting can turn a temporary appointment into a quasi-permanent one, to the benefit of whichever party’s ally holds the post. 

And in a parliament dominated by one party, the appointees can bring political pressure with them.

This research underpins findings of watchdogs like Freedom House, which noted that in Serbia, the ruling political party generally receives most coverage by the state-owned and operated broadcasters.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it states that local and regional public broadcasters often operate as partisan platforms, especially in the Serb part of the country.

It also found undue influence on editorial lines at Kosovo’s public broadcaster, though parliament is now taking steps to depoliticise appointments there.

More positively, Freedom House said Montenegro’s state broadcaster, RTCG, has made strides to becoming a genuine public-service broadcaster, with a more balanced editorial policy and more inclusive and diverse political content. Opinion polls in 2022 showed increased public trust in RTCG, and more viewers.

 

INDIRECT OWNERSHIP

After a period of promising reforms, Serbia is showing the most obvious backsliding in the region concerning indirect state ownership. 

Ground-breaking 2014 laws forbade the state from direct or indirect control of any media. It duly sold off all its local media – but retained influential national newspapers such as Politika and Večernje novosti.

It seemed to be making fresh headway this year with changes to media laws, many of them welcomed by the EU, such as codifying the Press Council’s role and making public programme co-funding more transparent.

But these advances have been eclipsed by last-minute amendments reversing elements of the 2014 reforms. Legislation in late 2023 permitted state-owned telecoms companies – in practice, the national giant, Telekom Srbija – to buy and run media companies.

Telekom Srbija entered the media market in 2004 when it set up its Mondo online portal. Since then, it has also engaged in transactions that hinted at a major media expansion, by buying influential publishers and broadcasters across the region.

In 2018 Mondo bought Adria Media Group, which publishes Kurir, a top-selling tabloid, and also bought a cable operator which owns two national terrestrial television stations, Prva and B92. In 2022 Telekom's Arena subsidiary began broadcasting sports channels across all the former Yugoslav territory, including Croatia and Slovenia.

This level of vertical concentration was not only unparalleled in the region, but also problematic in regulatory terms. Now it has been legalised.

 

CONTROLLING REGULATORS 

Constitutions and laws guarantee a free and fair media, and regulators should police this. But they too can be co-opted by the state.

Another media watchdog, Reporters without Borders (RSF), gave Albania the lowest press-freedom marks in the region in 2023, saying appointments to public media and regulators were politicised.

It also said the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority in Serbia lacked independence, and slammed it after four national broadcast frequencies were awarded to pro-government media in 2022.

In Kosovo, RSF welcomed first steps to make the Independent Media Commission work more independently through professional appointments.

 

FRIENDLY OWNERS 

Albania’s top media are owned by powerful families who have close ties to politicians and run businesses ranging from construction to oil trading. Even if there are many media in a small market, their reporting often displays strong bias towards their owners’ economic and political interests.

MOM’s research found that media whose owners have specific political affiliations account for 98 percent of the Albanian audience. MOM rates political control over media outlets as high, where the Socialist Party has been in power since 2013.

 

FUNDING VIA GRANTS 

In small and fragmented markets, sustainability is a huge problem and some media only survive with injections of state cash, in the form of programming grants or public advertising.

Handouts during the Covid pandemic kept afloat many media who are still desperate today for state financial help, ideally with no expectation of a pro-government editorial line in return.

In Montenegro, the smallest market which has three daily newspapers, five national television stations and 150 other registered media for just 620,000 inhabitants, the state pays them to produce educational, cultural or minority-related content. Media executives, representing both commercial and local public media, demand more state aid to stay afloat.

In Serbia, state funding is already substantial but grants are given out unevenly and opaquely – though 2023 legislation is designed to bring more clarity here. Many, especially local, media have a modest revenue from advertising and rely on state assistance, particularly grants for co-financing various stories.

Albania's government uses sticks and carrots to shape media coverage. Some prominent media get subsidies and concessions, but those critical of the ruling party face fines, inspections and other punitive measures. 

Indirect state funding is a major source of revenue for the Albanian media, but its opaque and discriminatory distribution raises suspicions of influence peddling among foreign observers. A sophisticated propaganda machinery, funded by public money, generates pre-packaged content disseminated through TV stations and online media. For example, a recent survey found that in pro-government media, stories about the capital Tirana were almost exactly the same as press releases put out by the municipality.

 

FUNDING VIA OFFICIAL ADVERTISING 

North Macedonia is a small but crowded market with cut-throat competition – so crowded in fact that 33 television stations have gone bust in the last 12 years – but this still leaves 43 today, for just over 1,8 million people.

In hopes of sustainability, the media turned first to the state. By 2016, it was the country’s largest advertiser. A right-wing government, in power from 2006 to 2016, paid “friendly” media over 26 million euros to run campaigns on such topics as ethics and healthy food and lifestyles. 

The tap of state money dried up in 2017. A new government, led by left-wing Social Democrats, banned public-interest campaigns to stem influence peddling.

This seemingly laudable step had unintended consequences: without the state money, many media companies now face financial difficulties. Television companies have been pleading with the government to reverse the law and this now looks set to happen, but with safeguards: the spend must be strictly limited to public interest campaigns and local governments may only use local or regional media. In this manner, the state will guarantee to spend between 3 and 4 million euros a year.

 

INTIMIDATING JOURNALISTS

Lastly, but most importantly, for the journalists themselves, the state can use its power to intimidate its way to positive coverage.

Business leaders do the same, firing off lawsuits – so called SLAPPs, Strategic lawsuits against public participation – against journalists who shed unwanted light on their affairs.

The desired result, self censorship, is prevalent across the region.

Journalists critical of the Albanian government have been subject to political attacks and smear campaigns, such as when Tirana’s mayor called one journalist a contract killer when she asked about an investigation into waste-management contracts. 

In Serbia, regulators have been criticised for doing nothing to stop political attacks on journalists instigated by members of the ruling elite and amplified on some national TV networks. Independent journalists also face restricted access to interviews with government representatives and to public information.

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