Concentration – Always Bad?

The Media Ownership Monitor aims, as its name suggests, to find out who owns what media – and whether any one party has too tight a grip on the news and information which citizens can receive.

This can be a huge challenge even in a fully functioning democracy, with truth hidden behind webs of secretive offshore companies, complicated corporate structures or cross-holdings, or proxy owners - using relatives or associates to conceal the beneficial owner, who really calls the shots.

Citizens need to know who is behind the information they get so they can better judge its reliability.

Even if the owner can be established, it can be hard to work out how influential they are. This depends on their media’s share of the audience, and of market revenues in their sector and across all media.

Western Balkan countries usually have clear regulations about declaring ownership, but obtaining this information is not easy. Several countries are making good progress with recently published draft laws to remedy this, yet the road ahead is long but necessary, both for societies and their hopes of joining the European Union.

Companies may fail to declare legally required information to official bodies, who lack the resources to chase them. The latter – be it business registers, media regulators, tax offices or the finance ministry – do not always make their records public and regularly fail to answer requests for information, again, perhaps for lack of time and staff but in some cases clearly out of political motivation.

The Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) took a sample of outlets in each country with the most impact on public opinion, to work out who owns them and what market share they control.

The first steps were to look on the company’s website for this information, or look in their annual report. Or just to ask them. If this is successful, it would be considered a rare case of proactive transparency.

WHO OWNS YOUR MEDIA?

Yet in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, about a quarter of media sampled, including some of the big names, had no legal notice (imprint) on their websites stating the ownership and authorship of a publication, or its address. About 15 percent had no information at all about their owners.

There are still cases of proxy ownership, when the identity of those officially registered as owners and those that actually control the editorial line and fate of the company differ. While in some countries national business or media registers provide information on ownership structures publicly, in other places this data is kept behind a paywall or requires a court order to disclose, like in Bosnia and Herzegovina for example, where the MOM team had to file information requests to local municipal courts where media were registered.

In some cases, a rather obvious political motive seems to be at play.

The U.S. says this is the case with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Alternativna Televizija-Banja Luka (ATV), which it says belongs to a company closely linked to the family of Serb leader Milorad Dodik, a claim both he and the station deny.

“Dodik acquired ATV to deliberately and expressly further his own agenda, which includes his efforts to denigrate other political figures,” a U.S. government statement said. “Dodik himself exerts personal control over ATV.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not alone in having media companies with suspected proxy owners and little information about who is really in charge.

In Kosovo, MOM asked 44 media companies about their owners; only 15 replied. Turning abroad for information about foreign-registered owners, we got replies from North Macedonia but the relevant registries in the Netherlands and Luxembourg said they do not publicly disclose data related to ultimate beneficial ownership.

In Montenegro, researchers highlighted a different problem to do with not-for-profit media organisations. These need not disclose management or funding in the same way as commercial media, and can receive donations and state aid without controls.

“There is a lot of room for manipulation and abuse,” said Goran Djurovic, the head of the Media Centre non-governmental organisation in the capital Podgorica. “Those interested in promoting content that is mostly propaganda through non-profit media have a large area that is not monitored by anyone.”

The Montenegrin Media Union said the audience often had no idea who was behind a website or other media company because media registration was not mandatory by law. “There is a huge space left for the manoeuvring of political and economic sources of influence,” it said.

In October 2023 the government said it might give its electronic media regulator the power to force companies to disclose their “ultimate real owners” and to prevent excessive market dominance.

WHAT DOES TOO DOMINANT MEAN?

In MOM’s methodology, media concentration is deemed as high if the four main owners in any one branch of the media – TV, radio, printed press or online – have more than half of the audience share, or of the market share as measured by revenues. Other indicators look at concentration across all branches of the media, with varying thresholds triggering a ‘high risk’ rating.

MOM has not investigated cross-border concentration, a somewhat neglected area in markets that flow across boundaries given shared languages, heritage and culture.

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Despite an incomplete picture, it seems the greatest media market concentration in the region is in Albania and Serbia. Serbia is the biggest market with seven million people;; and Albania is next with around 2.8 million people.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a special case (with a population of around 3 million), but containing two entities with divergent media.

At the other end of the scale, North Macedonia and Montenegro appear to have less of a problem of media concentrated in just a few hands. However the risk of concentration remains high in both countries due to lack of audience data that would allow for measurements of concentration.

In Albania, ownership seems diverse on the surface with an apparent mix of businessmen and journalists at the helm. Yet MOM’s closer inspection unveils a concentration of power within a few family-owned conglomerates which dominate broadcasting as well as print. 

Data showed little progress in the five years since MOM last checked. 

On a positive note, media concentration was slightly down since MOM’s last snapshot in Albania, market share concentration in 2018 for free-to-air TV was 89.6%, while in 2023 it is at 72.4%, due to a decline in market share for the Hoxha Family (Top Media) and the entrance of the new players (A2 CNN and Euronews Albania). Also the Klan Group sold ABC News TV, which further reduced market concentration. However, that said, market concentration is still significant and rated as high risk to media pluralism.

The EU said in its 2023 Albania report that intersecting business and political interests, opacity of financing and media ownership concentration continue to hamper media independence, pluralism and the quality of journalism.

In Serbia, the only other country in the region which MOM has surveyed before, the risk indicator for audience concentration has remained at ‘high’.

Kosovo still lacks a legal basis to prevent concentrated ownership, although media is protected in the constitution. The EU has criticised it for this and for failing to tackle ownership transparency too. But in October 2023, the media regulator finally published a draft regulation on the issue, which among other things proposed a ceiling of 49 percent foreign ownership of any licensed media.

IS MARKET CONCENTRATION ALWAYS A BAD THING?

While concentration of ownership is best avoided in an ideal world, enforcing too strict ownership limits can have unintended consequences in fragile markets. It could render media not commercially viable, and this opens the way for powerful business people to step in as the last funder standing. They make enough money in other areas to subsidise loss-making media which could then serve as a mouthpiece to further their own business or political interests.

Macedonia, for example, has one of the lowest thresholds for cross-media ownership worldwide (zero), but the media complain this is suffocating them economically.

Poor Data

The Western Balkans suffers from a general paucity of reliable publicly accessible market data to help determine media concentration.

Audience share is measured by private ratings agencies, mainly to help advertisers know the reach and value of any given medium. But their data is often incomplete or not public.

In Albania only one audience research agency remains active, down from three of those service providers five years ago. It delivers data only for television, and even then, figures for the major Top Channel cannot be published due to legal disputes. No data is available for newspapers, radio or online media.

In North Macedonia too, audience data is incomplete, unreliable, or both. Only five out of the 43 television stations know what their ratings are, with viewing figures measured by the respected Nielsen agency, but at a cost - which only the big five appear willing to pay. Telephone surveys by the Audio and Audiovisual Media Services Agency partly fill the gap for other broadcasters but are not ideal. Newspapers publish figures for print runs – but not for the far more useful number of copies actually sold. For online media, as in most countries, there is no unified monitoring system.

Kosovo has no official audience data.

So to a great extent the region’s markets had to be measured without a yardstick. Some media activists say those figures that are available may also be corrupted or in other words, driven by vested interests.

Market share, by revenue, should also be publicly available information, but often is not, with commercial sensitivity often one stated reason. There is always tension in this area but some regulators seem to have too readily agreed with businesses not to publish any of their figures. 

Another huge problem is that the media companies are often subsidiaries of a bigger corporation or conglomerate which needs only overall data.

Serbia’s financially most successful media conglomerate is a case in point. Pink Media Group had revenues of 8.5 billion Dinars (€73 million) and profits of 2.2 billion in 2022. But this parent company runs dozens of television channels, digital platforms and non-media businesses. It was not possible to find data on the performance of individual media within the group, such as Pink Television or Pink Radio.

In Serbia, media outlets and media companies do not publish data on advertising revenues or their market share.

In Kosovo, hardly any media publish financial data. The Business Registry Agency of Kosovo and the Independent Media Commission provided some requested data on market share, but the finance ministry did not explain why reports for most media could not be found on their website, as they should. The tax office declined to provide information on confidentiality grounds.

  • Project by
    BIRN HUB
  •  
    Global Media Registry
  •  
    Funded by European Union