Komnenovic: Local public broadcasters continue to justify their existence


PODGORICA 08.09.2018. – The position of local public broadcasters (LPB) in the Montenegrin media present an interesting point for discussion. By will of the government and thanks to new legislation, a democratic step is made towards creating a stable foundation for the independence of 14 local radio and national television stations. These stations set a unique example in this part of Europe, since other ex-Yugoslav countries (other than Slovenia) have abandoned such a concept.
Based on recent events in Montenegro relating to the national public television service, Radio Televizija Crne Gore (henceforth RTCG), it can be said that the legislation that was seemingly set, no longer applies. German author Sigmund Graf described journalism as “a strange phenomenon by which we fool ourselves into expecting autonomous opinions from dependent people.” The method of selecting council representatives (coincidentally by RTCG) has shown the great capacity of political influences and the effective use of soft power in creating dependent media, as per Graph’s statement.

The influx of political will at the council (based on media laws made by citizens’ representatives, not parties) is a great testimony to last year’s events at Radio Tivat. The LPB’s council was affected by mass resignations just as they were due to vote for the next candidate for Director. Radio Tivat’s union representatives (known as one of the best LPBs in Montenegro), managed to prevent the scenario from unfolding, with the support of local citizens. But how long will this last?

The key question of whether or not LPBs in Montenegro will maintain their fragile independence lies in their financing. The elimination of the Radio Televizija RTV subscription and the switchover to RTCG using the state budget has weakened the foundations of the basic idea of financial independence of LPBs and independence from politics and other centres of power. A regional digital media agency has allocated their funds accordingly: 75 percent to RTCG, 10 percent to LPBs, 10 per cent to commercial broadcasters and 5 percent to the agency itself. This allocation system was working extremely well, until a member of the cabinet realised that the stations enjoyed too much independence. LPB budgets from local authorities vary, while Montenegrin media laws have not yet come up with a model to provide systematic and unified funding.

The earnings of employees at local radio stations are below the national average, with less as less interest shown by young professionals as editorial staff get older by the year. The quality of local radio stations varies, as do their audiences. Due to the lower material and social status of employees, self-censorship is a common phenomenon. New regulations stipulate that three-year contracts must be signed with councils, bringing some degree of greater stability.

In recent years, other local radio stations have emerged and are presenting themselves to the public as “genuine public services” which are unlawfully financed by local political organisations using city budgets. At the same time, they are criticised by LPBs for promoting political exclusivity and national and religious intolerance as opposed to pluralistic ideas and democracy.

Despite all of this, LPBs continue to justify their existence in an environment that is getting more unfavourable by the year. According to CEDEM surveys from a few years ago (they unsurprisingly no longer cover this issue), local citizens placed most of their trust in LPB information, with as much as 40 percent allegiance, RTCG and commercial broadcasters far behind them.

Local radio stations have shown their resilience to political pressures and manipulation (which legitimately exist alongside media), and have preserved the trust of local citizens. Information is a media product which, without public confidence, has no value or meaning. In an age of instant information and technologies in which social networks and bots attempt to replace journalists, issues of trust and freedom of the media creator in the LPB have priority. Alongside never-ending competition from the internet and TV, local radio stations are struggling to survive as a quick media platform and one that can be trusted.

Without systematic legal solutions in place, the opinion that LPBs are valuable and imperative in the Montenegrin media space, is under question. The future of LPBs is inextricably linked to the will of the founders, which unfortunately happen to be the local governments of the 14 Montenegrin municipalities in which they function.

Željko Komnenović, Podgorica, 08/09/2018