State retaking control of media: What is the practice in Europe

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Source/Author: N1, Maja Đurić

Journalists’ associations are anxiously awaiting the continuation of the public debate on changes to two media laws, which open up a long list of problems. They warn that the state is planning to reacquire media ownership while the government, on the other hand, responds with a counter thesis that it has seen this practice in Europe. N1 asked media experts working in the European Union (EU) – what is the relationship between the state and the media really like?

“The state will withdraw from the media” – this was a promise given by the incumbent government back in 2014. Serbia took the path of reform, but the government had a change of mind. Employing legislation, it now wants to take a piece of the media pie.

The state’s argument is as follows – in 10 EU member states, the telecommunications companies that the state has a stake in – have their own media. They cite the examples of Austria, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Estonia. And this actually is true, but in most cases the state does not have majority ownership and the media in question are not key news channels.

In addition, the level of media freedom in these states is rated far better than that in Serbia. For example, according to the Reporters Without Borders report for 2023, Sweden is ranked fourth, Germany 21st, Austria 29 and Serbia 91st out of 180 countries included in the ranking.

Changes to media laws will have contributed to the further collapse of media freedom in Serbia, which is why they are criticized by journalists’ associations. And the state is not giving up. It even accuses the United Group media of misleading the public when they say that such practice is not in line with EU standards. But is it?

“Mentioned in Austria is the case of the telecommunications company A1, it should be said that the majority of A1 shares is owned by Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim while the state only has a minority share, in other words, the state does not control anything in A1, but Carlos Slim does. The situation is similar in other countries, where sometimes the state has a small stake, mostly owing to the past,” explained Ljubljana-based journalism professor Marko Milosavljevic.

“These recommendations are not in conformity with international and European standards on media freedom and freedom of expression, actually we believe that, if these laws actually are adopted, that will only consolidate political control of your regulatory authority and block the much-needed reforms to strengthen the independence of the regulator and media,” said Maja Sever of the European Federation of Journalists.

The key difference between Serbia and other European countries is precisely in the level and mechanisms of control. The government says nothing about ways in which political influence on the media sphere is prevented in Germany. Or how the Prosecutor’s Office in the aforementioned Austria works. Sebastian Kurz “paid the price” by leaving office due to a media scandal and the suspicion that he exerted influence on the media.

“For example the German Telekom is a huge company and has also been caught in various cases of corruption in many countries, however, only 13 percent of its shares are held by the German state. The vast majority of shares are held by small shareholders, and the vast majority of shares are in the hands of someone outside of Germany. We have the example of the former chancellor of Austria – Sebastian Kurz, who was caught trying to influence the media and had a rough time, we see this not a possibility in Serbia – not only were they caught trying to influence the media, but the media are openly pro-regime,” said Deutsche Welle journalist Nemanja Rujevic.

This was also noted in reports by the European Commission, which is asking Serbia to fix the situation in the media without delay. This is why the people N1 spoke with believe that novelties in the laws could draw still more criticism from Brussels.

“In principle, state ownership is not a good thing, it opens up possibilities for abuse, political and economic, and Serbia will definitely suffer consequences because of that,” professor Milosavljevic added.

All of society will also suffer consequences. This leads to democratic regression and increases the possibility of pressure by the governing elites on independent media, which are already operating in an atmosphere of fear.