After months of turbulent and controversial debates in the public sphere, Serbian Parliament elected two new members of the Council of the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) on 14 October.
However, the new members should have included candidates proposed by associations dedicated to freedom of expression and those dealing with protection of children, but this is not the case.
The issue has created a major dispute between those involved in proposing and choosing the candidates.
The two newly elected members were proposed by the associations of electronic media publishers and the Parliament of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina respectively. This ended a long period in which the Regulatory Authority was incomplete, but nevertheless operated, even during the election campaign.
The election of the new members revived the debates about the Regulatory Authority’s efficiency, transparency and political influence on its work – although these issues have constantly been high on the agenda of the Serbian media community.
The Novi Sad School of Journalism, a SEENPM member, promptly reacted to the election of new REM Council members by organizing a round table on the topic of regulatory bodies and media integrity on 17 October.
The focus of the debate during the round table was on several issues: the process of the election of new Council members and the results of it, transparency and independence of regulatory bodies, their role in the fulfillment of public interest of all citizens, the legal framework of their operation, and the possibilities for improving their work.
Prof. Dubravka Valic Nedeljkovic of the Novi Sad School of Journalism opened the round table by presenting observations collected during six-months long monitoring of public service broadcasters, implemented by the School in the first half of 2016. The project included monitoring of the implementation of REM’s instructions during election campaign and informing the public and REM about breaches of the instructions.
During the monitoring, two local TV stations were reported for breachhing the REM rulebook on advertising during election campaign because they had live broadcasts of political parties’ rallies in central news programs. ’Still, six months after the complaints were submitted, there is not a single reaction to them’, Nedeljkovic pointed out.
’The Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media has been compromised since it was established and we think that there is no possibility to solve this problems with laws and with the help of organizations. Our recommendation is that the regulatory authority as it is now should cease to exist; instead, an entirely new body should be created with competencies presently vested in REM’, said Nedim Sejdinovic of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina.
The Head of the Media Department of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, Gordana Jankovic, said that the OSCE Mission is prepared to help with expert consultancy, in accordance with its mandate, because the independence of REM is one of the pillars of democratic society and press freedom.
A candidate for a REM Council member proposed by civil society organizations, Milan Antonijevic, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, commended the initiative of the civil sector in the process of proposing candidates for the new REM Council members. Although representatives of the civil sector were not elected to the REM Council in this round, one should not stop at that, said Antonijevic stressing that it is necessary to persisently monitor REM’s work by verifying its annual reports.
Media expert and one of the candidates for the REM Council proposed by the government of the Vojvodina province, Sinisa Isakov, said that enabling a healthy media market is among the most important tasks of the regulatory body while the market is, in fact, on the constant decline. He stressed that REM must take utmost care of the protection of minors and making the price of services affordable, while Serbia is seriously lagging behind when it comes to these issues.
The overall conclusion of the event was that monitoring of the Regulatory Authority is necessary, as well as an active reaction to its operation by representatives of media associations, organizations and individuals. In order to secure media integrity, the rules proscribed by regulatory bodies and internal rules of media outlets must be clear and transparent.
All the present and distinguished former REM Council members had been invited to the round table, but none of them joined the event.
The round table was organized within the scope of the project South East European Media Observatory and in cooperation with the Open Society Foundation.