Tanjug, the state-owned news agency in Serbia, is still publishing two months after it should have closed down in line with an EU-backed media reform. According to critics, the case is a blatant example of inconsistent implementation of the law by Belgrade, but also reveals a lack of transparency about the state’s influence in national media.
President of the Independent Journalist’s Association of Serbia (IJAS) Vukašin Obradović described the developments with the closure of Tanjug as „underground political games“ and „unrealistic and unacceptable wish that Tanjug keeps its current position“.
„This includes financing from the budget and privileged position on the market“, Obradovic said back in November when it became clear there would be tries not to implement media regulation strictly in the case of Tanjug.
He said that management of Tanjug is in large part responsible for the hard situation in which that agency found itself. As he said, the whole strategy to try to keep Tanjug in life was based on the expectations that the highest state officials would make an exception for Tanjug, in breach of both law and media strategy. In this sense, he called on Tanjug director Branka Đukić to provide information on the reasons for such approach and to identify those who were giving such promises.
In fact, not only is Tanjug still supplying news to the majority of the media in Serbia (and a number of other media outlets across the Balkans), but it still conducts interviews with government members and senior state officials – the very people who in November backed the decision to shutter Tanjug.
Tanjug is close to the government, and critics fear its survival is a tactic to keep the outlet alive whilst new state funding is found.
Tanjug should have closed down on 5 November, officially, following two failed rounds of privatization aimed at all Serbian media bar the TV public broadcaster Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and Radio Television Vojvodina (RTV).
Simonović: Tanjug is Not Sustainable
Lawyer specialized for media Slobodan Kremenjak said on January 11 that Tanjug should have ceased operations on the media market as the Government’s Decision gives possibility only to postpone filing the request for cancellation from the Business Registry Agency. However, as he said, the Decision is not very precise in terms of obligations for which the agency can engage workers.
“My opinion is that it is possible to engage employees on contract only for finalization of the tasks related to the cease of functioning of Tanjug, and not for the regular production”, Kremenjak said to FoNet.
Until its supposed demise, Tanjug received some two million euros a year in state aid, and was close to the authorities. This state aid comes to 166,666 monthly on average, which suffices for nearly 330 average gross salaries in Serbia (which amounts to around 61,000 according to the Statistical Office of Serbia, or 505.2 Euros converted by the average exchange rate for the 2015 published by the National Bank of Serbia).
It also is a brand from the communist Yugoslavia era, with a rich archive, which is transferred to the state.
Director of daily Blic Veselin Simonović outlined this lack of economic viability of Tanjug as a key issue in privatization.
„Nobody mentions the main issue, which is that Tanjug can’t earn for the salaries of such large number of employees on the market, and if they became private company they would also have to pay for the rent in a building in which they currently operate”, he said.
He also outlined that there is not much reason to “lament over national and state symbols”. Beta and FoNet were founded by ex-employees of Tanjug who left that agency in times when one couldn’t work “honorably and professionally” there, Simonović said, in reference to the tight political control over Tanjug during the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in the 90’s.
The financing, in fact, still continues, as outlined by the Editor-in-Chief of the anti corruption portal Pištaljka Vladimir Radomirović. Since beggining of November the Government provided 94.25 million dinars (766.000 Euros) for Tanjug.
In November, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić stated he was against the closure, and blamed the minister in charge, Ivan Tasovac, saying another solution would be found.
Tanjug, and other Serbian media, were originally given 15 months for their privatizations, but the Tanjug management kept a low profile during that time, neither strongly opposing privatization in public nor undergoing serious preparations for privatization – such as decreasing the number of employees to achieve profitability.
Tanjug employees were not even offered the possibility of taking shares in their company – the preferred solution in the regulations for media that did not find private investors. The authorities blamed the Tanjug management for not filing this request, but so far there have been no consequences.
Now, two months after the supposed shutdown, there is no indication of a deadline for the privatization process, nor of the legal grounds for Tanjug’s current operations.
Serbia’s national business register said last week that Tanjug was still on its Register of Companies. The Ministry of Culture referred questions about when it might be erased from the register back to Tanjug’s director, Branka Đukic.
Serbia’s Directorate of Property merely said an inventory of Tanjug’s property was ongoing, and the government would decide what happens with it.
Đukić herself told the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (JAS), there were numerous tasks to finalize prior to closure, such as an inventory and the financial report for 2015. She also slammed the JAS for not advocating on Tanjug’s behalf, although Tanjug itself did not speak out when other Serbian media closed down after failed privatizations.