Serbia: Is Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) Compromised

The election of the new REM Council members deepened problems on the Serbian media scene.

Serbian Parliament, in a session of 14 October 2016, chose two candidates that will join the work of the Council of the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) – Djordje Vozarevic and Goran Pekovic. The first member was proposed by the competent Board of the Parliament of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and the second by journalists’ and media associations. Some of the largest associations, such as the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS), Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) failed to propose their own candidates.

The  election of the two members further deepened the problems that the Serbian media scene has been struggling with for months. The Council of REM manages REM, and it is supposed to be comprised of (as per the Law on Electronic Media) ’distinguished experts in the field important for performing duties from the jurisdiction of the Regulator (media experts, economists, lawyers, telecommunication engineers, etc.)’, and these should be individuals independent of political influences.  After the vote of the 14 October, one member post remained vacant still. This member is proposed by associations dealing with freedom of expression and proctection of children. In the session of 14 October  the Parliament did not support Milan Antonijevic of YUCOM – The Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, or the child psychologicst  Snezana Stojanovic Plavsic. They were chosen in a transparent process  as representatives of all the afore mentioned types of associations.

The problems with electing REM Council members appeared after the mandates of three members expired in 2015. Although the Law on Electronic Media stipulates that the public call for new REM Council members must be launched 6 months before the expiration of mandates, the issuing of the call was 4 months late.  Since the moment the public call was finally launched one candidate was obviously favorized, which additionally delayed the election of the full membership of the regulatory body’s Council.

Favorizing a Candidate – Election Delayed for Pekovic

The list of candidates was established for the first time in December 2015. The name of Goran Pekovic was then among the proposed ones, on the list proposed by non-governmental organizations, including sports organizations led by the Special Olympics, the director of which is no one other than Pekovic.

After the vote, the Board established that the chosen candidates were child psychologist from the town of Leskovac, Snezana Stojanovic Plavsic, with 22 votes, and YUCOM director, Milan Antonijevic, with 21 vote. Pekovic failed to pass the selection (with a total of 16 votes). Soon after this outcome further election of the Council members was stopped.

President of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV), Nedim Sejdinovic, said that the law was seriously breached during the election of the candidates. As Sejdinovic explained, the Parliament rejected to elect one of these candidates, which breached the Law on Electronic Media and the Parliamentary rulebook.

’As for the manner in which the member was not elected, it is an alarming violation of procedure and law because they did not allow the candidate to enter the Parliamentary procedure, while the law obliged them to do so’, Sejdinovic pointed out.

Although favorizing of candidate Pekovic was obvious in the first trial of the election of the missing Council members, Pekovic was proposed again when the new, second procedure was initiated;  this time he was proposed by media and journalists’ associations, more precisely the Association of Radio Stations RAB. We asked the RAB’s president, Maja Rakovic, why they included Pekovic on their list although he was on the list of other associations in the first round, and she said that he had already been the REM Council member and thus ’it will not be a problem for him to perform the same role again’.

’We chose him because he is a man who fought the most for media literacy and it is very important to us to deal with the problems of nurturing serbian language. It is a great honor to us that he is a man from the profession, and I honestly think that his experience is very important’, Rakovic said for Fairpress.

Is REM Compromised after all?

After these events, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) said that the institue of the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media is irrevocably compromised and that ’it is necessary to search for a new model of the independent regulation of electronic meda scene that will prevent the authorities to drastically abuse this institute’.

In its statement, NDNV added that REM had been under an immense influence of executive government and in recent years it ’turned in its own caricature’, i.e. ’ became a mallet in the hands of the prime minster’s cabinet’.

NDNV president, Nedim Sejdinovic, said to Fairpress that it is already clear that REM would not be able to perform its role in the following four to five years and that it will be an instrument in the hands of the executive government.

’In the following years REM will be used for political influence, supression of critical speech and freedom of expression. I think that our media scene must go through a serious reset so as to cease with the current practice’, Sejdinovic concluded.

As stated above, alongside Pekovic, the Parliament of Serbia elected Djordje Vozarevic, who used to be a member of the Managing Board of the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), the national public broadcaster. According to Sejdinovic, Vozarevic was, along with Pekovic, appointed a REM Council member by the executive government.

’I think that his position in the REM Council has nothing to do with expertise or any legitimate recommendation. The only known thing is his close friendship with the former REM president, Goran Karadzic’, Sejdinovic said.

Sejdinovic also said that Vozarevic had been nominated for the election into the Managing Board of RTS by a phantom organization ’Center for Democracy’ in Novi Sad whose activities had not been known at the time.

Two processes will soon be initiated on the Serbian media scene – one related to the adoption of a new media strategy, and the other is the continuation of negotiations with the European Union. As Sejdinovic explains, it is very important to talk about REM during discussions on chapters 23 and 10 [of the EU accession negotiations]  and these processes must be used for developing a new media platform that will secure full political independence of this body.

REM Still Incomplete – Awaiting the Last Member

In the midst of controversies surrounding two elected members, REM problems were not at all solved in the latest session of the Serbian Parliament. One spot remains vacant, the proposers for which are organizations dealing with freedom of expression and protection of children.

As Sejdinovic explained, this shows that candidates Antonijevic and Plavsic were not politically suitable and the authorities will refuse to elect either of the two until they devise a mechanism to introduce their own candidate.

’This only goes to show how the authorities, although they have a huge majority, will not allow a different voice. I believe that REM will operate for long without one member unless the authorities manage to introduce a suitable individual in the Council’, said NDNV president.

The session in which, among other issues, it was decided on the fate of REM, passed in a very unusual atmosphere.  In the case of voting for REM, but also other items on the agenda, a rather strange trend of voting was noticed. Parliamentary President, Maja Gojkovic, used the president’s bell to give instructions to members of the ruling coalition whether to vote ’for’ or ’abstain’.  MPs of opposition parties also noticed this, and some even filed objections for breaching of the Rules of Procedure.

The candidate who was twice on the list, Milan Antonijevic, announced that the civil sector will launch an administrative dispute due to the events surrounding the election of the REM Council members.

‘We are considering how this situation could be legally qualified. Considering that there was a violation of the law, we are debating all possible options with our lawyers. This administrative dispute is not something usual, so we have to be very careful and keep in mind that the courts will also consider the complaint’, Antonijevic explained for Fairpress.

Consequences of Incomplete REM Already Visible in Practice

The consequences of REM operating although incomplete and those of politically instructed election of REM members are already visible in practice. The task of this body is to, in an unbiased and professional manner, choose members of Managing Boards of the two public media services – RTS and Radio Television of Vojvodina (RTV).

Media experts have already brought into question the legitimity of the election of RTV Managing Board members since the decision was passed by REM in an incomplete composition, i.e. operating with only six members.

Precisely after one of these decisions, the public service of the autonomous province – RTV came in the spotlight.  Only a few day after the elections at all levels in Serbia in April 2016, after the Serbian Progressive Parties won the power in Vojvodina, the newly elected Managing Board of RTV initiated swift changes in the management structure of this media outlet.

Precisely this new Managing Board decided to replace the program director of RTV, Slobodan Arezina. What followed were resignations by the general director, Srdjan Mihajlovic, and editor of the TV’s first program Marjana Jovic. This enabled the new Managing Board of RTV to appoint new people in their place. These new people dismissed, practically over night,  another 14 editors.

To draw attention to the illegitimate election of the Managing Board and the fact that its decisions are therefore illegitimate, dismissed journalists launched protests and established the movement ‘Support RTV’. During four rallies in the streets, the movement asked for the annulment of the decisions and resignations of the RTV’s Managing Board. The protests in the streets were joined not only by journalists, but also by non-governmental organizations and citizens.

A representative of the movement ‘Support RTV’ and former RTV journalist, Sanja Kljajic, said to Fairpress that no matter how much REM ‘washed its hands of RTV’, it has the competencies to protect RTV from political and other influences.

‘When we asked for resignations of REM Council members, we did so because they are an actor in the chain of responsibility. The responsibility is not only on those who broke the news to us, but also on those who gave the opportunity to the new people to pass such decisions. That is why we asked for them to bear responsibility because they directly appointed the new RTV Managing Board’, Sanja Kljajic said to Fairpress and added that this time they there is no excuse for REM because public service broadcasters are precisely within its competence.

Chapter 23 – On the Way to EU, Serbia will Have to Put its Media Scene in Order

Poor functioning of REM is not the only reason for problems on the Serbian media scene. Some of the evident problems are: tabloidization of media space, opaque media ownership, purchase of media with the help of political parties’ funds, poorly executed media privatization causing a large breakdown of media, in particular of those in minority languages.

In the last months freedom of speech hit the bottom, criticism of the authorities is increasingly hard to find, censorship and self-censorship are blooming, and a remedy is ready for anyone willing to (according to the rules of the profession) oppose corruption or other societal wrongdoings – death threats, beatings and open attacks.

According to the latest report by Freedom House, Serbia is among 19 countries with the largest decline in media freedoms in 2015. With only 45 points, Serbia holds 36th place in Europe in media freedoms (countries with 0 points have the most developed media freedoms; 100 points go to counties with the most endangered media freedoms).

As stated in the report, the decline in media freedoms in Serbia is caused by ‘the hostile rhetoric of the Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, towards investigative reporters’, as well as by reported censorship of journalists and media outlets and a reduction in critical and independent reporting.

However, in December 2015, Serbia opened two chapters in the negotiations for the accession to the EU – chapters 23 and 24. The two chapters pertain to the protection of human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly, as well as regulating judicial system and establishing grounds for the rule of law.

At a recently held round table ‘Regulatory Bodies and Media Integrity’, organized by the Novi Sad School of Journalism, the head of the Media Department of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, Gordana Jankovic, pointed out that with the new Law on Electronic Media of 2014, the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media had a significant change of status.

‘Their employees are now treated as civil servants, and the process of election of the Council members strengthens political criteria as opposed to the criteria of expertise that used to be dominant’, Jankovic stressed at the event and added that REM in Serbia has a series of mechanisms at its disposal, but their implementation in practice is insufficiently efficient. As she stated for Fairpress, she can only assume that the current situation at REM will make it to the EU’s annual report, and that the situation should give clear pointers regarding the state of the media in Serbia.

The article was written by Lea Kotlica. It was originally published by in local language. It was translated by SEENPM.