Comparing models and demanding reforms of public service media in SEE

The project »South East European Media Observatory« has produced  a regional overview of the funding and governing models of public service broadcasters/media in nine countries of South East Europe, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Three EU Member States, partners in the project are included to contribute comparative data.

With such comparative overview the SEE Media Observatory wishes to inform and support media reform initiatives in the countries of the region.

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Authors: Brankica Petković, Saša Panić, Sandra B. Hrvatin


The position of public service broadcasters in the media systems of the countries of South East Europe gives them, in theory, the best vantage from which to protect public service values in media operations and journalism. Since the end of 2012 when the regional partnership of civil society organisations was established under the name “South East European Media Observatory”, we have promoted this broad set of values, capturing them in the concept of media integrity. Media reforms are an urgent task for any democratic government in the region, but such reforms, including each reform policy and its measures, must be guided by the criterion of whether they strengthen these public service values in media and journalism: i.e., media integrity. Any such media reform with media integrity as a guiding principle needs to focus on public service broadcasters, making their governing and funding models as well as their professional standards completely congruent with media integrity principles.

At the end of the four-year period of SEE Media Observatory research and advocacy aimed at the promotion and implementation of media integrity principles, we have decided to collect information on the governing and funding models of public broadcasters in the countries included in the regional partnership. Through a comparative overview, we seek to establish similarities and differences, as well as where good practices in the governing and funding models which empower the public media for serving the public interest and resisting political interference can be found. This regional overview can support media reform initiatives with useful comparative data.

Besides the countries that have been the focus of the SEE Media Observatory – the EU-enlargement countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey, in this regional overview we have also included Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia. However, owing to the extraordinary situation in Turkey since July 2016, we could not engage with the partner there to collect the requested data.

Therefore, the countries covered by the regional overview include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. In Hungary, the public service media system is very complex and differs from that in other countries. It was established by controversial media regulation in 2010. For certain elements of the governing and funding model, we could not sufficiently trace the comparable solutions in Hungary, as these would have been manifold and complicated.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, the public media system includes more than one public service media organisation. On the national level in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is BHRT, and then in the two entities there are also RTVFBiH in the Federation and RTRS in Republika Srpska. In Serbia, the public service media organisation at the national level is RTS, and there is also a public service media organisation at the level of Vojvodina province – RTV. In our regional overview, we focus mostly on those public service media at the national level.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of public service media in Europe, shared with us their data on the funding of their member organisations. In their reports, no data on Kosovo are available, since the public service media organisation in Kosovo has not been yet accepted into the EBU.

For this regional overview, we have decided to use the EBU terminology now commonly applied in EU documents and the latest regulations, which take into account that the services provided by public broadcasters now include online operations. Instead of the term “public service broadcasters” (PSB), which we used in all previous SEE Media Observatory studies, we are using the term “public service media” (PSM).

General overview

The situation of public service media displays every major problem of the media sector in the region. The grip of the partial political interests in which these institutions find themselves is so strong that their operations constitute a kind of barometer for the state of media freedom. While most states covered by our analysis have continually modified their laws to secure greater independence for the public service media, the practical application of these laws has proven impossible because of political pressures aimed at preventing the enforcement of public interest. Hit by a decrease in their economic influence in the emerging commercial media market, these media initiated a transition from state-run to public-service. However, they have failed to connect with the public. The formerly state-run media outlets, albeit transformed at the formal level into public service media, were quickly taken over by political elites. This gave rise to a specific form of party domination within media, where the governing, managing and editorial positions were reserved for personnel loyal to those in power. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the international community launched several initiatives, starting as far back as 2000, to get a new public broadcasting service off the ground — which never happened. To make matters worse, in 2016 a shortage of financial resources coupled with a complete political blockade in managing basic institutional operating conditions nearly forced BHRT, a joint Bosnian-Herzegovinian public service, to stop broadcasting.

An inspection of the institutional mechanisms aimed at ensuring public service media independence reveals a plethora of inventive ways to curb the influence of the public, and to enable political incursions into management structures whenever a change in government occurs. There are inadequate methods for resolving conflicts of interest involving people in the governing and managing bodies who shun their intended roles as protectors of the public by acting as extensions of political groups.

There are glaring misunderstandings of the role of public service media, as well as financial inefficiency that results not only from inherited organisational dysfunctions but also from a disregard for the economic character of media markets now thoroughly deformed. Add to that the innumerable instances of reckless tampering with laws gives rise to an unstable legal environment and erodes the very foundations of public service media independence, and it becomes clear that the establishment of functioning public service media will be crucial to ensuring media integrity. In countries with powerful public service media that assume a leading role in setting professional media standards, other media follow suit, conducting themselves in a much more professional manner and with greater sensitivity to the communication needs of the people. A comparison of the legal status of public service media in the countries analysed shows that, while legal mechanisms of organisational independence do exist, hardly any legal provisions are in place to make said independence a reality. What is at fault, of course, are the methods of media funding and the resulting trend of constant decrease in the funds required by the media to meet their legal programming obligations. Instead of making media more dependent on the public through systematic support for efficient licence fee collection, some countries (occasionally with support from the public service media governing officials) are opting to fund public service media from state budgets. On the one hand, these trends are fuelled by campaign promises of certain political parties, but on the other, they are accelerated by the inability of the media themselves to explain to the public the significance of public service media in an increasingly fragmented and commercialised media environment.

Part of that story includes the current attempts of some political campaigners in Slovenia to abolish the licence fee and diminish the public service media. In addition to that, wherever a large proportion of the population are surviving near the poverty line, to decrease licence fees or abolish them altogether is to commit a case of extreme demagogy, where one is “saving money” at the expense of the citizens’ right to be informed. In lieu of a serious examination of the fact that this basic human right has become financially unattainable for many citizens, and that by favouring the commercial sector the state has made that right a hostage to advertising, public service media are frequently abused to attain short-term political goals. The relationship is mutual, of course.

Public service media have never learned to respect the people. Far from basing their organisational and programming operations on responsibility to the public and to their employees, they have adopted practices that often resulted in the opposite: e.g., in non-transparent use of public funds, in murky, cronyist methods of acquiring external programming, in non-transparent advertising contracts and in the irregular employment status of many media workers. For the most part, the programming standards meant to insure internal and external mechanisms of control over the media’s programming and business practices are simply not applied. While many countries have prepared the necessary legal grounds, these standards either fail to function or get utilised in retaliation against individual reporters or programmes.

If a public media outlet’s sole addressee is the political sphere, then it should not wonder at the absence of public support when politics chooses to infringe upon its independence. Current developments in Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia indicate clearly just how vulnerable public service media are to political pressure, and how indispensable public support is to their endeavours.

What is to be done? It is up to the state to ensure the institutional autonomy of public service media through the legal framework, most importantly in terms of their governing and financing. Public service media are the last path of mass communication left to the public. The privatisation of that path by any partial interest (be it political, economic, or rooted in the particular interests of civil society segments) is unacceptable. The communal enactment of the people’s communication rights must be made central to the public debate. Therefore, the efficient operation of public service media must be continuously developed and maintained, as must the mechanisms that inscribe media integrity into their very foundations. The public interest, on which most countries base their media policy legislation, must ceaselessly translate to a direct dialogue between public media and the public. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, a state is only worth as much as the public service media operating in it. A state which dwarfs its public service media, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands, “will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished”.

Download the full (PDF) report ‘Comparing models and demanding reforms of public service media – Funding and governing models of the public service media in the countries of South East Europe