If we are discussing the financing of the media through advertising, it should be noted that the Law on Advertising from 2005 contained rules that restricted the advertising possibilities for those we consider to be public authorities, which, in addition to state authorities, include the authorities of territorial autonomy and local self-government, as well as all legal entities, institutions, enterprises, that is – in the broadest sense – organizations established by classic public authorities or financed by public funds. Of course, in the period after the adoption of this law, we have witnessed a very widespread practice of its violation, specifically in relation to the advertising of public authorities, which was among the information included in the Report of the Anti-Corruption Council.
Unfortunately, instead of moving towards ensuring the implementation of said legal restrictions, the legislators recently decided to completely remove the provisions on limitation of advertising of public authorities from the text of the new Law on Advertising. Therefore, these restrictions no longer exist, and we now do not know under which conditions, in which cases, and which public authority can actually be advertised. This situation will, surely, enable the transfer of public funds to the accounts of media publishers, without any legal obstacles.
Now, advertising in the media is just one of the ways in which the media gets its funds. The Council’s report mentions other ways, including public procurements, donations, direct contracting, and other inventive forms. When discussing these different forms of media financing, I think a distinction should be made between the financing of the media itself, that is – media publishers, in the broadest sense, on the one hand, and a specific form of financing, related to the financing of media content development and publication, on the other.
In the latter case, we are speaking about the financing of those programs that are a genuine product of the media itself. These are the articles published in newspapers and magazines, on TV or radio shows. The financing of media content deserves special attention because the content of the published information is directly influenced through this type of financial support.
Therefore, at this point, in connection with the financing of the media in general, is where a dramatic conflict between the law and reality arises, in the period after the adoption of media laws in August 2014. We should always keep in mind this normative structure, this normative apparatus that helps us, who are working with the media, know if what is happening on the media scene is happening exactly as it should. To us, this normative framework provides a methodological tool with which we can articulate our judgment about our media reality.
So, if we are wondering about whose interests are shaping media reality, or whether in the sphere of media the will of the legislator is inferior to the will of those who hold public of political positions; or wonder about where the loyalty of media lies, whether the media are more loyal to those who are in power, or those who have no power – such as citizens, individuals – then we must be aware that these questions can be answered only if before us we have the already defined rules of media law. We can only answer these questions by comparing the actual situation with what is written in the law. This normative framework should shape media reality. This is the basic function of the law, the function of regulations.
Now, if we are talking about the financing of the media, then the normative answer to this question should be based on specific elements that have been included in media laws from 2014. There are several steps that need to be made. Therefore, in order to test media reality in relation to the normative framework, the first step should be to know the aim of the law. Article 2 of the Law on Public Information and Media precisely states that the rules on public information provide and protect the presentation, reception and exchange of information, ideas and opinions through the media, in order to – and then the goals are listed: improve the values of a democratic society, prevent conflicts and maintain peace; provide truthful, timely, reliable and complete information and enable free personal development.
The second step should be related to defining “public interest”. The Law contains rules, for the first time incorporated into our legal system, to define the public interest which is realized through publishing media content. The third step would be related to the realization of the public interest, and in this sense, the Law speaks primarily about the creation of public media services, and about enabling the national councils of national minorities to establish their own media.
The fourth step would be related to the question of how to co-finance media content. A whole chapter of the Law is devoted to this topic. The fifth step would be related to the registration of funds allocated for financing the media, and there a distinction should be made between two sets of data: One set consists of data on the funds allocated for financing media content, through project co-financing, based on public competitions. So, we have a public interest we want to achieve, for example, the improvement of minority rights. A public competition is opened, for the realization of this interest. Based on a project proposal a media publisher receives the funds, which will be used to publish a series of articles on the exercise of the rights of Roma in employment, and then these funds are registered in the media register. This is one set of data which should be recorded. The second group of data consists of data on all other funds that public authorities have transferred to the media publisher, directly or indirectly. These are the data presented in the Council’s Report.
There are two more steps. The sixth step would be connected to a ban on other forms of co-financing of program content. Thus, according to the Law itself, program content cannot be co-financed in a manner not prescribed by this Law. The last, seventh step, would be the famous legal sanction which provides the implementation of legal norms. According to the Law, the sanction is a misdemeanor, which means a financial fine of 50 to 150 thousand dinars for the head of whichever public authority does not respect the obligation of registration of the funds transferred to a media publisher.
If we now compare our media reality with the normative framework, here are the results: starting from the sanctions, we will conclude that during the first year and a half of the media law’s implementation, no head of public authority has been sanctioned for not reporting the data on financing media publishers which they were obliged to do. There have been no charges, no procedures, and no penalties. The relevant ministry is considering issuing a notification to all public authorities, containing the information that legal obligations must be fulfilled, and that otherwise the heads of public institutions shall face sanctions. What this will look like and what results will be achieved with this mechanism of protection still remains to be seen.
When it comes to the prohibition of different forms of co-financing, it is evident that, to some extent, co-financing has become a part of the media reality, but the legal restriction is still not respected. There are channels through which media content is influenced, by transferring public funds contrary to the legal regulations. Data about this is also included in the Council’s Report. In this regard, special consideration should be given to who is in charge of program content co-financing. The Law states that competitions for program content co-financing can be opened only by the authority in charge of public information of the Republic, the autonomous province, the city, or the municipality.
When it comes to registration, we all have access to the media register through the SBRA website – the amounts transferred to media publishers on the basis of the competitions opened by the Ministry of Culture and Public Information are registered. Therefore, such data exists. Here and there some information can be found about a certain amount of money transferred contrary to the legal regulations on project co-financing. Basically, the general impression is that the data on funds transferred to media are being registered very sporadically, especially when it comes to local communities, republic authorities, the authorities of the autonomous province, or public enterprises.
As for the achievement of public interest – and here we could ask for help from our colleagues who have dealt with this issue, especially NUNS – I believe that, among other things, it is important to define public interest. Not everything can be included in the concept of public interest. In the competition on the basis of which the funds for media content co-financing are allocated, it is necessary to precisely define the public interest in relation to certain categories of citizens, or in relation to certain segments of society. In this regard, we still have problems, especially at the level of local governments and territorial autonomy. The public interest in Kanjiza cannot be the same as the public interest in Vrsac or Leskovac.
Another problem, which I think Jovanka Matic repeatedly pointed out in public, refers to the realization of public interests through public media services, which we also need to perceive as one of the ways of program content financing from public funds. Jovanka Matic has done research on how much public media services suit the need of exercising those public interests that are included in the Law on Public Information, as well as in its parent law, which is the Law on Public Service Media. The research can be found on the Internet, and it shows that the level of exercising the public interest through public media services is minimal.
Finally, when it comes to the purpose of the Law referred to in Article 2 of the Law on Public Information and Media, it seems that we are moving further away from the existing normative framework. In the last few months, for the first time in 15 years we had the chance to witness what media warmongering and incitement to conflict looks like in the community we live in. The information known to be false, unreliable and incomplete are published nevertheless. Hate speech against members of certain ethnic and other minorities has become a regular part of our media reality. The development of children and young adults’ personalities is significantly affected by the publication of media content which violates moral standards. So, at the level of the goal of the normative regulation, it is noticeable a radical departure from the ideals that should shape our media reality.
Translated by Jelena Zrnic