Flash report 2: Serbia

Flash report 2: Serbia
Today in Serbia there are two public broadcasters that are in terms of their status equal under the law, but in practice very much unequal.
RT Vojvodina – a regional multilingual and multicultural public broadcaster or a public burden? 
Today in Serbia there are two public broadcasters that are in terms of their status equal under the law, but in practice very much unequal. These are the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) and the Radio Television of Vojvodina (RTV).  The public service broadcaster of Vojvodina, RTV, broadcasts in ten different languages (in Serbian and in nine languages of national minorities) on its two TV and three radio channels. On a daily basis, RTV broadcasts 120 hours of program, 83 percent of which is independently produced and premiered every day.  It is the successor of Radio Television of Novi Sad, a Yugoslavian multilingual media outlet founded by the National Assembly of Vojvodina in 1946, first as Radio Novi Sad, and later in 1971 the Parliament of Vojvodina founded the Radio Television of Novi Sad.
In July and August 2013 the public was shaken by an announcement stating that due to enormous debts RTV will have to pull its signal off the air. For the first time in its long history (67 years), the media outlet is threatened by shutdown after the production process has been brought to a collapse due to lack of funds, while the staff has not received any paychecks for the last couple of months. 
The reasons for this may be found not only in the ongoing economic crisis which has depleted most Serbian media, but also in the fact that in the last couple of months the Serbian public was told that license fee for this media outlet will be canceled, after which citizens decided to stop paying it on their own. In May 2013, First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić posted on his twitter feed that license fee for public service broadcasting will be canceled. Four months after the statement, the subscription fee has still not been canceled, but the number of citizens paying it has dropped drastically. An additional problem for the public broadcaster is that it did not get the already reduced amount of money that it was supposed to get from subscription fee due to the transfer of jurisdiction from Elektrovojvodina to the newly established EPS, the Electric Power Supplier of Serbia. After gaining jurisdiction, EPS did not pay the full amount of money earmarked for public broadcasters, but rather just one part that was “left over” from the electricity bills.
In addition, even the amount which is sent to RTS and RTV this way is not paid regularly. Thus, for only one month EPS owes the public broadcaster of Vojvodina more than 50 million Serbian dinars, which corresponds to the public broadcaster’s monthly needs. On an annual basis, this is about six million euros. 
In the first six months of this year, the average subscription fee collection rate for public broadcasters came down to 28 percent. Data show that in August only 16 percent of households fulfilled their obligation to pay. At that moment, the state stepped in and helped RTS by giving it a loan of 2.4 billion dinars. No funds were given to RTV because the provincial public broadcaster was not on the budget list! 
Alarming financial situation of RTV
All of that resulted in the July public announcement by the RTV Executive Board in which it claims that “without urgent financial aid from the state, RTV will not be able to continue to perform its important informative and cultural role”. It also emphasized: 
"RTV is in a much worse position than RTS, since unlike RTS, RTV is not getting any loans from the state budget. In that sense RTV is not only tight with money, but also in an unequal position, even thought the law treats both of these public broadcasters equally because of their equal public role.”
The RTV management disclosed in the announcement that “in the first six months of this year, income was lower by 145 million dinars compared to last year and RTV’s losses doubled, so even with the rigorous savings plan adopted by the RTV Executive Board the functioning of this public broadcaster is almost unsustainable.” It was also stated that “paychecks for around 1,400 employees at this broadcast media outlet have been late for quite some time and in the past couple of months RTV could not even cover its current obligations, not only towards employees and external partners, but also to utility companies, electric power industry and other vendors”. At the same time funds for support of RTV were not approved in the budget of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.
The difficult financial situation is also influenced by the fact that the building that used to belong to Television of Vojvodina was completely destroyed in NATO bombing in 1999 and for the past 14 years the broadcaster has been working from inadequate and rented space. The building that RTV occupies now belongs to the company “Petroleum Industry of Serbia” to which RTV pays a monthly rent. 
Responses to the crisis
A response to the threat of shutting down the RTV signal and programs as of September 2013 came from the Union of Journalists. It described the situation at Radio Television of Vojvodina as very complex and more difficult than ever. They underlined that employees did not receive paychecks for three months and that interpersonal relations are deteriorating by the day, threatening to escalate very quickly. 
“The Union of Journalists warns the guardian angels who placed the announcement that RTV will stop broadcasting their programs on the 1st of September, to stop manipulating, lying and creating chaos. Regardless of all difficulties, the program will be broadcast”, said the President of the Union of Journalists, Nada Kalkan. The director of the Television of Vojvodina, Slobodan Arežina, reiterated this by saying that despite the difficulties the program continues as planned, even gaining a rise in the audience share. 
Support to the public broadcaster was also expressed by the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS) and the Independent Journalists' Association of Vojvodina (IJAV). They said that a possible collapse of RTV would be a debacle of the state.
Officials of national minority representative bodies reacted as well. President of the Hungarian National Council Tamas Korhec, for instance, said that the situation at RTV is bad because of “a series of wrong decisions made by the heads of the national government.” Korhec stated that RTV should get some help from the state until a new system of funding is introduced, while the national government should pay RTV’s outstanding debts. 
RTV’s almost hopeless situation raised the question of when the long delayed and announced laws which are supposed to regulate stable financing for both public broadcasters in Serbia will finally come to a public hearing. There have already been speculations in the public about funding the public broadcasters from the state budget for a transitional period. Will the state budget be able to endure this expense, how long will the “transitional phase” last and what will happen when it ends, what will be the proportion between RTV and RTS? RTV Director General Srđan Mihajlović has publicly requested that in the future distribution of resources for public broadcasters, RTV gets a quarter, instead of a fifth, which it has been receiving so far. 
The RTV management has realized that the position of this public media broadcaster would be jeopardized without serious public advocacy. Outside of Vojvodina, there is repeated speculation on reasons for having two public media broadcasters in the first place. For such a small media market, why does RTV have programs in the Serbian language too, when it is supposed to satisfy only the communication needs of national minorities? Where else in the world do two public service broadcasters air side by side, only 80 km apart? Which public broadcaster is more important, RTS or RTV? Who has better ratings; who is doing a better job at being a public service broadcaster? Does having its own public service broadcaster make Vojvodina a state of its own, and if so, is that not just another indication of Vojvodina’s separatism? And so on.
Commitments to save and further develop the public broadcaster in Vojvodina
One instrument for gaining support and discussing solutions for RTV’s survival was a conference held on 30 September 2013 in Novi Sad in which a number of representatives of the national government took part, but not the minister of culture and information. Among those who were invited but did not show up were also the director general of the Serbian public broadcaster RTS, the president of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (JAS), the president of the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (IJAS), as well as the Ombudsman of the Republic of Serbia. 
However, the information was provided by the State Secretary at the Ministry of Culture and Information, Gordana Predić, that a law is being drafted according to which both RTV and RTS will remain public broadcasters. The two public service broadcasters will be financed from the state budget until 2015 when a permanent solution for financing them is to be found. Under the law, the Government of Serbia will have an obligation, within six months of the adoption of the law, to decide how to settle the debts of RTS and RTV. Equality of both public broadcasters will be provided in the legal framework. 
At the September conference RTV representatives presented both positive as well as alarming details about this regional public broadcaster. RTV’s losses in the year 2012 amounted to 149.18 million dinars (1,297,639 euros). In the year 2013, so far the losses have been 234,853,417 dinars (2,042,868 euros). RTV’s income is 28 million and its expenditure is 31 million. Compared to Croatian HRT, for example, which has 16,191 hours of program, RTV broadcasts 17,519 hours of program. However, HRT’s income is 199 million and RTV’s income is 28 million, but it still broadcasts in 10 languages in rented space at five different locations in the city. RTV broadcasts more than 68 percent of its own production of television program in minority languages.
The conference ended with a commitment for RTV’s survival and future development. It was concluded that the two public broadcasters, RTS and RTV, must be equal regarding their rights, obligations and the way the community treats them; that public broadcasters should justify their mission not only by aiming at high ratings and shares, but also at diversity and public interest; that public service broadcasters in Serbia must be provided with an independent and stable source of funding, where state budget support should be a temporary solution and a better solution should be found during the transitional period;  that a permanent building as well as support for technical and technological reconstruction should be provided to the public broadcaster of Vojvodina; that the public broadcaster in Vojvodina must implement an independent editorial policy, program diversity, innovation and a closer relationship with the audience; and that transparency in work and spending should be provided as well.
It is not clear how much of the above is just a well-written list of conclusions from the conference or if it is a real commitment of decision-makers pushed to save what can still be saved and not allow another political embarrassment in the international arena, especially in negotiations with the EU. Protection of national minorities as well as media pluralism can play a significant role in that regard. The public broadcaster in Vojvodina is an instrument for achieving both.
Media Integrity
Media Policy and Reforms
Public Service Media