As the elections for the Serbian parliament draw close with freedom of the media being the key phrase for months, N1 TV has lost a large part of its audience (about 300,000 households who now do not have an opportunity to hear different views and political debates) following decisions by the state-owned Telekom and its subordinate cable operator brand Supernova to stop distributing United Media channels.
The reactions to the Telekom decision vary from claims from the ruling coalition that there was no political pressure to claims of attempts to shut down the station from the opposition, journalists and experts.
Serbian Foreign Minister and leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) Ivica Dacic said he has not been informed about the problem. “I really don’t know anything about it,” he said. Others in the ruling coalition see the decision taken by Telekom as solely a business decision. SPS MP Nedjo Jovanovic said he sees absolutely no political pressure. “This is solely about business relations which we do not want to get involved in,” he said.
Opposition MPs believe that the decision to deny access to a TV channel whose reporting about topical issues is professional is characteristic of an authoritarian regime trying to throttle or at least quieten down criticism. Miroslav Aleksic of the People’s Party said there is no chance of this being about economic interests. “This is only about the policies of the ruling regime and getting as little of the truth as possible to the citizens of Serbia. That is what they have been doing for years. The freedom of the media is not improving but is getting worse by the day and this is one in a series of examples,” he said.
Asked if the fact that N1 is no longer on offer by some cable operators is good or bad for democracy and freedom in Serbia, Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic said that the state has to should not interfere in private business. “We know what the state’s job is and we know what the job of the players within that is not. The state can’t take sides, the state’s job is to create conditions for business,” she said.
Dveri leader Bosko Obradovic said that politics, that is the ruling regime, are involved in lesser issues than this. “I think that everyone is aware that these eight years of Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) rule have brought media darkness in which even the smallest light has to be put out,” Obradovic said.
Belgrade University Faculty of Political Sciences Professor Rade Veljanovski believes that the government has to create the conditions needed for Telekom and the United Group to reach an agreement, primarily because N1 is what he calls a common good which provides the public with everything that other TV stations in Serbia do not. “”When the government, and this is about state operators, behaves like this that means that it does not respect the standards that it said it would accept and respect when it expressed its aspirations to join the European Union. Those are standards in several documents,” he added and recalled article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires each state to allow the free flow of information, freedom of expression and media pluralism with no interference from the authorities.
Fellow Professor Djordje Pavicevic said that this is something that has been in the making for a while. “Disciplining the media in some way, stopping the media which are controlled from getting to any significant number of people is especially important in election year. Independence and pluralism is something that they want to put under control or do away with,” he said.
Journalist Danica Vucenic said that the situation should be viewed in the context of the character of the regime and the system and its attitude towards professional media and any kind of criticism. “I can’t take this out of that context. Political and every other monopoly – in politics, in the media, in the economy – so that there is nothing but us,”she said.
NIN journalist Zoran Preradovic said that the authorities have found an economy-based way to leave a huge number of people without N1 which offers a different view to what the media with national coverage offer.
Belgrade University School of Economy Professor Milojko Arsic said that the Telekom Serbia decision to remove N1 from the offer of its cable operators means that the media space in the country is even more limited than it was to date. “All TV stations with national frequencies preach virtually the same policies. We have no opportunity to hear different opinions, we have no chance of hearing opposed views and we know that no one has a monopoly on the truth, no one knows exactly what is best for a society,” Arsic said.