The 2019-2020 global coronavirus outbreak has shown the paramount importance of people’s trust in government and the media. More than before, the media appear to be the key means of informing the public in a timely manner and distributing clear and truthful messages that would help the overall well-being of the population. Especially in times of crisis, well-informed citizens are better able to make educated decisions, and may behave more cooperatively and in solidarity, and act reasonably and rationally. This is why freedom of expression is one of the greatest values in times of crisis.
Serbia is an EU candidate country that has been negotiating membership since 2014, but the prospect of joining the EU in fact goes all the way back to the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit. The EU attaches substantial value to media issues in the accession process. It examines media freedom and freedom of expression against a set of political criteria and six chapters of the acquis communautaire, although the attention devoted to media freedom in the acquis as a whole is rather limited, as the issue has largely remained a competence limited to the EU Member States (MS). The Union nevertheless promotes free journalism in Serbia through technical assistance with the drafting of media laws and policies, as well as through financial support for projects as part of the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance. Since 2000, for instance, it has supported media freedom in Serbia with €33 million through various programmes.
The European Commission annual country reports on Serbia have for many years raised the alarm about the overall poor situation in the media sector, characterised by an environment that is not “conducive to exercise freedom of expression.” In fact, the reports show no progress whatsoever in the freedom of expression area since 2015. Despite the EU’s engagement, a number of Serbian journalists and media experts agree that the tools the EU utilises within the accession process have been weak and inadequate to respond to the gravity of the circumstances suffered by the domestic media sector at present. A steady decline of media freedom over the years, which will be discussed in detail in the sections that follow, has made it difficult for journalists to do their job safely, impartially and with integrity. Sporadic reproaches by the EU have brought few tangible results and failed to prevent a further deterioration of media freedom. Such an environment has contributed to Serbia’s notable decline in the Freedom House Nations in Transit ranking, in which, for the first time since 2003, this country is no longer categorised as a democracy but as a hybrid regime.
Meanwhile, around 87% of Serbia’s population relies on TV as the most popular form of media. Media literacy is underdeveloped and most citizens show no interest in the sources behind the news they consume. This creates a formula for the spread of disinformation. A recent example is Serbian citizens’ perception that China is the biggest donor or that it provided most help during the COVID-19 pandemic, whereas available data indicate that the EU is still by far the biggest donor in Serbia. In the context of a flawed media sector and accompanying dominance of media bias on foreign actors, which is considered in detail in the next section, there is a concern that the general population might be highly susceptible to messages conveyed by the controlled media.
The academic literature confirms that this concern may be genuine. While there is no consensus among scholars in communication theory, most studies seem to maintain that there is a correlation between mass media and public opinion, with some pointing to a direct causative impact of media reporting on public opinion. In Serbia, public opinion polls reveal that support for EU and NATO memberships is lowest compared to other Western Balkan countries, while Russia is seen more favourably than the EU and the US. Young people (56%) think that citizens would be the same or worse off if Serbia became an EU member, while more than a third think Serbia should rely on Russia in its foreign policy. As confirmed by other research, Serbian “media coverage of foreign actors—including the presence of disinformation—generally correlates with public opinion, suggesting a strong causative impact”.
This Clingendael report presents the most prominent problems that the media sector in Serbia faces today. It argues that the flawed media landscape is the major factor leading to poor and biased reporting on topics related to the EU, the US and Russia. It observes media bias as a phenomenon in which media coverage presents inaccurate, unbalanced and/or unfair views with an intention to affect reader opinions in a particular direction. The analysis places a special focus on what such reporting means for the EU, given its strategic and communication goals for Serbia and the Western Balkans region.
Relying on secondary data, the report first identifies what dominant biases exist in the domestic media in Serbia when it comes to the EU, the US and Russia. It then examines the main contributors to such biases, making a distinction between factors leading to biased reporting and those that limit media freedom in general. Lastly, the paper outlines EU efforts to curb the deterioration of media freedom in Serbia and assesses their effectiveness. The report concludes that issues with media freedom have a real effect on how foreign policy biases promoted by Serbia’s government are amplified in reporting, risking impacting public opinion. The authors make concrete recommendations to EU and EU Member State policymakers for measures to address flaws in the Serbian media landscape, and thereby tackle undesired biases in foreign policy reporting.