Media freedom, the EU accession process and political signalling

When it comes to the overall accession process, various scholars argue that EU norm diffusion is less effective in areas where the EU has no or little acquis. That may be the case because in such areas there is no clear specification of what the norm or value entails, and key issues related to the norm are spread over different chapters.[54] The area of media freedom can be considered an example, given that the EU acquis features few common regulations on the issue (and it is hence mainly a national competence)[55]. As such, the negotiating chapters, which are based on the EU’s acquis, barely deal with media freedom directly. Instead, various chapters, such as those on public procurement, competition policy, consumer protection and financial control, touch upon the issue only indirectly. It is only in chapter 23 on freedom of expression and fundamental rights that issues pertaining to media freedom are explicitly discussed. This means media freedom as such is “not necessarily the most central element of establishing compliance with EU norms”.[56] That has a real effect on the capacity of the EU to spur reforms in the media sector, both within the EU itself and in aspiring members.

EU Media freedom Benchmarks for Serbia as outlined in the EU common position on chapter 23:

Serbia fully respects the independence of media, applies a zero-tolerance policy as regards threats and attacks against journalists, and prioritising criminal investigations should such cases occur. Serbia provides an initial track record of progress in the work of the "Commission for consideration of the facts that were obtained in the investigations that were conducted on the killings of journalists" including further investigations, effective prosecution and deterrent sanctions for perpetrators.

Through the implementation of the Strategy for the Development of Public Information System, Serbia takes active measures for reforming its media landscape thus creating an enabling environment for freedom of expression, based on transparency (including on ownership of media), integrity and pluralism.

Source: Council of the European Union (2016), European Union Common Position on Chapter 23, link

The effect of that is indeed observable in various EU documents that are part of the accession process with Serbia, including through a lack of detailed benchmarks, a lack of deep analysis, fragmentation and sections devoted to the issue being relatively concise and/or general. The 2014 EC screening report for chapter 23 and the EU’s 2016 common position (establishing interim benchmarks),[57] for example, only devote relatively concise sections to media freedom, with the latter outlining two interim benchmarks out of a total of 13 on fundamental rights, compared to tens of benchmarks on the judiciary and the fight against corruption. Judging not only by the numbers but also by the experience of Serbian media stakeholders, EC benchmarking on media freedom has been ineffective and subordinate to political issues.[58] The European Commission country reports for Serbia, which are the most visible accounts of how the EC assesses Serbia’s progress in the accession process, also suffer from fragmentation and a lack of detailed analysis. Issues related to media freedom such as threats against journalists, a lack of transparency in media ownership and interference by authorities are all explicitly addressed, but without much detail about how they should be resolved. For example, in the 2019 report the Commission notes only that Serbia has to fully implement legislation on the media sector that provides for more stringent criteria on the transparency of media ownership. Even less direction is given in the section on intimidation of journalists, where the Commission asks for fair and timely prosecution but does not directly relate the issue to political influence over the judiciary. While that issue is dealt with in other sections, it would be opportune, in order to mark the severity of the media freedom issue, if explicit references were made, given that, as the first section of this paper outlined, journalists suspect it is an important reason for impunity in cases of harassment and violence.[59]

Similarly, the 2014 Guidelines for EU support to media freedom and media integrity in enlargement countries document does not indicate how EU actions will contribute to the objectives stated in the results framework.[60] The biannual European Commission non-papers on Serbia’s progress in chapter 23 do provide more detailed analyses of the media freedom situation, but do not explicitly assess progress in relation to the set benchmarks.[61] More detailed assessments may exist, but are not publicly available, meaning there is no possibility to check.[62] Hence there is room for improvement in both prioritisation and communication about the problems at hand and setting clear benchmarks on how they should be resolved.

Although there seems to be room for improvement on the EU side, the effectiveness of this “political signalling” (conveying political messages to Serbia’s authorities), either in the EC’s country reports or in public comments by EU officials, also depends on the overall leverage of the EU on Serbian politicians, in turn determined by political will for deep reform in the country itself. The same goes for the effectiveness of legal assistance, given that the adoption of adequate legislation does not necessarily lead to improved practices. Research has shown that EU-required reforms are more likely to be fully accepted by aspiring countries if credible incentives are offered and domestic adoption costs are low.[63] For the Serbian government, such adoption costs could be considerable, however, as fully independent media may affect its power position.

Moreover, Serbia manages to partially avoid the costs of non-adoption because the EU is not the “only game in town” in the country: while absolute ties with the EU (trade, investment, travel) are the strongest by a considerable margin, the Serbian government in its public discourse increasingly presents China as its go-to partner, as well as retains ties with Russia. This multivector foreign policy still allows the country to partially avoid the “sticks” attached to the “carrots” the EU offers.[64] Political will to implement real reforms therefore remains largely absent. It is therefore highly uncertain whether Serbia’s media strategy, which was adopted in January 2020 and welcomed by the EU, will also effect change in practice.

Lastly, this political signalling depends on the EU’s own credibility. The performance of several EU Member States on media freedom is worrisome and showing a negative trend, as confirmed by the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Malta (in 81st place) and Hungary (in 89th place) find themselves very close to Serbia (in 93rd place), and Bulgaria scores even worse (in 111th place). So far, the EU has not been capable of countering downward trends in its Member States, which undermines the credibility of its messages towards Serbia and the other accession candidates.[65] The issue therefore appears even greater when placed in the context of the enlargement process, which itself is constantly evolving in terms of requirements and as such poses a challenge for both the EU and candidates. The fact that media freedom remains largely national law means the EU struggles to find the right tools to address this issue, despite the centrality of media freedom as an extension of freedom of expression in the values of the Union.

As such, while there is room for stronger political signalling and stronger prioritisation, it needs to be acknowledged that media freedom will in the short to medium term remain one of the issues where the EU, both internally and in the enlargement process, due to lack of competences, faces an expectations-capability gap that is not easily resolvable. At the same time, given that several EU Member States (including the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Portugal) find themselves in the top 10 of the 2020 media freedom index,[66] there are good prospects for them, in alignment with the overall EU objectives, to employ bilateral ties to support the development of the media sector and retain political emphasis on the issue.

(Financial) support for media in Serbia

Given the stated limits of political signalling to Serbia, directly financing and supporting (investigative) media to foster their (financial) independence may have more impact in fostering media freedom and pluralism. The EU in total contributed about EUR 5.2 million between 2014 and 2020 to support media freedom in Serbia, as well as EUR 12.7 million to support regional initiatives (see text box). For the other Western Balkan countries, country support totalled EUR 8.5 million, meaning Serbia is the biggest recipient of such funds.[67] While the European Commission boasts that these funds are substantial, a number of remarks can be made about their size and nature.

First, EUR 4.6 million for media freedom in Serbia from IPA over a period of seven years is not a very large sum when put in perspective. Overall, EU financial assistance to Serbia under the Instrument for Pre-accession II (IPA II) totalled EUR 1.5 billion between 2014 and 2020, including EUR 246 million for the Rule of Law and fundamental rights. As such, media freedom constitutes just 0.31% of overall funds, or 1.87% of funds allocated to the Rule of Law and fundamental rights. For a sector that constitutes an essential part of a functioning democracy, that is not a lot. Moreover, the fact that the EU is able, within two weeks, to reallocate from unspent and unprogrammed IPA II funds a EUR 93 million aid package for Serbia to counter the coronavirus outbreak, places the sums allocated to media freedom in the country in further perspective. While not seeking to engage in a discussion on whether media freedom should prevail over public health, the discrepancy in allocations makes clear that, based on finances, media freedom cannot be regarded as an EU priority.

Figure 4
EU support to media freedom in Serbia[68]
EU support to media freedom in Serbia

Second, and more importantly, funds provided by the EU are not properly curbing systemic problems in Serbia’s media sector today. That is because while the EU has granted technical assistance contracts worth EUR 697,200.00 to the two public broadcasters RTS and RTV, with the aim of strengthening the role of public service media and increasing the professionalism of journalists, political influence continues to hamper their impartiality. The RTS Managing Council, for example, has close links to the ruling party, which seems to explain the broadcasters’ tendency to avoid reporting on societal problems.[69] The problem is the same as with technical assistance – the benefits of funding these organisations without a conducive overall environment are limited. In particular, contributing to professionalism of journalists has substantial limits if political influence continues to fuel dynamics of clientelism and (self-)censorship. More efforts need to be redirected to making sure that the regulatory framework ensuring independence is not only present but also actively complied with, but it should be acknowledged that much depends again on the effectiveness of political signalling and hence on genuine political will in Serbia itself. There are therefore limits to what the EU can do and a clear-cut solution is not easily obtainable.

Third, as the previous sections of this paper have shown, media in Serbia overall are still largely dependent on government funding. As independent investigative media are not able to attract such funding, it is welcome that the EU has currently issued nine ongoing grants that have been predominantly allocated to investigative journalism projects. These nine grants have been financed by the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) “Civil Society Facility and Media Programme” (CSF) in Serbia, with a total of approximately EUR 2.3 million.[70] Besides the EUR 2.3 million for individual projects, the EU also contributes EUR 1.2 million to the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS), allowing journalists among others to travel to EU countries.[71] On a regional level, similar support exists, contributing among others to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). These grants provided through IPA’s CSF have a positive impact and make journalistic investigations possible on key topics. For example, the “Reveal and Heal” project supports journalists who are part of the KRIK investigative network in monitoring corruption in the judiciary and developing a database on members of the judiciary and their assets.[72] The EU support is mostly project-based, however. This means that it does not contribute to creating a sustainable business model for independent media organisations. The EU does offer start-up funding for new media outlets as well as core and bridge funding[73], but in our research of ongoing projects, no projects specifically designed to create long-term financial independence from single government and/or political actors were found. What is lacking is assistance for independent media in diversifying their income, e.g. through non-project-based grants, and by offering best practices to attract investors and create profitable subscription models.

In conclusion, measures financing media to foster their professionalism and independence are promising, but their financial size is relatively small compared to the EU’s overall investments in the fields of rule of law and human rights. Moreover, their overall effectiveness is closely connected to the environment for the media at large. Lastly, measures could be better focussed on creating sustainable business models for independent media organisations.

European Commission DG NEAR, Freedom of expression and media, link
See: Börzel & Schimmelfennig (2017), Coming together or drifting apart? The EU’s political integration capacity in Eastern Europe, Journal of European Public Policy, p. 281; EU democracy promotion in the Neighbourhood: From leverage to governance? Lavenex and Schimmelfennig 2011, p. 896.
These are limited to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive and the Communication from the Commission on the application of State aid rules to public service broadcasting. See: link, p. 1.
European Parliament DG EXPO (2014), Freedom of Media in the Western Balkans, link, p. 25.
Council of the European Union (2016), European Union Common Position on Chapter 23, link; European Commission (2014), Screening report Serbia, Chapter 23 – Judiciary and Fundamental rights, link.
Sena Marić & Dragana Bajić (2018), ‘EU’s Benchmarking within Chapters 23 and 24 in Accession Negotiations with Serbia - Effect and Challenges’, CEP Report, link, p. 18.
European Commission progress report for Serbia 2019, SWD(2019) 219 final, link, pp. 24-25.
European Commission DG Enlargement (2014). Guidelines for EU support to media freedom and media integrity in enlargement countries, 2014-2020, link, p. 6.
Sena Marić & Dragana Bajić (2018), ‘EU’s Benchmarking within Chapters 23 and 24 in Accession Negotiations with Serbia - Effect and Challenges’, CEP Report, link, p. 7; See for example the European Commission non-paper on the state of play regarding chapters 23 and 24 for Serbia, November 2019, available on the website of the Serbian ministry of European Integration: link
This concerns expert reports drafted by EU envoys, which are only shared with the Serbian Government. See Sena Marić & Dragana Bajić (2018), ‘EU’s Benchmarking within Chapters 23 and 24 in Accession Negotiations with Serbia - Effect and Challenges’, CEP Report, link, p. 7.
Beáta Huszka (2019). ‘Human Rights on the Losing end of EU Enlargement: The Case of Serbia’, Journal of Common Market Studies, vol. 56(2), p. 353.
See forthcoming Clingendael report (July 2020) on China and the Western Balkans.
Reporters Without Borders, 2020 World Press Freedom Index, link
European Commission (2019). Factsheet: EU support to media in the Western Balkans, link
Sources for text box ‘EU support to media freedom in Serbia’: European Commission (2019). Factsheet: EU support to media in the Western Balkans, link; European Commission (2018), EU support to Media in the Western Balkans, link; EU Delegation to Serbia (20-07-2019), EU Role in Promoting Freedom of Expression, link; EU Delegation to Serbia (25-02-2020), Pulse of Europe – Media Trips to the EU, link.
Media Ownership Monitor Serbia, RTS1, link
EU Delegation to Serbia, EU Role in Promoting Freedom of Expression, link.
EU Delegation to Serbia, Pulse of Europe – Media Trips to the EU, link.
Reveal and heal - investigative journalism as a cure for corruption in judiciary, ‘about project’, link (accessed 11 June 2020); See for results, for example, KRIK’s coverage of the Darko Šarić criminal case, to be found online (in Serbian): link (accessed 11 June 2020).
European Commission (2018). Factsheet: EU support to media in the Western Balkans, link.