In the context of the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, media stand out as a crucial pillar ensuring the right to information and freedom of expression. Media freedom is essential to ensure that the information citizens receive via the media is well substantiated, truthful and unbiased. In crisis circumstances, countering disinformation and the spreads of fake news is therefore paramount.
This report has outlined how foreign policy biases in reporting in Serbia result from the lack of media freedom in the country. The overall quality of media reporting about foreign actors in Serbia is low, as reflected in a lack of substantive debate and/or credible sources in reporting. More specifically, in terms of thematic scope, the EU integration process receives less attention in the mainstream media than other topics related to the EU, Russia or the United States. As a result, such reporting risks negatively impacting public opinion on EU membership. These issues can be directly related to characteristics of the media landscape in Serbia. Media ownership is still insufficiently transparent, and the media privatisation process remains unfinished. Many media outlets are also dependent on the state for their financing due to low economic sustainability. These factors allow the Serbian government to informally steer and influence the content and tone of publications, leading to dynamics of (self-) censorship and biased reporting. Threats, pressure and violence towards independent journalism, the impunity phenomenon and tax audit abuse further set an unfavourable context for the conduct of journalism in Serbia, adding to the lack of media freedom in the country.
Given these issues, the EU has an interest in tackling media freedom both for self-interested reasons and for reasons stemming from its value base. While the head of the EU delegation in Serbia noted recently that “freedom of media is one of the key topics in the accession process and I constantly advocate the improvement in that area”, it seems more can be done to place the issue in a more central position in the EU approach towards Serbia. It cannot be said that the EU is inactive in the field, and support is provided in many ways. What seems to be missing is an overarching, coherent and detailed EU strategy for tackling media freedom issues that receives clear priority on both the technical and political levels.
Placing media freedom in a more central position and addressing the fragmentation in the EU approach towards Serbia would help to unlock the full potential of the different instruments the EU employs. While measures financing media to foster their professionalism and independence are promising, their overall effectiveness is closely connected to the environment for the media at large. Contributing to a more conducive environment for independent and plural media hence requires a continuous effort at all levels, combining support for media organisations and journalists within Serbia with sufficient political pressure and reform incentives for the Serbian government. The revised accession methodology is promising in this respect, given that it attaches more significance to political steering and a stronger focus on fundamental reforms. It has been welcomed by the Serbian expert community, civil society and informally by the country’s president, although not yet formally by the Serbian government.
It should be noted that the EU’s individual efforts to tackle the lack of media freedom in Serbia may be promising and could foster changes for the better. Considering that the Serbian government has been simulating reform despite EU conditionality, the EU should take a further step beyond annual progress assessment or periodic condemnations. Embarking upon stronger initiatives to improve the media landscape would inevitably lead to increased impartiality of reporting, sustainability of media outlets and strengthening of journalists’ integrity. This would provide an environment more resistant to government-sponsored biases in the media and an environment that nurtures debate, dialogue and deliberation on foreign policy issues. Considering that media content has a strong impact on public perception, the EU could demonstrate a greater interest in promoting and protecting free, ethical and professional media, and would be well advised to critically examine the level of priority the issue has received, and the coherence between its different initiatives.
The EU Member States and the EU institutions could take the following actions to improve the media situation in Serbia:
Continued political signalling (conveying political messages to Serbian authorities) on all levels and by all EU and EU Member State interlocutors is needed to sustain sufficient pressure on Serbian political elites to engage in deep reform and ensure implementation of adopted regulations, especially in the media sector.
To complement effective political signalling, the EU accession benchmarks on the issues related to the media could be specified in a way that includes indicators focused on outcomes, thus discouraging the government from issuing overly descriptive reports on progress in meeting benchmarks and motivating it to provide clear and measurable evidence and track records.
The EU country reports could provide further detail in outlining media freedom issues in Serbia, referring to clear benchmarks as discussed in the point above. The sections on media freedom could furthermore be linked more explicitly to other issues mentioned throughout the country reports, for example political influence over public authorities.
The EU could increase the budget available for tackling media freedom issues so as to better underpin its political signalling that media freedom is a key factor in the EU accession process that is already partially present. This is even more important in the context of challenges that media face when reporting on Serbia’s response to COVID-19. Part of the EU funds designated for Serbia’s COVID-19 response could therefore be reserved for media empowerment.
The EU could further step up its assistance for independent media in developing sustainable business models. It could do so by increasing start-up, bridge and core funding it already provides, as well as by sharing best practices and facilitating exchanges with journalists and others working in the media sector within the EU.
The EU Member States are well placed to actively contribute to the EU’s objectives on media freedom in the accession process. In particular, those countries in the EU that are leading the way when it comes to media freedom could consider stepping up investments in media freedom in Serbia through bilateral programmes aligned with overall EU objectives. They are also advised to make use of the enhanced room provided by the revised accession methodology to Member States for monitoring reform progress in the WB6, including on Media Freedom-related issues.
Lastly, to ensure full socialisation with EU norms and values on freedom of expression and media, the EU could introduce post-accession mechanisms in the rule of law area as a condition for accessing EU structural funds, which would stimulate governments to think long-term and already start showing clear results of the commitment to improve media freedom. This would also decrease the risk of new (and existing) Member States degrading standards attained during the accession process.