In the context of the global crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, free, impartial and professional media reporting has become ever more important. This represents an issue in Serbia, considering its ongoing decline in media freedom as confirmed by independent international reports. The conditions for practising professional journalism have been degraded for years and the Serbian media sector has faced numerous challenges, including political control over the mainstream media, low financial sustainability of media outlets and related high dependence on state funding, as well as a lack of transparency of that funding. Obscure media ownership and privatisation issues are yet another reason for concern. Additionally, the safety of journalists is problematic as the number of pressures, threats and attacks has grown since 2013, but the impunity phenomenon remains present. All these factors lead to a general state of censorship and self-censorship in the media in Serbia.
This media situation, characterised by political control over mainstream outlets, also creates an environment for poorly evidenced and biased media reporting on the key foreign policy actors: the EU, the US and Russia. Available media monitoring reports show notable differences in the tone of reporting, space given to these actors and topics covered, among others. One of the side effects is that dominant media narratives can have strong implications for Serbian citizens’ attitudes, primarily towards the EU, hindering the implementation of the Union’s communication strategy towards Serbia and support for membership. This is problematic given the shared interests of both sides and vast efforts devoted to making Serbia a full EU member.
Media freedom, as an extension of freedom of expression, is a key value of the EU. The Union employs a range of instruments to foster media freedom in Serbia, including political steering, technical assistance and financial support for media organisations and initiatives. At the same time, as a result of a the EU’s lacking competences, the media sector is by default not a central issue in the EU’s enlargement policies. As a result, in practice, EU instruments focussed on the media sector are fragmented and lack the prioritisation needed to effect real change. Political messaging to Serbia is deficient, reform benchmarks lack detail and financial support for individual media has proven insufficient to bring about structural improvements to media freedom in Serbia.
For both normative and self-interested reasons, the EU should thus have an interest in providing greater backing for the protection and promotion of media freedom and professional reporting in Serbia. To that extent, this report recommends that interlocutors of the EU institutions and Member States step up political messaging to Serbia in order to maintain sufficient pressure on Serbian political elites to engage in deep media sector reform and ensure media freedom. The EU could better specify its accession benchmarks, and EU reports could provide greater detail in their analysis of media freedom issues in Serbia. The EU would also do well to increase its budget for tackling media freedom issues in order to underpin its political message that media freedom is a key factor in the EU accession process. Independent media may benefit from increased support, both in terms of funding and in terms of technical assistance that may help such media to create sustainable business models.