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Independent media in Serbia must be protected from ongoing government attacks

1st February, 2021

The free press is under attack in Serbia. The country’s ruling establishment is attempting to tighten its grip on power and ensure its own survival through an ongoing and nefarious campaign using government resources to undermine one of the most important pillars of democratic society – a free, independent and professional media.

This is something that United Media, an international media organization operating more than 30 channels and producing content that is broadcast to a market of more than 20 million people including Serbia, has unfortunately experienced first-hand.

The latest assault on press freedom involves a deal between state-controlled Telekom Srbija and mobile operator Telenor, owned by investment fund PPF. Telekom Srbija and Telenor entered into a network access agreement that would allow Telenor to use Telekom Srbija’s fibre optic network.

Telekom Srbija’s internal documents published by journalists show that its intent in entering into this arrangement is to destroy SBB, United Group’s Serbian cable television and broadband internet provider, and drive the channels of United Media from the air in Serbia in order to suppress the independent journalism they bring to the public.

Serbia’s government and Telekom Srbija have in the past repeatedly attacked free media

These recent developments constitute the continuation of a government campaign against press freedom that has brought all media with free-to-air national frequencies under total editorial control. Telekom Srbija, whose leadership has intimate ties to the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has played a major role in the continued onslaught against independent media.

Telekom Srbija has repeatedly used large investments in networks, content, and acquisitions to establish similar dominance over cable network TV channels. It has also been used to transfer taxpayer money to companies owned by individuals who support the SNS, allowing them to buy up and silence media that were critical of the government.

For example, in 2018 Telekom Srbija bought Kopernikus Technology for EUR 195 million from the brother of a high-ranking member of the SNS party who then bought two national TV stations, PRVA TV and O2, for a similar amount and turned them into pro-government outlets. In 2019, Telekom Srbija purchased several small cable television and internet providers including Radijus Vektor, the price for which has been criticized by experts as being significantly above the market value just as the price for Kopernikus Technology was.

Last year a member of Serbia’s opposition Freedom and Justice Party released documents that provided evidence of an agreement between Telekom Srbija and the owner of the pro-government tabloid Kurir worth EUR 38 million. Through a murky partnership the state again became an indirect media owner despite its obligation to end ownership in the media sector and millions of euros of taxpayer money was squandered.

And with three new news and information channels being funded by Telekom Srbija expected to be launched this year, it looks set to be able to exert even more influence on the Serbian public.

Such concerns have prompted domestic and international organisations to voice grave concerns about press freedom in Serbia. Just last year the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom’s ‘Mapping Media Freedom’ platform warned public TV in Serbia ‘is being used against the public’.

This makes it all the more vital that those remaining independent voices not be silenced. SBB is the only Serbian operator that offers the public access to media that is not directly influenced by the government. This includes the CNN affiliate N1 and Nova S television channels, which are part of United Media – the media arm of United Group.

SBB and independent media operated by United Media have endured repeated attacks by the Serbian government over the years, including attempts to halt their development, bans on equipment installation, bullying by government inspectors, harassment of journalists, and threats against users. The government has blocked SBB from investing in and further expanding its network.

The ruling establishment has openly attacked SBB and United Group in the media and continues to take steps to limit the public’s access to the news and information they provide. Last year some 300,000 Serbian households lost access to N1 and other United Group channels when they were removed from the platforms of local cable companies under Telekom Srbija’s control.

Recent attack on free media involves an anti-competitive alliance between Telekom Srbija and Telenor

N1’s journalists in January 2021 published official documents confirming the most recent attack against SBB and United Media – in the form of the alliance between Telekom Srbija and Telenor.

At the heart of the plan is an anti-competitive agreement that would give Telenor access to Telekom Srbija’s network and TV channels. As a result of this arrangement the Serbian telecommunications industry would be dominated by two large operators, each offering internet, mobile and land line phone services as well as cable television.

The intent by Telekom Srbija is to erode the market share of SBB and undermine United Media’s ability to finance content, pushing SBB out of the market and silencing the voices of some of the last remaining independent media in Serbia.

Responding to N1’s reporting, Telekom Srbija said its goal was to achieve a more competitive market. However, its true objectives are clearly stated in documents former Internet and multi-media coordinator turned CEO Vladimir Lučić presented to Telekom Srbija’s supervisory board: destroying television channels owned by United Media.

Cooperation with Telenor is merely a means to that end.

“This would allow for driving SBB from this market, enabling Telekom Srbija to take and retain the top spot in retail fixed internet coverage and also ensure significant wholesale revenues in the future. As for content, i.e. our television channels, as using our infrastructure means using our content, this would allow for the complete domination of our content over United Media’s offerings. Ultimately, this would mean putting an end to United Media’s business and SBB in Serbia,” Telekom Srbija stated in a document released by N1 Television.

The dubious character of the arrangement with Telenor is further demonstrated by the fact it was agreed in secret and for prices that have not been made public. The opportunity to partner with Telekom Srbija was not offered in an open tender, something that would have ultimately fostered competition and been in the best interests of the public were that Telekom Srbija’s true intent.

Serbia’s competition watchdog, the Commission for Protection of Competition (KZK), must now decide whether to approve this dubious deal. We fear the Commission will wave this project through without any serious review. If this happens, Serbia’s government will be free to continue its attempt to destroy a private company and quash the free media ahead of Serbia’s next election cycle.

Making this situation even more contentious is that Telekom Srbija, which is owned by the government, invests huge resources in producing news programming, this despite the fact the law bans the government from owning media outlets.

What Telekom Srbija is doing is clearly a political move financed by a government-lead company that is intended to silence media outlets that ask questions that make the country’s ruling establishment uncomfortable and that report information it would not like the citizens of Serbia to hear.

As a company doing business in the European Union, United Media values strict EU rules designed to prevent something like this happening within its borders and which also protect market competition and sanction anti-competitive agreements.

Anti-competitive alliance between Telekom Srbija and Telenor would cause unprecedented damage to free media in Serbia

  Aleksandra Subotić, Adrian Wells, Peter Horrocks

If the anti-competitive agreement between Telekom Serbia and Telenor goes ahead, it would bring damage to society, unprecedented even in Serbia. It would mean a state-controlled company has been allowed to join forces with a private business to attack the freedom of the press and deny the Serbian public access to independent news and information.

N1 is the first regional news channel based in Luxembourg and with production centres in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Zagreb. Advisors to its editorial board are some of the best-known and most respected names in European journalism, including the former head of the BBC World Service, Peter Horrocks.

“Independent academic research has shown that N1 is the most trusted TV News source in Serbia. Any threat to undermine the business that supports N1 is a threat to accurate and impartial information in Serbia and should be opposed by all who believe in free media,” Horrocks said.

Advisor to the editorial board and the managing director of the news exchange service Enex, Adrian Wells, also commented: “Television and media consumers in Serbia should be able to decide themselves which high quality channels they would like to watch without barrier or interference. The cornerstone of free media is that it should operate without unwarranted controls or restrictions by government or cartels.”

International organizations such as Reporters without Borders have warned repeatedly about the erosion of press freedom in Serbia. The 2020 World Press Freedom Index said that “after six years under the leadership of Aleksandar Vučić, first as prime minister and then as president, Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate”.

This is something we ourselves have witnessed too often.

Defending democratic ideals demands that everything be done to protect the few independent media voices in Serbia that remain. If Telekom Srbija realizes its plan, Serbians will lose all access to independent media, they will lose the opportunity to hear anything other than what the state-owned operator allows them to hear.

That’s why we call on all international institutions to react, to defend the right to freedom of information guaranteed by law and to remind Serbian authorities of European values and standards. We must emphasize the need for the consistent application of the law already in force in Serbia that makes this deal impossible to realize.

The authorities must not be allowed to starve the free media of resources and ultimately banish them from the air.

Aleksandra Subotić

Chief Executive Officer

United Media