Serbia’s liberals are not so liberal when it comes to media freedom

Sep 222009

We all know that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but what happened in Serbia this summer is amazing even by Balkan standards. The country’s long and winding road to democracy took a very strange turn with a new law regulating the media industry. Outlets now face steep fines and the only immediate winners are - lawyers.


The start of my Fellowship in Serbia coincided with a highly divisive debate in the country over a government initiative to change a key media law by introducing hefty fines of up 20 million dinars (215,000 euros/150,000 USD) for libel and a few related transgressions. Media freedom suddenly took center stage and the generally reformist, pro-Western government surprised many by its crusade that was apparently triggered by a spate of particularly vicious headlines targeting Cabinet ministers as well as various public figures, their family members and an occasional celebrity.


Some of the tabloid headlines did look sensationalist. Maybe the cheap dailies were desperate to boost circulation during the quiet summer months; maybe a politician commissioned smears against an opponent; some of the allegations about corruption and embezzlement were probably true but the articles lacked support. Anyway, the government reacted with the sweeping measure to change the Public Information Law, empowering prosecutors to go after any outlet – regardless of possible private lawsuits - for publishing any allegation that it cannot prove in court.  Fines would go sky high, threatening to put many media companies in the not particularly profitable sector out of business.


Yet the coalition Cabinet, headed by PM Mirko Cvetkovic of the Democratic Party, was not unanimous on the issue. The initiative first came from one of the coalition partners, the technocrats of the G17 party (headed by Economy Minister Mladjan Dinkic), while another coalition partner, the conservative United Serbia group, refused to endorse what was presented as a way to ``make media more accountable,’’ and to ``increase the level of responsibility for all participants in the media industry.’’

Ironically, the Socialists (reformed and renamed Communists once led by autocrat Slobodan Milosevic) said they would not support the new Law.


Among the opposition parties, the left-leaning Liberal Democrats initially protested the proposed provisions. The right-wing Serbian Radical Party, whose nominal chief Vojislav Seselj is on trial for war crimes before the U.N. court in the Netherlands, consistently decried the apparent attempt to curb free speech.


The political scene suddenly looked upside down.  


Media organizations and most journalist associations in the country were immediately up in arms when the draft law was presented, trying to mobilize the public in efforts to preserve the hard-won freedom after decades of Communism and Milosevic’s anarchy in the 1990s.


Media managers warned that the changes would lead to self-censorship because the draft law was vague on questions of responsibility. A newspaper might be punished just for carrying someone’s negative comment about a person. One of the ``innovations’’ was to give greater role to courts and judges in determining what actually constitutes a libel.


Professor Vladimir Vodinelić of the Belgrade University Law School, said such legislation might be expected from a dictatorship, not in a country aspiring to join the European Union.

``It aims to protect the state from the media. It marks a departure from the concept in which media represent a key component of democracy,’’ he said.


On the other hand, those in favor of the amendments cited a number of past cases when media companies were fined in private lawsuits (fines ranging from 30,000 din/470 USD to 200,000 dinars/3,125 USD) but never paid the amounts because they used the legal loophole to nominally shut down, then re-register under the same or similar name, shaking off all the obligations from the previous legal identity.

One of the initial proposals to prevent this was to introduce a mandatory bank deposit, equivalent to 50,000 euros (USD 73,000) as a reserve for paying possible fines.


The debate raged on for weeks, with twists and turns almost every day.


By early August, the government backed down a little, cutting the envisaged fines in half. It also dropped the idea about mandatory deposits because it would mean discrimination against media companies - most other companies registered in the country do not face such requirement. 

However, the authorities came up with a gradient for fines: if found in violation of the Law, a newspapers, for example, would have to pay 25 percent to 100 percent of gross revenue (circulation plus ads) on the day when the libelous material was published. And the penalties would be enforced only if the outlet fails to publish an apology.


A solution to dodging fines: no reappearing under the same name within a year. Legally, a media company can still shut down and register again, but only with a thorough change of brand.


One of the key provisions concerns ``alleging or suggesting’’ that a person is guilty of a crime before such verdict in the court of law.  This was already punishable, but violating it now would risk a fine of up to 100 percent of daily revenue, or seven-day revenue if the allegation appeared on the front page.


Ljiljana Smajlović of the Association of Serbian Journalists and former chief editor of Serbia’s oldest daily, Politika, said the provisions ``amount to stifling free speech … we won’t be able to report even what we see with our own eyes.’’

Outlets considering publishing even opinions that might be violations, will censor themselves for fear of being prosecuted and going bankrupt, she added.


Yet several prominent editors remained conspicuously silent on the issue, privately expressing support for any measure that would reign in the tabloids. One of the most notorious examples was from last May when popular tabloid Kurir ran a huge headline claiming that the son of a Belgrade talk show host was a drug dealer. Investigation showed the teenager was merely caught smoking weed in a schoolyard.


The law was eventually adopted on Aug 31, with 125 lawmakers in the 250-seat national voting in favor of the new Public Information Law (replacing the previous one from 2003), while 88 deputies voted against it.  

After some last-minute dealing and bargaining, the opposition Liberal Democrats supported the government initiative, while hard-liners and right-wing groups sided with media associations in blasting the bill as dangerous.


A local blogger found it ``disheartening that the public outrage was not greater. Tomorrow, someone else’s freedom will be curbed, but there won’t be anybody left to write about it.’’


Prominent intellectuals without party affiliations were outraged, while entertainment celebrities rejoiced when the parliament approved the Law, hoping it would finally discourage the paparazzi from invading their privacy. The problem, however, is that the new legislation applies to all media, not just the tabloids.


``We’ll see how the implementation goes. If need be, we’ll make big noise,’’ said Tanja Jordović, news editor at Belgrade-based Pink television.


An immediate impact of the new Law is that media companies are beefing up their teams of lawyers. `Journalists and editors are now in constant contact with lawyers’’ for fear of being found in violation of the new provisions, said Belgrade lawyer Daniel Mirosavljevic. ``It’s up to courts now to define the boundaries of freedom of expression.’’