CPJ urges passage of new broadcasting law

New York, April 17, 2002—In a letter sent today to Serbian National Assembly president Natasa Micic, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed strong support for Parliament’s efforts to safeguard press freedom in Serbia.

CPJ believes that by passing the draft Broadcasting Law, currently under consideration, Parliament can create an effective legal framework for the broadcast media and thereby make a crucial contribution to the democratization of Serbian society.

The Serbian government approved the draft Broadcasting Law on April 4 and passed it to the Serbian Parliament for urgent consideration, according to local press reports. The law would establish an independent Broadcasting Agency to supervise the broadcast media and the distribution of broadcast licenses. The law would also transform state-run Radio Television Serbia (RTS) into a public broadcasting service with more independence from Serbian government authorities.

The Democratic Opposition of Serbia’s (DOS) rise to power in late 2000 brought a dramatic end to the routine state-sponsored persecution of journalists that marked the administration of former president Slobodan Milosevic. However, the Milosevic-era regulatory framework for broadcast media has not been significantly modified during the last 18 months.

As a result, the system continues to favor larger media outlets that back the government, to the detriment of press freedom and the broader process of democratization in Serbia.

During the transition period in late 2000, influential independent television stations such as TV Pink and BK TV quickly switched their allegiance from the Milosevic regime to senior DOS politicians who were eager for favorable media coverage. This informal patronage has preserved the dominance of media outlets that once backed Milosevic by allowing them to retain their national broadcast frequencies and other regulatory privileges. These privileges have given pro-government broadcasters an unfair advantage in the media advertising market.

Meanwhile, a decade of physical abuse, legal harassment, heavy fines, and periodic confiscation of property under Milosevic left other media outlets financially weak but determined to preserve their independence under the new government. But without government patronage, most independent broadcasters lack the financial means to compete in the new market.

The enactment and effective implementation of the draft Broadcasting Law is desperately needed to ensure that a broad array of independent broadcasters can survive financially during this difficult period of transition.

Taking Serbia’s recent history into consideration, we believe it important for the draft Broadcasting Law to address the issue of incitement to violence in an effective and appropriate manner. CPJ remains concerned, however, that vaguely defined provisions in the law to restrict speech deemed to promote hatred or discrimination could potentially be abused to curtail political dissent.

CPJ believes that supporting and strengthening the independent press is central to Serbia’s ongoing process of political reform and integration into pan-European institutions. Therefore we hope that Parliament will pass the Broadcasting Law with all possible speed.