Serbian PM pledges to help save news agency Tanjug

Serbian PM pledges to help save news agency Tanjug
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade November 9, 2015

Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic promised on November 6 that he will make every effort to help Tanjug to continue working, despite a government decision to shut down the state-owned news agency after two failed attempts at privatisation.

Tanjug is one of 73 Serbian state-owned media companies that were due to be either sold off or shut down by October 31, a part of a wider privatisation programme. However, the process is politically sensitive given the number of people employed at state-owned companies. Vucic’s announcement that he will try to save Tanjug indicates that Belgrade may not be willing to make tough decisions on shutting high-profile state companies.

The ministry of culture and information said in a statement released on November 4 that Tanjug will be closed and its workers dismissed by the end of the month.

However, Vucic, who was on an official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina when the decision to shut Tanjug was announced, made several encouraging statements as well as appearing to criticise Minister of Culture and Information Ivan Tasovac.

“I want to say, for the sake of the shorthand record and history, how disappointed I am with what has happened to Tanjug,” Vucic said on November 5, adding that he wanted to say he was "against the decision [to shut Tanjug]", B92 reported.

The following day, Vucic confirmed that he will do everything possible to help Tanjug employees keep their jobs.

“I consider it important and I will help, and we will find a way to make it easier for some prospective private investor to buy it, providing them with the equipment and business premises,” Vucic said, according to Tanjug.

Tanjug director Branka Djukic said she believes Vucic will manage to find a solution for the news agency.

She stressed on November 6 that it was clear that Tanjug could not remain under state ownership, but added that the government did not want the news agency to be closed.

Tanjug was supposed to be privatised by October 31, after a deadline originally set for June 30 was extended due to a lack of bidders. The Agency for Privatisation announced a public call for the purchase of 100% of Tanjug in June and invited local and foreign companies and consortiums to submit offers by July 30. The starting price was set at €760,935.74. On September 3, the agency announced a new public call, cutting the starting price by 50%, but again no bidders came forward.

Vucic’s comments resulted in a public war of words with Tasovac, a non-political ministerial appointment, who told journalists that while the prime minister opposed the closure of Tanjug, Vucic was "not against upholding the law [on privatisation of state companies]," according to B92.

The Journalists' Union of Serbia (SINOS) has called on both Tasovac and State Secretary Sasa Mirkovic to resign.

However, Tasovac said that the law on the privatisation of media companies had been adopted in August 2014, giving Tanjug and other media outlets a full 15 months for the privatisation process.

"People in Tanjug and other state media had the same amount of time to find a buyer, or at least a privatisation advisor. They had exactly that long to, if nothing else, at least submit a request, within the deadline, to the Privatization Agency to organize the distribution of free shares," said Tasovac, and pointed out that "the now scandalised journalist association" could have helped with that.

According to anti-corruption website Pistaljka (“whistleblower” in Serbian), Tanjug costs the state budget some €2mn per month and Tasovac’s ministry is obligated to pay this money.

Tanjug, or Telegrafska Agencija Nove Jugoslavije was found in 1943 as Yugoslavia’s official news agency. During the socialist era it closely followed the activities of Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito, and was one of the main sources for all print media at that time.

Despite a decade of war and the breakdown of the joint state, the agency has survived and maintained its reputation and standards. Today it is Serbia’s state news agency and the country’s most prominent and trusted news source. “As Tanjug reports” is a popular catchphrase in Serbia.

Based in Belgrade, Tanjug still has offices across the former Yugoslavia. It employs just under 200 people and receives around 60% of its revenues from the state budget by selling its content and through its contracts with various companies, according to Pistaljka.

Arguably, Tanjug’s main attraction to buyers is its 3,500 square metre headquarters in central Belgrade where real estate costs per square metre exceed €2,500.

Today Tanjug has also lost the dominant position it had in the socialist era as other broadcasters - although they often quote Tanjug - have their own teams on the ground. Competitors include local broadcasters such as B92 (which was acquired by Antenna Group earlier this year), RTS and Pink TV and the local affiliate of CNN. News agencies Beta and Fonet are also considered to be serious news sources.

The privatisation of state-owned companies, which is backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and another other international financial institutions, is seen as crucial for Serbia’s economic recovery and future development.

Under the law on privatisation adopted in August 2014, the process should be concluded by the end of 2015. However, in May the Serbian parliament approved amendments extending by up to one year court protection from creditors for 17 companies of strategic state interest employing a total of 25,000 people. Tanjug is not on the list, which includes bus and truck manufacturer FAP, pharma company maker Galenika and petrochemicals company HIP-Petrohemija.