There are unprecedented levels of obscenity in Serbia’s media landscape, driven by the powerful network of state-backed media, amid the election campaign ahead of the December 17 snap general election called by the country’s increasingly autocratic President Aleksandar Vucic earlier this autumn to reassert his grip on the country.
Marko Milosvaljevic, a member of the Committee of Experts on Media Sustainability (MSI-RES) at the Council of Europe and head of the Communication Department at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, told bne IntelliNews in an interview that the media situation in Serbia is “very bleak” with the “media landscape almost completely controlled by the government”.
The blatant use of vulgarities and aggressiveness in the Serbian media environment would not have been possible without the near complete subjugation of the media environment to the will of the government. A persistent feature of the Serbian media, this has intensified as December 17 approaches.
Marko Milosvaljevic, member of the Committee of Experts on Media Sustainability (MSI-RES) at the Council of Europe and head of the Communication Department at the University of Ljubljana.
“Tabloids in Serbia are tabloids without any restrictions and not susceptible to any punitive action by any regulatory body either for print, electronic media or ethical regulators,” Milosavljevic says.
“I cannot imagine a newsstand in an EU capital where one of the newspapers' front page would contain a headline with the word “c**t,” another with the word “c**k,” and a third about how someone should be killed, openly calling for violence in places such as Kosovo,” Milosavljevic adds.
He recalls the case of the legendary Serbian singer Djordje Balasevic, who was called a “Panonian c**t” in a headline by tabloid Informer in response to Balasevic’s criticism of the Serbian government.
“When we talk about the aggressiveness and vulgarity of these tabloids and TV stations, we see there are no limits,” Milosavljevic says, pointing out that an equivalent of the four-letter English word is “regularly printed in the headlines on the front pages of these newspapers”.
The tone and content of Serbian pro-government media were singled out for criticism in the wave of mass protests in summer 2023, when two mass shootings within days of each other prompted thousands of Serbs to take to the streets to call for a ‘Serbia without violence’. Ahead of the December general election, opposition parties have announced they will work together under the ‘Serbia without violence’ banner, though the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is widely expected to score another victory.
The Serbian countryside, meanwhile, is largely left out of international media coverage and “completely controlled by the ruling party”, according to Milosavljevic.
Permanent campaign mode
When asked about the heated atmosphere of the election campaign, Milosavjlevic responds that “campaigning in Serbia is permanent, and the daily speeches by Vucic, which are aired several times a day, play an important role in it”.
“With these, the ruling party actually never leaves people in Serbia and the media to have a day off,” Milosavljevic explains before giving examples of the permanent state of the struggle.
Serbian society “never gets a break from seeing and hearing how their president and government-leading politicians are ‘fighting’ for the people of Serbia, ‘saving’ Serbia from Kosovars and Muslims, ‘protecting’ Serbian interests, ‘fighting’ for Russia, ‘fighting’ against the ‘wild West’ if the authorities choose to present themselves that way since they can also present themselves as EU-friendly when they need to show a friendly face in connection to the EU enlargement,” he says.
He recalls research by NGO Crta, which shows that at TV stations which are private but under the control of government-friendly owners, including TVB92 and TV Pink, approximately 78% of any mentions and coverage of the opposition is negative.
On the other hand, the amount of coverage of the opposition in all of these outlets is smaller than the amount of coverage of Vucic himself, not including the government, its ministers, any of the government MPs and ruling party members.
Complete dominance of society and the media
Milosavljevic, who is also working on a major EU project, Diacomet.eu, preparing a code of digital communication and trying to increase the accountability of regulatory bodies and politicians, is very concerned about the accountability of the Serbian regulatory bodies, particularly the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM).
“The [REM] body is now completely government-controlled and lacks any sort of constructive output and visible results because it has no intention of taking any punitive action against government media-friendly media,” Milosavljevic says.
He points out “numerous complaints in the past year about the content of some of the major television channels”, such as TV Pink and TV Happy, over “vulgarity, violence, sexual and obscene graphic content”.
“The Serbian state as an institution or, rather, as a corporation, has, over the past few years, really completely dominated all aspects of society, including the economy and all other fields that should be more independent and that should be more aligned with civil society and citizens,” Milosavjlevic explains.
He says that “for international observers, it is practised most visibly in the media outlets where over 90% of the landscape is completely controlled by pro-government people.”
“That is people with a clear connection with the key ruling persons in Serbia,” Milosavljevic continues adding that media watchdogs warn that the situation in terms of plurality is actually worse than in the 1990s during Slobodan Milosevic’s reign.
“No matter how undemocratic his rule was, there were still some independent media outlets such as B92, Vreme and a number of others that were critical of the government” during the era of Belgrade’s pariah president whose Serbian nationalism contributed to the outbreak of the bloody wars that broke up Yugoslavia, and who was overthrown in 2000.
“What has happened over the last years during the reign of Aleksandar Vucic is that the government, with the support of the state businesses and its allies, has taken over the majority of these formerly independent media outlets,” Milosavljevic explains.
Vucic’s own political career stretches back to Milosevic's years when he oversaw propaganda as the minister of information.
From independent to pro-government
B92 is now a pro-government media outlet dependent on the government, Milosavljevic continues, and “the same goes for the majority of media in Serbia, which was the policy line towards media in Serbia over the past few years – to gain complete control over the landscape as a whole without leaving almost anything outside of the government's control.”
He adds that “this level of government control includes public media such as RadioTelevision Serbia”, pointing out that it is still the most popular TV station in Serbia and the main source of information for most of Serbians.
“Moreover, the government has decided to enter and control the media market through the majority-state-owned company Telekom Serbia,” says Milosavljevic. Telekom Serbia is “officially a public shareholding company, but the state politics completely control it”.
Telekom Serbia was also singled out by critics, including opposition and watchdogs such as The Coalition for Media Freedom, amid the outcry caused by the approval of the new media laws in the Serbian parliament this October.
In the statement following its co-rapporteur Axel Shafer’s October visit to Serbia, the Parliamentary Assembly at the Council of Europe (PACE) expressed a concern over the “state monopolisation of the majority media outlets as well as the harassment of journalists expressing critical views or investigating cases of corruption and organised crime”.
It also pointed to the deeply polarised situation in the country, and concluding the interview with bne IntelliNews, Milosavljevic expresses hopes that the aggressiveness of the election campaign amplified by the state-backed media does not spiral out of control and won’t “turn bloody”.