We should have the Law in power, not one man and his will
The reason for this conversation with Slobodan Georgiev, News Director at Nova TV, was the new media law, which caused rather harsh reactions from individuals in the media world. What is the problem with this law and what is the government’s attitude towards the media, especially those who are vocal critics of the regime, find out in the following interview.
You were among the first people to react to the draft of the new media law and delivered very harsh criticism. What exactly is wrong with the draft? Should journalists and the media be afraid?
The bad thing about media laws is that the state is again becoming an owner. Ten years ago, the state withdrew from media ownership because it was correctly assessed that the state should not be a part of the media, but with the help of regulation, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM), the Press Council and the Commission for the Protection of Competition, ensure equal conditions for all participants in the media market. The bad thing about these laws is, consequently, that they are not aligned with the media strategy, so we ask ourselves, why don’t you change the strategy or abandon that form altogether instead of breaking the rules that you have created yourself? All this leads to legal uncertainty and creates an abnormal media market that is easy to manipulate and instrumentalize.
You said recently that it was a good thing that the journalists and media rebelled against the draft law immediately. Did that rebellion have any effect and can this fight produce results?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any effects because a hundred journalists, which is how many Serbia currently has, are insufficient to make a difference. Moreover, those hundred journalists are already causing too many problems, so I would not be surprised if a mechanism was created by which they will be completely delegitimized and expelled from public life because it seems that no one else is bothered by this kind of media scene, which will be even worse in the future with such laws and with this kind of government.
Public interest should control the power
After meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić tried to distance himself and shift the blame to Ana Brnabić. Do you think that he really had nothing to do with the draft law and that this apparent intervention by the EU could bear fruit and lead to the withdrawal of the law from the parliamentary procedure?
If he had nothing to do with it, he would not have signed such a draft law, just like he did a year ago with the Law on Expropriation or the new Law on Internal Affairs. By doing so, he certainly approved the legalization of what had been illegal, that is, for the state to formally dominate the media space through telecoms, all under the guise of protecting the national telecommunications company, which is a ridiculous claim. The EU didn’t do much either – they were eager just to nod their heads and say “Here, we have a result”. I fear that this will have far-reaching and bad consequences.
What does the history of the president’s current relationship with the media tell us?
He does not understand the media, that is, he behaves as if the media are the handmaiden of people in power. As he sees himself as the most powerful person in Serbia, the media should serve him and be a kind of channel that connects him to his voters – he speaks, the media conveys his message, and people listen. That’s how he sees this conduit. However, the media are something else – they are an actor on the social scene (social fabric) and they dictate debates. They are not here to serve anyone other than the public interest and the public interest should control the power – political and all other. The public interest is not the government’s PR, the promotion of the activities of government ministers and presidents, courts and the Parliament. The point is to control these, not promote them.
The election campaign has started and it seems that the government is using all available means from the get-go. How will the chaos on the media scene affect the upcoming election? What can we conclude from the announcements about a dirty political campaign and what can we expect to see?
The election campaign is irregular and so are the upcoming elections but we have no other option. We can wait for citizens to raise their heads, free themselves from fear and blackmail, and go to the polls as free people. The government has shown that it can secure an election victory in advance in many ways, but if the citizens don’t allow it, then it won’t happen. The media will operate as before – tabloids and TV stations with national coverage plus local TV stations will favour the current government, while several cable media outlets and newspapers will uphold the public interest.
The fight for media freedom and public speech seems to be the fate of the Serbian people. In recent history, there has never been a moment without a need to win over freedom. Is that a global consequence of neoliberal democracy or is it something that is still our sad everyday peculiarity?
History teaches us that freedom is not guaranteed to anyone. What is specific about Serbia and other totalitarian regimes is the narrative that freedom is something that belongs to the community and not to the individual. If we listen to what the government tells us – it is a continuous ode to freedom and independence, but it is always turned outwards, that is freedom from enemies and conquerors, enslavers, not freedom for every person in Serbia. In this context, the fight for every type of freedom is important, difficult and unceasing, until THAT becomes the golden standard in Serbia as well. This standard will be met once that “debate” ends and when all those freedoms are accepted not only because they are constitutionally guaranteed but because they have also become a regular practice in our everyday lives.
The government has shown that it can secure an election victory in advance in many ways, but if the citizens don’t allow it, then it won’t happen
In this ongoing social “war” in Serbia, everything is polarized and divided into two sides, black and white. This applies to the media as well which have assumed firm positions. What happens to the truth in this situation?
The truth is always singular, there are no two truths. It is true that the Earth is round and that someone believes it is a flat plate is not up for debate. Serbia is polarized precisely on this principle: the government tells us that the planet is a flat plate and since the government apparatus is big, powerful and strong, they demand that we all declare our stand about it and there is no way that that can be done. Of course, they created this illusion to keep people in the dark and to introduce instability into the human understanding of reality. This is a dangerous project from which it is very difficult to recover. The media have their place in society – they were “invented” not for entertainment but for information – and now the majority is trying to convince us otherwise. The journalists have to fight against that, i.e. to secure the place and type of media as it should be and not as the people in power would like it to be, regardless of how they became powerful – through politics or business. If the citizens had access, in the same way, to what you call the “two sides” of the media coin, they would easily understand who is saying what and why. I have no doubts about that, despite the detrimental exposure to fake news from TV stations with national coverage, public broadcasters, tabloids and social networks.
How to achieve for state institutions to guarantee media freedom when the current situation is contrary to that? Take the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) for example.
Good laws would produce good institutions and the institutions would enjoy their work if all stakeholders recognized their role. For example, if the media operated in line with the code of ethics, the Press Council and the REM would rarely need to intervene, that is if the media that use the public good worked in the public and not political interests. But, then again, those who call themselves media, journalists, media workers or media entrepreneurs must know and be ready to admit that. If they don’t understand that if they are ‘flirting’ with crime or politics, then they are not the media, but servants that we spoke about at the beginning of our conversation. To rectify that, the Law has to be in power, not one man and his will. It would be better for him and the whole society.