Friday, 23 July 2021 11:27

Telekom Srbija: Vučić’s weapon to stifle media freedom Featured

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić bases his power largely on media influence. In this respect, state-owned cable and broadband provider Telekom Srbija is used as a political weapon, writes Serbian journalist Darko Čačić in an opinion article for EURACTIV Bulgaria.

Media freedom in Serbia is seriously jeopardised, with only a few independent media outlets left, as pointed out by several international organisations. Serbia ranks 93rd out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. The EU has warned that threats, intimidation and violence against journalists remain a source of serious concern.

Serbian media space is dominated by an overwhelmingly favourable coverage of the government, especially of President Vučić. The opposition, conversely, is largely marginalised or negatively presented. The Serbian government puts critical journalism on a par with anti-state activities and decries independent media outlets for spreading misinformation without providing evidence.

Printing houses in Serbia refuse to publish new daily newspaper

United Group, a leading multi-play telecoms and media provider in South-East Europe, announced in April it was launching a daily newspaper in Serbia with a responsible editorial concept, to counter the bad situation with print media in the country. However, no printing house in Serbia has so far accepted to print the new daily, called Nova.

Observers say that state-owned cable and broadband provider Telekom Srbija plays an important role in Vučić’s efforts to prevent the spread of critical voices as it has been used to expand the media monopoly of the progressives and to stifle media outlets whose editorial policy is not to the ruling party’s taste, by bankrupting them.

Telekom Srbija’s main rival is company Serbia Broadband (SBB), owned by the United Group, which broadcasts TV channels such as N1, Nova S and Newsmax Adria, one of the few in Serbia which provide information that could not be heard in the state-controlled media and which regularly report on government corruption scandals.

Over the past three years Telekom has not spared money to achieve a dominant position. Two very non-transparent acquisitions are often cited as examples.

Telekom spent at least another €100 million in 2019 on the purchase of several small cable television and internet providers. Experts claimed that price of those acquisitions was significantly above the market value.

The most obvious example of destroying the competition on the market was revealed this week. Telekom Srbija has paid a huge €600 million for the broadcasting rights to English Premier League matches in six seasons.

Game on for the Premier League in Serbia?

Luring them with football, Serbia’s leadership want to lock Balkan audiences into their favoured TV channels carrying anti-western narratives, which correspond with the country’s growing ties to the likes of China, Russia and Hungary, writes Marko Milosavljevič.

That is widely seen as a politically motivated move aimed to harm the United Group, whose operater SBB has broadcast English Premier League for years. The price is more than eight times higher than the one SBB had been paying, indicating that political interest lies in the ground of Telekom Srbija’s decision.

Providing extremely popular content, such as the best football competitions in the world, Telekom wants to take over customers of the SBB cable provider. The exorbitant amount indicates that Vučić’s goal is the United Group’s disappearance from the Serbian market.

Two months ago, Euronews Serbia TV channel, owned by Telekom Srbija, started with its programmes. Pan-European broadcaster Euronews came to Serbia as a partner of Telekom Srbija and the new TV channel is their joint venture.

For the time being, nothing indicates that Vučić is ready to abandon the long-time practice of media muzzling. He is not ready to loosen his grip on the country, as evidenced by the fact that the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM), which is doing almost nothing to ensure balanced and unbiased reporting, recently elected board members of the public media services.

That decision is controversial because it is a unilateral move amid the European Parliament mediated negotiations between the government and the opposition on election conditions, with media freedom being the main issue.