The radio show Peščanik is no longer broadcast on B92, another side of the disconcerting slide of that station to the political right. But it is still one of the most informative broadcasts coming out of Serbia — interviews that give the speaker time to say something substantive, commentary that is always provocative — and it is still available to people who want to listen to it online. This week’s broadcast (MP3) had an especially interesting feature: an interview with Verica Barać, the president of the state commission against corruption.
She was discussing a report that the commission had just released about control of the media in Serbia. The report is available online (go to the bottom if you want a PDF) and details several dimensions of control that might have been guessed from signs but are brought together here into one place. What follows is a very brief summary of the report.
The members of the commission identify three main sets of problems:
A lack of clarity regarding ownership of media
The economic influence of state institutions over media, and
The closeness of the state broadcaster RTS to political parties and state institutions
A few details on each of these points.
Ownership: Of the 30 largest media houses, 18 have owners who are unknown, primarily because they are formally held by offshore companies whose ownership structure is disguised from the public.Those companies “usually serve as fronts and have no corporate infrastructure in the country where they are registered. The owner is sometimes a person from Serbia, and sometimes the owner of a firm registered on Cyprus hides in a network of other companies registered around the world. Beyond that, if an offshore company is registered in one of the world’s tax havens, it is nearly impossible for anybody to find out the name of the owner, because instead of the name they will be more likely to find the name of the law firm that represents them”.
To give a few examples — the newspaper Večernje novosti, formally owned by three offshore firms, all of which are owned by the tycoon Milan Beko. Or the newspaper Press, registered to a company of unknown ownership on Cyprus, with some speculation putting the company in the hands of tycoons Miroslav Mišković or Milka Forcan, or possibly the Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas. Or TV Prva, bought from Rupert Murdoch by Greek tycoon Minos Kyriakou and entirely owned by two Cyprus-registered companies under his control. Kyriakou also seems to have disguised ownership of RTV B92, arranged through a complex of firms registered on Cyprus. Or TV Avala, with its ownership by TV Pink owner Željko Mitrović disguised through a company registered in Austria. The list goes on, but the most interesting detail from it may be the magazine Vreme, formally owned by its employees but owing a large debt to a company owned by Miroslav Mišković.
Influence of state institutions: Up to 40 million euros goes from the state budget to media, either for assistance to media or as money spent on advertising. That amounts to about a quarter of the value of Serbia’s entire advertising market. A good portion of this goes not for advertising in the public interest but for promotion of the work of particular ministries and ministers — the commission gives the example of the “Očistimo Srbiju” campaign, organised by the ministry of the environment, which functioned as a promotion vehicle for environment minister Oliver Dulić.
Looking at money that is not spent on advertising, it seems that a good portion of this is support for media to research various social problems, most of which already have state institutions and budgets already dedicated to research. The result is that again the projects look like political promotion. And the money that is spent on advertising? That largely goes through the Agency for Relations with Media, which reserves publicity space en bloc in advance at a reduced fee, then pays the media outlets in pieces as it uses the space. Or does not pay them if it does not use it. When the space is used the material appears to be channelled through a small number of politically connected advertising agencies, of which one of the largest (but not the only one) is McCann/Erickson, which is owned by president Tadić’s adviser Srđan Šaper.
State institutions as party vehicles: Parties name their candidates to the boards of directors of state-owned media, who then decide as to the awarding of production contracts for material to be broadcast by these media. Although the commission was not provided with all of the information they requested, they have indications that these contracts seem to be driected to firms connected to political parties, or in some instances to members of the board itself. Here it seems that the line traced from the production houses that have the greatest success in obtaining contracts often seems to involve somewhere the mayor of Belgrade, Dragan Đilas.
So that is the commission’s account of the situation — disguised ownership and close relations with politicians and tycoons. You would think that the report would cause a bit of a fuss, but since it was filed on 19 September today’s broadcast is the first that I heard about it. No doubt if the members of the commission got something terribly wrong, that will be covered.
The winner of the Nobel prize for literature was to be announced at 1PM today, and as people probably know by now it went to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
But around noontime this fine hoax page went up:
The wags registered it to a site called “nobelprizeliterature.org”, and made it look fairly persuasive. The links to other parts of the Nobel machinery all led to the (genuine) official site at nobelprize.org. According to the hoax, the Nobel prize for literature was to be awarded to political dinosaur and lugubrious father-obsessed memoirist/novelist Dobrica Ćosić. In language meant to echo the self-congratulation of the „Serbian Tolstoy“, the page invited viewers to think of him as „the last dissident of the 20th century“ (the fellow loves to call himself a dissident, and was promoted as one in every single regime he loyally served).
Good fun! But it doesn’t stop there. The state television network RTS picked up the story and reported it as true. But no surprise there, they have a longstanding reputation for credulity. So did the tabloid Večernje novosti, but it’s the same story there. But Radio B92? The story was up on their site, where it caused a brief panic on social networks, for all of fifteen minutes. After which a long tajac fell, followed by a weak and belated apology.
Now this was big, not so much because of the devious cleverness of the hoax – after all, Ćosić is as likely to get a Nobel as Jackie Collins is – as because of what it shows about journalistic reflexes and how they change. Every news outlet has put out unverified stories at some point, and when people think it is big news but are not entirely certain the decision about whether to go ahead or not depends partly on critical professional judgement built through years of experience, partly on a realistic assessment of probability, and partly on what folks just plain wish was true. When B92 was an independent station operating under the slogan „Don’t trust anybody, not even us“, the first two factors would have prevailed and the third would not have entered into the equation. You know what made the mighty fall? Their might.
The satirists at Njuz.net got it about right when they found out that somebody else was publishing the fake and improbable news that they were supposed to be making up. Their story had an editor of the satirical site explaining, „We understand the desire of the B92 portal to amuse people with absurd and invented news stories, but at the same time we insist on basic journalistic ethics which should be respected“. It’s a pretty good summary of the role of satire at a time when „serious“ outlets are parodies of themselves.
Credit for the hoax was taken after the fact by an anonymous group who above a poem by Danilo Kiš posted the explanation that their goal was „to bring to the attention of the Serbian public dangerous influence of the writer Dobrica Ćosić”. On the one hand you could say that this offers a little bit of a mixed bag: they teased him, but then while they were doing so they drew more attention to him and continued the long tradition of inflating his importance. On the other hand, if the joke was to work as a political intervention, it had to rely on the assumption that as long as people are talking about Ćosić they are saying bad things. This might be a good assumption.
Update: A frequent ironic comment on the news has been “what does Basara say about this?” No problem, here is what Basara says.
Hooray for manipulation of terrible stories of the suffering of children! Have you heard of young Anđela (8), Miljan (9) and Marko (10)? Well, according to the long-ago respected former B92, twice a day to attend school they have to go “alone with no protection” for “two or three hours” through surrounding forests “full of bloodthirsty animals like wolves”. And there is no question of failing to arrive on time, since “they are the only students there”.
Eh, they have luckier neighbours, Danijel and Stefan. Those lads only have to go along 15km of goat paths to an unlighted mud school, but “when the weather is nice their father takes them by motorcycle”. What is there to be expected of the father when the weather is unpleasant?
The nature of the problem? They are in villages near the “administrative line” (this is a very special type of line) with Kosovo. Unnamed sources appear to have counted the number of wolves in the area (about 200), but otherwise the line, although it is administrative, seems to remain quite unadministered. Unless you calculate the predictable reaction to stories like this, which would seem to be very elaborately administered.