Extreme job cuts at Serbian regional broadcaster: “The citizen’s majority is disengaged”

by Jane Whyatt
Senior editors have been replaced at Serbia’s public service broadcaster in the region of Vojvodina, RTV. The move prompted demonstrations in Novi Sad, the regional capital, as the dismissals are believed to be politically motivated.

ECPMF interviewed Vesna Marjanovic, a Democratic Party Member of the Serbian National Assembly, about the RTV case.

What makes you think there is a political motive behind the staff changes at RTV?

Vesna Marjanovic Vesna Marjanovic (Photo: private)

Marjanovic: Even before the election in April, the Vojvodina channel was removed from the main transmitters for Serbia so that the scope of their broadcasts was narrower. After the election, the Programme Director was dismissed. There was almost no explanation – the only explanation was that the ratings were down. Very soon after that, the Director General resigned, his deputy resigned as well and a couple of days after that all the editors were dismissed. Some of them just heard they were sacked through oral information. They just heard it in the corridor, like “Hello - from tomorrow, you are not in charge of the programme any more.”

The journalists who were still employed at TV Vojvodina reacted – they signed a petition with twenty or thirty signatures – now they have more than one hundred. They have support from the RTV audience and also professional journalistic associations. But the Prime Minister said that everything was done ”by the law” and there is no problem.

But the question remains: how can you sack a whole team with only one explanation: the ratings. And this is something we cannot check because it is not open, it’s not done by an independent body. Research by an NGO shows that on the contrary, trust in the TV stations has gone up and also the diversity of programming for national minorities has gone up. This is very important for Vojvodina because it is an ethnically mixed province.

What can the sacked journalists do about it?

They had a meeting with the representatives of the European Union Commission and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in Belgrade. They asked for evidence of breaking the law. Our law on the role of public service broadcasting is very clear. The main aim of the public service broadcaster is to promote democracy, diversity and the highest standards of protecting human rights. There is no mention of ratings. So – did somebody break the law? Maybe not. But is the law being obeyed? Absolutely not. In the new authoritarian Europe they are becoming very clever and that is how they are breaking down independent media.

How has the government created the conditions for this to happen?

It started in 2012. The party now in government (Serbian Progressive Party) announced as election pledge that they want to diminish licence fees for public broadcasting. But they realised, when they were working with the new legal framework with the EU Commission, that they could not stick to that. So for one year they funded public broadcasting directly from the government and many of us in parliament saw this as a very bad sign. Then the Prime Minister said they would have a new licence fee but only of 150 dinars – much less than it was before – which is not enough. He had no right to set that amount, it should have been set by the management committee.

Many journalists fear that what happened in Vojvodina will spread also to the national broadcaster which has been under sophisticated lack of support from the government for a long time.

What about the viewers? Do they know about what is going on – and do they care?

Only the most well educated and informed people know. The majority is disengaged, tired and depressed because of the economic crisis which is very bad in Serbia. So when you say “let’s pay less for the licence fee” – or “let’s pay less for anything”, it’s a very popular decision. So to expect a massive citizen reaction is not realistic.