By Alexandra Cheney
BELGRADE, December 10 – For decades most media outlets in Serbia have relied on a daily news feed from Tanjug, but that is about to change: after 72 years the state news agency created at the birth of communist Yugoslavia closes its doors after failing to find a buyer.
“Tanjug was forgotten by people who should have taken care of it,” Serbian journalist Vesna Peric-Zimonjic said between drags of a cigarette.
Serbian media is undergoing a process of privatization in order to meet European Union free market requirements as it tries to get in line with its standards in a bid to join the 28-member bloc. The Serbian state is required to withdraw from the media in order to create equal conditions within the media market.
Of the 73 state-funded media, only 35 organizations were successfully privatized, while 23 chose instead to shut down. The remaining 15 organizations shut down because they were unable to find buyers to complete the privatization process, according to Serbian journalist Antonela Riha, who widely reported on media privatization. As of early November, Tanjug was one of state-funded Serbian media outlets that failed to find a buyer.
While Tanjug is closed on paper, it is still putting out news. But the confusion does not end here.
Tanjug technically ceased to exist on Nov. 5, confirmed by a decree from the Serbian government. Yet the news agency has not stopped working – with their website reporting current news daily.
As Serbian media undergo privatization, they face new threats to its freedom and the livelihood of journalists. Tanjug’s closing represents these struggles.
In both communist Yugoslavia and Serbia, particularly in the 1990s, state ownership enabled political elite to control media and information flow. State-controlled media was understood to be a promoter of political parties or leaders – not to report, analyze, or investigate news.
Serbian journalist Vesna Peric-Zimonjic worked for Tanjug in the 1980s and saw Tanjug in its best and worst days. In 1992 Tanjug changed its entire editorial line. It became a mouthpiece of the authoritarian leader Slobodan Milosevic who led Serbia into the wars and break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
“I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t survive in an office which was aimed at the official propaganda of the Milosevic regime. I could not write that stuff,” she said. So she quit her job, leaving before the bottom fell out.
The early 1990s marked Tanjug’s first collapse, when journalists fled because of professional grievances. Those left behind were those who could not leave the security of a state financed job.
Peric-Zimonjic does not blame those who stayed, but “they were a world apart compared to professionals.”
Peric-Zimonjic wasn’t the only journalist who left. At the same time two-hundred other journalists left Tanjug, creating two competing agencies: Beta and FoNet, supported by alternative and international investors. However, these private media faced unique challenges.
Serbia’s long tradition of state sponsored media has created an uneven playing field. Beta and FoNet could not compete economically against Tanjug’s state funding. A 2014 study of the Serbian media scene showed Tanjug and Beta were comparable in terms of production output and pre-subsidy revenue. Tanjug earned roughly 1.05 million euros and Beta 984,000 euros.
“However, because Tanjug receive[d] approximately 1.8 million euro subsidies from the state budget, they are able to employ 212 employees compared to Beta’s 90. Additionally, the subsidy allow[ed] Tanjug to make a net profit of 11.485 euros as opposed to Beta’s net profit of 607 euros despite the fact Tanjug would not be financially profitable at all without the backing of state finances,” the study showed.
Other news organizations with state funding received similar benefits and advantages. Privatization is seen as a way to fix the uneven media field.
Vukasin Obradovic, president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS), firmly believes that the privatization of media is a necessary step in the media reform process.
Privatization, in theory, says Obradovic, creates a media market where “all subjects are equal.”
Yet the state’s implementation of the privatization process has raised concerns.
Obradovic fears the state will now indirectly influence media because individuals who purchase the media are not interested in the news, but rather as a tool to influence politics. The worry is that the newly private organizations will instead be subject to the owners influence, replacing the states former influence.
“The people who bought media don’t have any interest in doing media business, they are only advocating for the government’s and the ruling party’s aims,” Obradovic said.
Ljiljana Smajlovic, editor-in-chief of Politika newspaper, heads Serbia’s other journalism association (UNS). Politika, the Balkans oldest daily newspaper still in circulation, remains state-funded organization.
Smajlovic sees private ownership as the way to “cut the umbilical chord” between those who fund, and those who place pressure on media organizations – yet agrees with Obradovic’s dissatisfaction about media privatization.
Smajlovic felt the first wave of privatization was disastrous because it only shut down small local media and narrowed media voices in Serbia.
Unlike others, Smajlovic does not believe these smaller media lacked quality. Rather, she thinks harsh forces of privatization destroyed the papers. “The hand of the market does not seem to work in favor of either quality, or ethics, or professionalism. Or, public interest,” she said.
Prominent Serbian journalist Antonela Riha sees privatization as only a part of Serbia’s media puzzle.
“We have very few media here who are reporting correctly and without direct influence of government or some member of the government,” said Riha. “That is the main problem in Serbia now. Beyond privatization.”
Additionally there is lack of transparency within the media, and privatization only exacerbates this problem. “Now we don’t know who the owners are,” Riha said.
Serbia’s Anti-Corruption Council presented in February 2015 a report on ownership structure and control over media in Serbia.
“The Council analyzed a sample of 50 media. Complete transparency of ownership was found in 23 media, while 27 media have non-transparent ownership, partially transparent or disputable. The Council noticed that the real owner of the majority of media registered abroad is almost impossible to determine,” it reads.
Riha feels that the media have become a “machinery of propaganda,” with privatization only adding to these initial problems.
Privatization worries Smajlovic because Tanjug exemplifies how every media organization is at risk – painting a stark picture for Politika’s future.
“We like to rail against the affects of privatization but if someone came to me and said ‘who should be the owners of papers in Serbia?’ – I couldn’t find a single person that’s not beholden to the state. That doesn’t exist,” said Smajlovic.
Journalists at Politika have been pressuring Smajlovic to craft a best-case-scenario for the paper – an exit plan. This way they are prepared and ready for all options.
As an Editor-in-Chief of a major newspaper, Tanjug’s shutdown weighs heavily on Smajlovic because she relied on its news coverage more than any other. She now expresses concerns over whether Beta and FoNet can pick up Tanjug’s slack.
“I’m worried as an editor in Serbia – what is going to happen with that agency market?” Smajlovic said. “A good agency is very important and I don’t care who owns it, but it’s important.”