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ANEM warns of serious threat to media freedom

Harmful effects of the adopted amendments to the Public Information Law and the Law on National Councils of National Minorities

(ANEM/IFEX) - BELGRADE, September 3, 2009 - The Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) has analyzed the Law Amending the Public Information Law, adopted on August 31, which has in the meantime been published in the Official Gazette. ANEM is of the opinion that the Law, even after the adoption of certain amendments, is not up to the task of protecting freedom of expression in accordance with the standards of a democratic society.

ANEM has never denied that some participants in the media scene in Serbia have ruthlessly and almost continually violated the basic principles of the journalistic profession and current regulations, and therefore this regulatory intervention by the authorities was not unexpected. However, this kind of regulatory intervention is not appropriate with regard to publicly declared goals and objectively threatens freedom of expression in Serbia.

ANEM has not changed its opinion that it is unacceptable to initiate such significant changes to the Law on Public Information without a proper public debate. ANEM also considers that it is not possible to support the provision that forbids the exercise of the right to publish of a media outlet, as the Law stipulates now. The cases of abuse of creditors by publishers could and should have been solved using the existing mechanisms in the criminal code, without resorting to absolute bans within media legislation. It is also extremely curious that on the same day that it has adopted an absolute ban on the exercise of the rights of a media outlet, the National Parliament has also adopted the Law on National Councils of National Minorities which, quite to the contrary, stipulates that the state will be allowed to transfer the founding rights regarding public media outlets owned by the state to the councils of national minorities.

Further, ANEM considers that the prohibition of activities as a measure of punishment for failure to register a media outlet disproportionately limits freedom of expression and media freedoms. This is further aggravated by the fact that the range of data to be entered into the media register has been left completely unspecified, i.e. it may later be regulated by by-laws, which is another problematic area.

ANEM regrets the missed opportunity to eliminate the unacceptable behavior in the media scene by adequately enforcing the existing regulations. The penalties that have been used against editors for violation of rights of minors or the presumption of innocence were most often close to the minimum specified by law; ANEM has discovered only two cases in which these penalties were close to half of the maximum allowed amount or slightly over it. It is therefore fully justified to ask whether the problem was in the inadequate policy of enforcement instead of the specified amount of penalties. The government's dissatisfaction with the applied penalties has led to a situation in which a single aired program or a journalistic text, or a single piece of information in such a program or text, that describes someone as a perpetrator of a criminal offense before an effective verdict by authorities, opens a possibility of no less than four parallel proceedings against media founders, directors, editors and journalists: a civil suit for damages, a criminal process for libel, misdemeanor proceedings and commercial violation proceedings. The number of different proceedings that a media outlet can be subjected to regarding the same factual act is a reason for concern, even before taking into account the penalties for misdemeanors and commercial violations specified by the adopted law. And the penalties are way too high. The highest absolute penalty amounts to no less than 20 million dinars. For the purpose of comparison, the total amount allocated a month ago by the Government of the Republic of Serbia for co-financing of projects of assistance to the media hit by the economic crisis would be enough to cover only three such maximum penalties stipulated by the Law.

ANEM is convinced that these amendments to the Law on Public Information will not pass the test of constitutionality before the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Serbia. ANEM, whose representatives were invited by the Ministry of Culture to participate in the work group for preparation of Serbia's media strategy, believes that it is not possible to build a sound strategy on the foundation laid by this Law on Public Information. Therefore ANEM will insist, via its representatives in the work group and outside it, on an immediate reversal of the unacceptable provisions of the Law on Public Information.

ANEM also regrets that the adoption of the Law on National Councils of National Minorities went almost unnoticed, while the public's attention was focused on the Law on Public Information. This Law specifies that the Republic, Province or local self-governments are allowed to transfer the founding rights regarding public media outlets owned by the state to the councils of national minorities, with guarantees of their continued financing from the budget. This solution creates a new possibility of avoiding privatization of public media outlets, which is mandatory in accordance with the Law on Public Information and the Broadcasting Law. ANEM points out that the right to receive information in minority languages has been artificially tied to the issue of media ownership. The thesis that only governmental or para-governmental ownership over the media can maintain the achieved level of minority rights, which has been emphasized since the adoption of the Law on Local Self-Government at the end of 2007 and the resulting blockade of media privatization, is the result of the desire of political power centers to retain the mechanisms of control over the editorial policy of the media as well as continued financing from the budget of the media whose editorial policy is being controlled. ANEM will continue to insist on the privatization of publicly owned media outlets, both in Serbian and minority languages, as well as on the creation of non-discriminatory mechanisms of state support for media outlets in minority languages, but in a way that would not threaten their independence and autonomy. ANEM will also insist on modifications to all laws that prevent completion of the privatization process which is necessary to create a fully functional media market and achieve economic stability and independence of the media.

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