The owner of N1, one of the few remaining mainstream independent media outlets in Serbia, says media plurality in the EU accession candidate country is subject to “slow strangulation”.
The 24-hour news and current affairs platform owned by private equity-backed telecoms and media company United Group has documented numerous incidents of hate speech against its journalists, in which they are called “scum”, “traitors” and other derogatory terms, and threatened with explicit violence. It also reports physical intimidation of its reporters and obstruction of their work.
Aleksandra Subotic, CEO of United Group’s content production division United Media, says that while she doesn’t believe there is an orchestrated campaign against the channel, the flood of angry messages typically increases in the wake of disparaging comments made about the channel by top politicians including the country’s President Aleksandar Vucic.
Numerous officials from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) including Vucic “publicly and repeatedly refer to N1 in a pejorative, improper and accusatory manner,” says a report from the channel, detailing numerous incidents.
“This anti-N1 labelling by government officials includes the use of the descriptions, 'American TV' and 'CIA television' that have coincided with an increased number of threats against N1 journalists.” These include Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, who himself has called N1 an “American station” and “CIA TV” and accused it of waging a “horrible campaign” against the Serbian president. Vucic described N1 as an “American television station” on 15 occasions in a single interview with a journalist from Insider, according to N1’s report.
This situation stems partly from N1’s affiliation with US news channel CNN and its ownership by US-based private equity firm KKR, which was majority owner of United Group until it sold most of its stake to fellow private equity company BC Partners earlier this year. But it can have an incendiary effect on some members of the public in a country where memories of the 1999 Nato bombing are still painful.
In one specific incident, Vucic criticised N1’s live reporting of the break-in at state broadcaster RTS by protesters in March, which led to government officials calling N1 a “participant” in the break-in. In a letter to EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, N1 quotes Vucic, who commented after the event: “But who are you to break in and threaten anyone… Do you know that I can easily send 10,000 people to N1 and keep them there until they promise not to be an anti-anti-Vucic TV and then we’ll break in a little. You would say that we are wild people, lunatics and you would be right. That should not be done.”
“That statement which formally condemns breaking into any television [station] hides a threatening message against N1. The state president said that he can easily bring 10,000 people in front of N1,” says the letter.
“The atmosphere in Serbia towards independent journalists can be very threatening, as the highest ranking politicians and government officials express themselves negatively, often on national broadcasters, so the protection of our journalists is the highest priority for us,” says Subotic. N1 takes all threats to its journalists seriously and works with the police to catch offenders, she adds.
“To be clear, we don’t believe that violence is state-sponsored or orchestrated, but we do believe that irresponsible statements from politicians and sections of the media have encouraged a permissive culture in terms of the threats of violence to journalists who are simply trying to do their jobs,” Subotić tells bne IntelliNews.
“When our reporters receive death threats made to them and their families, and threats to bomb our studios, for simply reporting popular protests - as happened in February – we need to call them out.”
Aside from the barrage of abuse, N1 often finds it is increasingly frozen out by government officials and members of the ruling party, for example in having its requests for interviews declined or ignored.
“We are a non-partisan news provider – we invite politicians with all views and from all parties onto our shows. It is just unfortunate that the politicians from Serbia’s ruling SNS party stopped coming onto our shows and systematically turned down our invitations to appear on them,” Subotić says.
“N1 also faces discrimination from state authorities, notably by blocking information to N1 while distributing it to other media outlets. … The government tend to label N1 as an anti-government media organisation.”
Subotic stresses the channel’s independence, saying it was set up “to contribute to society with one strong, independent, impartial news channel in the whole region … In some of the countries in which we operate, N1 is the only mainstream, independent news provider”.
She says United Group fully respects the principle of editorial freedom for professional journalists and editors: “We are proud of our journalists and the awards and recognition they secure for their fearless reporting. We also operate with an independent editorial board and editorial complaints procedure, drawing on international best practice.”
Media plurality under threat
Political pressure is “an issue for all news outlets in Serbia — not just N1 TV. It’s just that we are one of the few mainstream independent TV networks left standing,” says Subotić.
“We see that there has been slow strangulation of plurality in media in Serbia,” says Subotic.
She cites a survey by the Balkan Investigative Research Network (BIRN) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) in which eight of the 15 media outlets in the sample were owned or under the control of individuals known for their affiliation with the SNS. RSF warned about the high concentration of media ownership and the “extremely harsh economic pressure” facing media outlets in the small and crowded market. The media watchdog has downgraded Serbia from 67th to 90th place on its World Media Freedoms Index over the past five years.
A new report from pro-democracy NGO Freedom House accuses Vucic’s administration of “snuffing out critical journalism” and consolidating media ownership in the hands of his cronies, “ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear its perceived opponents.”
Under these circumstances, says Subotic, “It is no wonder … that public confidence in the veracity of media coverage is declining – in a poll of citizens in 33 EU and non-EU European countries for the 2017 annual survey from the European Broadcasting Union, consumer confidence in the media in Serbia came bottom overall. Long term, this can’t be good for journalism, or for Serbia.
“In Bosnia and Croatia, we operate in the same way as independent, impartial media, but the pressure is not comparable [to Serbia],” she adds.
The quest for EU accession
The deterioration of Serbia’s media environment comes in the context of Serbia’s EU accession process. Serbia, along with Montenegro, has a tentative accession target date of 2025, and part of this process is ensuring freedom of expression and the media environment.
However, Subotic warns, some of the changes the government is making as part of the EU accession process, such as by developing a media strategy, could be merely a “cosmetic commitment”, while the situation for reporters on the ground is "very different”.
N1 has appealed to Vucic and other government officials not to participate in pursuing journalists, while they have written recently to Hahn to express their concern about the deteriorating operating environment for journalists in Serbia.
The issue was also raised in the latest European Commission enlargement report on Serbia released in May, which said that no progress had been made on freedom of expression since the previous report. “This lack of progress is now a matter of serious concern. A new media strategy was drafted in a transparent and inclusive manner; it needs to be adopted and implemented,” said the report.
In addition it said: “Political and economic influence over the media continues to be a source of concern. Lack of transparency in ownership structures and financing from state resources, especially at local level, continue to be a feature of the media environment since the privatisation of the state media. The reporting period was characterised by several acquisitions of media companies.”
Attacks on journalists, and the low conviction rate, were also singled out in the report, with the European Commission recommending that “Serbia needs to categorise these crimes as criminal or as other types of offences and ensure appropriate investigation and adjudication”.
A regional presence
Despite its struggles with the authorities, in Serbia N1 has the highest viewership among local cable channels, approaching the numbers of state channels broadcast on terrestrial TV. It also has production centres in the capitals of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, but it is widely watched in other ex-Yugoslavian countries, namely Montenegro, North Macedonia and Slovenia, too.
“[S]etting up from scratch in 2014 with an advanced technical approach that captures production synergies across the region– means N1 is profitable, unlike many more established news channels in more developed pay-TV markets. What’s more, we see our news channels as a key driver of sign-ups and the retention of pay TV customers,” Subotic adds.
However, its position as a competitor to incumbent state national telecoms operators has resulted in obstacles for United Group, according to Subotic. She lists “a range of business obstructions, from blocking our access to networks, pylons and ducts on equivalent terms to our competitors; to retroactive taxation; to the unjustified imposition of ex-ante regulation … This happens in EU countries like Slovenia, as well as countries like Serbia and Bosnia. Ultimately it is customers and viewers who lose out.”
Despite these obstacles, United Group has grown steadily, and attracted a new private equity investor, BC Partners, that bought out its previous backer KKR. BC had been tracking the Serbia-based company as a potential investment back when KKR first invested in 2014. In a statement issued when the deal closed in March, Nikos Stathopoulos, partner at BC Partners, said the firm “look[s] forward to supporting the company’s next phase of growth”.
Three months after the deal was completed, Subotic says that both United Group and BC Partners “are excited about the potential in the partnership and investment”.
“They see a natural role for us to play as a regional consolidator in media and telecoms in Southeast Europe. Both in the Balkans, where United Group only currently holds a mobile network operator licence in Slovenia of the six markets in which we operate, and in fixed line telco, where we only operate in four out of six markets,” she says.
“Beyond that, there will be opportunities further afield in developing markets across Europe [in terms of] countries and populations with similar demographics and tastes in content.”