A critical mass for Public Service Media freedom in South East Europe

To say, it were an uphill struggle to provide Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) in South East Europe, would be an understatement. One director-general said: “The situation is somewhere between a headache and a nightmare”, and many other top management executives of PSB organisations in the area chimed in with this assessment.

They had gathered in Sarajevo on 14 November 2011 for a one-day seminar on the transformation from state to public broadcasting in South East Europe that was jointly organised by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the European Commission’s Enlargement Directorate-General, and the European Broadcasting Union. I had the privilege to be invited to attend the event alongside a few other representatives of independent sectoral organisations.

Before I begin, I have to concede that the diplomatic term South East Europe is not the most specific of designations and requires further qualification. Its core part consists of the countries and territories that emerged from the former state of Yugoslavia since the early 1990s (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia) plus Albania, but in a broader sense of the term, Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova would be counted in as well, with Greece and Turkey on the fringes of the region.

Of course, economic, political and press freedom conditions in the respective countries are immensely varied, and in my following observations I refer primarily to what the EU defines as the Western Balkans, i.e., Albania and the area of former Yugoslavia except Slovenia. Still, some aspects also affect to a certain degree the EU Member States Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria, while others apply to EU Neighbourhood Countries such as Moldova or Ukraine, too.

A bleak situation

Seminar participants painted a rather bleak picture of the region’s PSB, in which the following elements featured most prominently:

  • License fees: Where PSB budgets are based in part or entirely on license fees to be paid by the citizens, the dues are very low, and their collection is extremely precarious to boot. Hence, license fee revenues are by far insufficient to provide sustainable financing, and governments are frequently tempted to lower them even more in order to score points with the electorate.
  • Advertising: With unreliable license fee income, PSB across the region depends on making some additional money from airing commercials (as it does in most EU Member States). However, price competition with privately owned channels is fierce to the point of dumping, and audience fragmentation in many areas makes advertisers reluctant to run TV and radio campaigns in the first place. As if that were not enough, governments tend to try and scale down the time quota allowed for commercials on PSB.
  • Tax financing: Where neither of the above revenue streams works out, PSB has no choice but to apply for funds out of the state’s tax coffers. Doing so, however, renders it even more vulnerable to political manoeuvring. Many governments blatantly take the stick-and-carrot approach when it comes to tax subsidies – to such an extent that some PSB managers actually feel privileged to receive their budget allowances at least on an annual basis, rather than having to fight for money incessantly.
  • Competition: While competition between PSB and privately owned broadcasters is generally regarded as healthy in keeping everybody on their toes, PSB in South East Europe often faces competition that is not so much geared towards profit-making, but towards promoting particular interest even if that means financial loss. Thus, the playing field is anything but level when it comes to competing for government subsidy and advertising revenue alike – particularly where ads commissioned by the state are involved.
  • Political influence: Obviously, in the wake of financial dependency comes political dependency (or “financial blackmail”, as one participant put it); in many cases the persistent money troubles are brought about on purpose precisely in order to create such dependency. This situation is exacerbated by the region’s political instability, with frequent power shifts and subsequent hiring and firing of PSB management staff, thus pre-empting any chance at long-term planning and development.
  • Public trust: The citizen’s wariness of previously state-run broadcasters still lingers, and the continuing political exploitation of PSB has done little to inspire in audiences new trust. Sometimes, viewers and listeners cannot even tell the difference between former and current content strategies.
  • Legal framework: In their aspiration for eventual EU membership, most states in the region have adopted media law that broadly complies with EU standards already. However, in many cases the law merely pays lip service to genuine media freedom, while practical implementation of the letter and spirit of the legislation leaves a lot to be desired.

I could go on, mentioning the brain drain of journalists from PSB to ostensibly greener pastures at private companies, the costs of digitalisation of broadcast production and distribution, or the challenges of creating quality programmes for territorial audiences breaking down into a diversity of ethnic affiliation, religious belief, political slant, and mother tongue.

Regional initiatives

And yet, amidst all these issues, the seminar clearly demonstrated progress, incremental though such progress may be at times. Conventional wisdom has it that Public Service Broadcasting can hardly be more forward than the society it serves, but, as EBU consultant Boris Bergant pointed out, in actual fact in can be at least slightly ahead – provided that it has the international backing necessary to rise above the everyday obstructions.

This is manifested particularly by the involvement of the Regional Cooperation Council, a multi-lateral body facilitating collaboration between South Eastern European countries as well as coordinating EU and other foreign assistance. The venerable European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of PSB across the entire continent well beyond the borders of the EU, has joined the effort, too, and supported the recent foundation of the unwieldily-named European Association of Public Service Media in South East Europe. Add to that the European Commission, and you have a strong coalition of border-crossing actors with quite some clout to overcome conflicts at national and inter-state levels.

Throughout the day’s proceedings, it appeared that regional cooperation is gaining some traction. Participants lauded regional cooperation initiatives, suggested that they be further developed, and praised the EBU for helping to avert license fee cuts and other limitations national governments have attempted to impose on PSB.

Some also called for more EU involvement, seeing that the pre-accession process provides strong motivation to the political establishment. Indeed, Andris Kesteris, Principal Adviser on Civil Society and Interinstitutional Relations, confirmed that the European Commission had learned its lessons and is now allocating freedom of expression as well as functioning, fair, and transparent media markets the priority they deserve. He also announced a framework agreement with the EBU for the development of PSB in the region, to be concluded in 2012.

Critical mass

Looking at the seriousness of the issues with PSB in South East Europe seems to suggest, however, that regional and international cooperation should be stepped up in a major way in order to bear fruit in the foreseeable future. Many of the problems effectively boil down to two key factors: First, undue influence on PSB from the powers-that-be (financially as well as editorially), and second, critical mass: many of the countries are simply too small to sustain full-fledged, high-quality, and truly independent Public Service Broadcasting on their own. Seeing that despite all differences, there are significant cultural and linguistic ties throughout South East Europe, there might perhaps be some remedies on hand, though.

Most urgently, to my mind, control over financing should be taken out of the hands of individual national governments, irrespective of whether license fees or tax monies are concerned. States should commit in a treaty to an appropriate level of funding and transfer the amount to a trusted international clearing house, which, in turn, could either distribute budgets to the respective national PSB organisations or pay PSB staff directly. The involvement of all of the region’s countries as well as of the EU would provide automatic checks and balances, thus hopefully neutralising detrimental tendencies at the level of individual countries. As a side effect, this would help stimulate internal reform at PSB organisations which, like other bureaucracies, all too easily run the risk of indulging in self-preservation precisely because they are considered political assets.

This clearing house could also perform the role of a solidarity fund, making sure that even small broadcasters receive sufficient money to enable them to serve their respective communities. To this end, the EU will probably need to come forward with dedicated financial assistance.

In a similar vein, broadcasters could draw up a scheme to share expensive technical equipment and infrastructure as well as specially qualified staff, not to mention common training facilities tailored to the needs of South East Europe. Initiatives such as the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) could be good starting point for training involving foreign experts that nonetheless builds and retains regional ownership and the trust of the audience.

Long-term strategy

At length, such cooperation might lead to the establishment of actual multi-lateral public broadcasters with regional and national studios that would be able to accrue critical mass and to better compete with commercial actors. Ironically, it was only three days before the Sarajevo seminar that Al Jazeera finally launched their dedicated Balkans channel, likewise building on a rationale of shared interests and cultural background in the region, as well as a team consisting of well-trained journalists from a variety of countries in the channel’s footprint. For local PSB not to be marginalised in the process, it must therefore resolve its current challenges rather sooner than later.

As I was discussing on the edges of the seminar with Boyko Boev, Senior Legal Officer at freedom of expression NGO Article 19, it is however also worth considering whether the institutional approach to Public Service Broadcasting might be supplemented by more flexible and innovative means of guaranteeing media freedom and impartial, independent journalistic information. Even though the EBU’s Boris Bergant remarked that sound business plans were of great importance particularly in dire financial straits, media pluralism-related lessons to be learned from advanced thinking in media economics were missing from the Sarajevo discussions.

Still, in many of the countries concerned, for the time being PSB might be the best bet for making a major qualitative step towards a functioning media system. Building on existing multilateral activities and carefully crafted EU help, the actors may wake up earlier than anticipated from the current nightmare.

The official conclusions of the seminar are available here (PDF).

This article was also published by the European Journalism Centre.

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