How would the tabloids survive their 20 cents per magazine pricing if not for abundant financial infusions directly from the state treasury? How would pro-government televisions work if they had to start paying all the taxes that have been erased? It’s easy to be a major player when your dad is the referee.
The most expensive phrase, a mythical being, an unattainable goal – these are the first associations with media sustainability in Serbia.
Why is that the case? There are several reasons, not all of them justified; let’s analyse them.
(Self)sustainability is a topic dealt with by independent media outlets. I’m talking about the media outlets whose business in Serbia is already endangered, because they are not government pawns. These are the portals and newspapers which are ‘shot down’ at every step by government structures, so foreign institutions are their (almost) only sources of income. These international organizations are aware that it is important to support journalists who write objectively and impartially with their donations, because that is the way to preserve at least one of the pillars of democracy in dictatorial countries – the citizens’ right to truthful information.
Now, the same international donors raise the question of ‘sustainability’, reminding the endangered media outlets that they must be ready to fight for their market share completely independently.
This is the first of many paradoxes, because Serbia does not have a free media market. If it did, independent media would not need international support to survive.
A free market means that one has equal opportunities and conditions to reach public attention. Is this happening in our country? No.
There is a clear division of the media, produced by the government regime, and that is the division into suitable and unsuitable outlets. Eligible or obedient outlets are tabloids and television channels that do not report on events but rather create a false image of Serbian reality, and for that they are lucratively rewarded with money from taxpayers’ wallets. They are paid to remain silent or to bark, depending on the situation and the need. They are ‘powerful players in the game’, and the biggest client of all – the state, advertises exclusively with them.
On the other hand, unsuitable media outlets are punished for their disobedience on a daily basis. If they write objectively or even dare to uncover cases of government corruption, like KRIK did, the only possible consequence are endless inspections, wiretapping, monitoring, slandering their name in the tabloids, unfounded lawsuits, maybe an occasional burglary of their journalists’ apartments, with a regular downpour of sick lies and various pressures. A media match cannot be played with one’s hands and feet tied.
But, as our famous speaker often says – surrendering is not an option.
No matter how difficult it may be, all this is really not good enough reasoning to declare the issue of media sustainability in Serbia unsolvable.
If we are to agree on anything, we should check if we agree on the definition of the issue. The commonly accepted definition of media sustainability is that a sustainable media outlet must be completely independent, more precisely – it must be able to survive without any donor assistance. If we were to interpret this literally, it would mean that there are no sustainable media outlets in Serbia, and especially among the regime media! Think about it, how would the tabloids survive their 20 cents per magazine pricing if not for abundant financial infusions directly from the state treasury? How would pro-government televisions work if they had to start paying all the taxes that have been erased? It’s easy to be a major player when your dad is the referee.
It is clear that we need a new definition, and one of the better ones was given recently by Dragana Obradovic, director of Birn Serbia – sustainability should be measured by whether a media outlet depends only on one individual large donor, meaning if that donor terminates cooperation – the medium shuts down.
It is a well-known fact that no professional media outlet would allow this. You can analyze all independent media outlets in Serbia (which is easy, there are few of them and their finances are public and transparent) and see that the best ones actually always cooperate with multiple donors. They thereby ensure their independence, along with the fact that smaller individual grants (ie donations) are not even remotely enough to cover all the costs of one newsroom, and it is always necessary to have several grants.
It is also important to say that in recent years research editorial offices in Serbia have shown that they can gather significant support directly from their readers. The KRIK portal is a true pioneer in this field; donations from citizens not only mean a lot financially, but they are also proof of the quality of work and a reason to persevere. More and more readers are ready to set aside money for important discoveries, and even take to the streets and stand up for endangered journalists.
This is why independent media outlets are literally more sustainable than regime media! How? Simple maths – the state is the main and biggest ‘donor’ of all pro-government media, and if it decides to turn its back on one of its own, that outlet immediately goes down. On the other hand, independent outlets have several small donors and do not depend on any of them, while at the same time they work hard despite the fact that the state ‘turned their back’ on them a long time ago and is constantly making efforts to shut them down.
Of course, everything may seem easy on paper, but it is necessary to constantly create quality content and gain public trust over many years in order to reach the status of an independent media. From then on until the end of time that status is won and maintained daily, along with the label of sustainability – according to the new definition.
Jelena Vasic, KRIK journalist