Jean-Paul Marthoz: Commercial interference in the European media

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”81193″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Commercial pressures on the media? Anti-establishment critics have a ready-made answer: of course, journalists are hostage to the whims of corporate owners, advertisers and sponsors. Of course, they cannot independently cover issues which these powers consider “inconvenient”. Actually such suspicion is widely shared: In France, according to the 2017 La Croix barometer on media credibility, 58% of public opinion consider that journalists “are not really able to resist pressures from financial interests”.

The issue is not new. In 1944 when he founded the French “newspaper of record”, Le Monde, Hubert Beuve-Méry fought to guarantee its independence from political parties but also from what he called “the wall of money”. “Freedom of the press belongs to the one who owns one”, New Yorker media critic A.J. Liebling famously said. However, “while media academics have long looked at the question of commercial pressure, ownership (…) in shaping coverage”, writes Anya Schiffrin in a 2017 CIMA report on “captured media” press freedom groups’ focus had been mostly on the governments’ responsibilities and on criminal non-state actors.

In June 2016 Reporters Without Boarders made a splash with its report on oligarchs in the media. Proprietors’ interventions may have indeed a very negative impact on journalism’s proclaimed commitment to report the news without fear or favour. Pressures are particularly acute when the media are owned by conglomerates who dabble in other economic sectors. In France, for instance, a military aircraft manufacturer (Dassault), the luxury industry leader (LVMH), telecoms giants (SFR, Free), a powerful public works and telecoms company (Bouygues) directly own key media companies.

Ownership provides a powerful lever to influence media contents. Cases of direct intervention or of journalists’ self-censorship are not exceptional, even if they are often difficult to prove. In France, Vincent Bolloré, owner, among others, of TV channel Canal+, has been regularly accused of using his powers to determine content. It led the French Senate’s culture commission to invite him to a hearing in June 2016, but he firmly denied all allegations of censorship.

In other European countries, the landscape is much clearer. In Turkey, during the June 2013 Gezi Park events, major TV stations failed to report police repression live. They chose instead to broadcast animal documentaries, for which they were rewarded with the nickname of “penguin media”. In fact, they turned into “proxy censors” for Erdogan’s government who had the power to determine their economic fate by rewarding them -or not- with public works contracts or financial favors. The worst of the worst flourishes in some former communist eastern European countries where major media outlets have been snatched by oligarchs allied with political parties or even, allegedly, with criminal organisations.

Big companies may be ruthless. Advertising budgets can be cut when a media covers “inconvenient news”. In November 2017, according to satirical weekly Le Canard enchainé, Bernard Arnault, the boss of LVMH (luxury products, owner of Le Parisien and Les Echos), canceled his advertising budget in Le Monde until the end of the year after his name appeared in the Paradise Papers global investigation, which named people who had offshore accounts in tax havens. LVMH denied it was cutting all advertising in the paper, adding that it was currently “reflecting on its advertisement policy in classical media”.

The unraveling of the legacy media’s business model has increased their vulnerability to outside pressures. Advertising money is shrinking, therefore increasing the temptation to dismantle what was presented as an impassable wall between “church and state”. Differences between advertising and the news are also being diluted into ambiguous advertorials, sponsored content and “native advertising”.  

Such pressures however are not automatic. “Suffering pressures does not mean ceding to them”, says Hervé Béroud, director general of leading all-news TV channel BFMTV. Due to the way journalism actually works, the freedom to report, even against the owners’ interests, cannot be systematically crushed. In fact, as a former editor in chief of Belgian newspapers and magazines I was confronted with radically different forms of “advice” from my successive owners. While some were very protective of editorial independence others were blunter and ready to compromise with advertisers’ “wishes”. The existence of journalists’ societies, co-owners of the so-called “ethical capital” of the paper, provided some protection, but much was left to individual wrestling between the editor and the proprietor.

At the end, this issue comes down to defining who “owns freedom of information”. In 1993 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stated that “the owner of the right is the citizen, who also has the related right to demand that the information supplied by journalists be conveyed truthfully, in the case of news, and honestly, in the case of opinions, without outside interference by either the public authorities or the private sector”. A far cry from A.J. Liebling’s sentence…[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Survey: How free is our press?” use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”|title:Take%20our%20survey||”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-pencil-square-o” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Are you a working journalist? Do you want to see better protections and freedoms for reporters?

This survey aims to take a snapshot of how financial pressures are affecting news reporting. The openMedia project will use this information to analyse how money shapes what gets reported – and what doesn’t – and to advocate for better protections and freedoms for journalists who have important stories to tell.

More information[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook) and we’ll send you our weekly newsletter about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share your personal information with anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1513691969537-ee852610-8cb0-8″ taxonomies=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Is press censorship in Serbia “worse than the 1990s”?


Map of censorship incidents in Serbia via

Serbian journalists last night gathered outside the studios of national broadcaster B92, in protest at the decision to cancel politics talk show Utisak Nedelje (Impressions of the Week).

B92 claims the popular show — on air since 1991 — has not been cancelled but postponed due to a breakdown in negotiations with its author and presenter Olja Beckovic, according to news site Balkan Insight. The channel says they had offered to continue broadcasting the show on its national frequency channel — its home since 2002 — until November, when it would be bumped to the cable channel B92 Info. But Beckovic says the show has been banned following political pressure.

“I absolutely never experienced such blackmail and pressure before,” she told website Vesti in an interview published on Friday. “And there’s something very interesting about that. People say this is a return to the 1990s. No it’s not, it’s worse than the 1990s.”

In March, the Progressive Party (SNS) convincingly won Serbia’s general election and its leader Aleksandar Vucic became the prime minister. With a chequered track record on press freedom, both as deputy prime minister in the previous government and as Slobodan Milosevic’s information minister, Index wondered at the time what impact his new role may have on Serbia’s media. Six months on, what is happening with Utisak Nedelje is just the latest addition to a worrying pattern.

It did not take long for claims of censorship to be levelled at the Vucic government. In May, Serbia and surrounding countries were hit by devastating floods. Authorities imposed a temporary state of emergency, which gave them the power to detain people for “inciting panic”. Meanwhile, online criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis was targeted. Critical articles and blogs were removed, and whole websites, including the independent news outlet Pescanik, were blocked and subjected to DDoS attacks. While it is unconfirmed who exactly was behind these incidents, they already then constituted a “worrying trend”, according to the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE).

Index has tracked the media freedom situation in Serbia since the early days of the current government. There have been reports of a journalist being interrogated by police for sharing a Facebook post, as well as physical and verbal attacks — often with impunity. But indirect control of media, smear campaigns and other methods of covert “soft censorship” also pose a serious challenge to Serbian press freedom. “Milošević never muzzled the media this perfidiously. His methods were far less sophisticated and everything was out in the open,” said Beckovic. And it seems her colleagues agree that censorship is prevalent. Ninety per cent of journalists responding to a recent survey said censorship and self-censorship does exist in Serbian media, while 73% and 95%, respectively, said the media does not report objectively and critically.

The public dispute between authorities and the Balkan Investigative Journalism Network (Birn) is one example. The group reported that the government paid significantly more than partner Etihad Airways for a nearly equal stake in new company Air Serbia. Vucic denied the story, saying it was based on an unused draft version of the contract. Days later, pro-government newspaper Informer published an article accusing journalists from Birn and Serbia’s Centre for Investigative Journalism (Cins) of stalking and spying on Vucic. Birn has called this a “campaign to discredit” their work.

“I have the impression that the situation is getting worse,” Mehmet Koksal from the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) told Index. He cites recent reports of Serbian politicians allegedly faking academic qualifications. “In those articles you can easily measure the level of tolerance from the government to independent media owners,” he explains. He says some newspaper that pushed the story were accused in pro-government outlets of carrying out propaganda for foreign countries. “This is the kind of conspiracy theory that we used to see from different countries.” Pescanik was again brought down by DDoS attacks for reporting the story.

Recent amendments to the country’s media laws will see the state withdraw from nearly all media funding by July 2015. The move has been welcomed by many, but as think tank Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso points out, this alone will have limited impact: “Private tabloids have been for some time the main supporters of the government, and influence is exerted indirectly, mostly through the advertising market.”

Serbia has also adopted a new labour law which was heavily opposed by trade unions. Koksal claims that union leaders have faced media attacks and smear campaigns. If certain media groups or owners have an interest developing good relationships with the Serbian government, he explains, you can “easily understand why they are doing the dirty job” of attacking opposition. But finding out who exactly funds which outlet is not always easy, as bids to increase transparency of ownership has been met with resistance from private media.

After the elections, Index spoke to Lily Lynch, the founder and editor of the English-language online magazine The Balkanist, which used to be based in Belgrade. She recently decided to leave Serbia due to the pressure she has faced as an independent journalists.

“I was pessimistic about the potential for the media situation in Serbia to worsen when the new government, led by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, came to power in March. But I think the mask has slipped much faster than any of us expected,” she tells Index.

Lynch also believes international actors have a role to play in the worsening levels of press freedom in Serbia, explaining how the US embassy in Belgrade earlier this year told her to leave the country until after the election. “It seems the US embassy thought it was probably a better idea if I was gone because we were critical of the Vucic regime, which they supported pretty unambiguously.”

She also argues that international media bears some responsibility. “In the pre-election period, the English-language media was pretty uniform in its portrayal of Vucic as some kind of redemptive success story. There were headlines like ‘From Authoritarian Censor to EU Partner’, or ‘From Nationalist Hawk to Devout Europeanist’,” she says.

“Was it responsible for major, supposedly ‘objective’, well-respected publications to project such an image? I would say no, and it’s something I think we need to look at ourselves.”

Vucic has been widely lauded as a reformer, who has set Serbia firmly on the path to EU accession — the country’s main driver of reforms. In 2015, Serbia will also take over the chairmanship of the OSCE. During that organisation’s ongoing high-level human rights conference, the Serbian delegate said the OSCE region’s freedom of expression and media in will be high on their agenda as chairs. Many would argue they could start the work at home.

Correction 09:34, September 30: An earlier version of the article stated that Mehmet Koksal works for the International Federation of Journalists.

This article was published on Monday September 29 at

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