This round of privatisation is expected to sell off 72 media, mostly owned by municipalities. So far, the Agency for Privatisation has issued a public announcement for the sale of 36 media, of which 13 were sold. Lacking offers for the rest, including the State news agency Tanjug, the remaining media will go in the second round, with the base price reduced by half. If the second round fails, employees will be offered free shares, although this path hardly seems viable.
It is evident, however, that the economic crisis that has dramatically affected the country's media industry in recent years has left no prospective buyers for the media. Hundreds of private media are already struggling in a poor, crowded market – the 72 to be privatised are only a small part of the Serbian media scene. The fact that they have survived to this day mostly on state funding makes them objectively non- competitive in the market.
Most Serbian media are financed through advertising, and that has long come under the influence of politics. This restricts the space for free enterprise, and discourages businesspeople with no connections from investing in the media. Simply put, the only way to make money in this sector is to have "good contacts" and to follow political and other powerful leaders.
It is quite possible that prices sky-rocketed thanks to the buyers' confidence that they will find the necessary political support to sell the advertising – which implies that these media will certainly not prioritise the public interest, but rather the interest of those who paid well above market prices to take ownership of them. Money laundering, corruption, and other illegal activities are also a possibility, but unless the competent bodies shed light on them, the operations are officially clean.
The role of independent commissions
It must be acknowledged, however, that this round of privatisation was much better prepared than those in previous years. Also, public entities (cities, municipalities, provinces, state institutions) are not prevented from allocating part of their budget to information – in fact, the law now requires public resources to be spent for the public interest, transparently, through calls for projects that all media can apply for.
At first glance, it seems that nothing important has changed and that the government, even after the shift to project financing, will find ways to influence the allocation of the budget. Yet, it is also true that, according to the law, allocation of funds will be done by independent commissions, which also including representatives of journalists’ associations.
The behaviour of those commissions will to a large extent shape the way things will develop, and the experience of recent months shows that the new model still manages to provide more space for promoting the public interest.
Local authorities clearly did not like this change and have put a lot of effort into trying to maintain ownership by failing to adequately prepare for the transition to project financing. Now, they are faced with the urgency to comply, and the media they own are not able to cope with the new conditions. This is why most journalists in local radio and television stations decided to cash in their severance pay, which means they do not plan to accept shares in their companies (nor management responsibility) should the second round of privatisation fail too.
If a state-owned media outlet is not sold, and its employees do not take on management responsibilities, it will have to be removed from the media register. Some hope that some miracle will occur and that the state, as it did in similar circumstances, will postpone the deadline so as to prevent their shutdown. Legally, however, this is not an option, as it would require further amendments to the law – something the European Commission, which sponsored both the media reform and the new media law, would not relish. The final decision, however, will be up to the government of Serbia.