Transparency of ownership and funding of media in South East Europe is more and more drawing the attention of institutions and member states in the European Union. This problem was brought up as a number one point in the special dialogue the European Commission launched with Macedonia, while waiting for the denouement of the name dispute with Greece, so that Skopje can start accession negotiations with the EU. In Sofia, there was a meeting on the initiative of a group of independent journalists, among which the journalists of this website, with Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is responsible for digital agenda but also for media. Now it's Serbia's turn, which is called upon in a joint declaration from the meeting of representatives of the European Parliament with Serbia's Skupstina (the national assembly), to pay attention to media.
In the declaration of 18 points, under number 6 is the appeal the government to implement its Media Strategy by focusing especially on transparency of ownership and financing of the media sector, as well as to create "a climate conductive to media freedom and the safety of journalists". The issue is of great importance, as the example of Bulgaria shows, because full fledged reforms cannot be implemented without media participation, as was the message of Commissioner Kroes in Sofia - "Journalism is related to democracy because without journalism there is no democracy", she said then.
There is also a call the government to complete the national anti-corruption strategy and the relevant action plan by including in it clear indicators, timelines, responsible actors and required resources necessary for the implementation of the Strategy. Concern is expressed, though, of the repeated allegations of misuse of the penal provisions by prosecutors on economic crime offences, accompanied by freezes of company and private assets. The declaration is extremely specific, calling upon the authorities to make a swift repair of the Criminal Code to put an end to the bringing of charges of abuse of public office in private (and with majority private ownership) enterprises and to end the pending criminal proceedings, especially based on Article 359 of the Criminal Code. This article is very controversial and the demands for revision are present in almost all resolutions of the European Parliament on Serbia.
In the same context, it is called for ensuring public access to relevant privatisation documentation that would be of use when such cases are viewed.
The document expresses concern also in terms of the legal initiatives that led to one of the biggest scandals in Serbia after the election of the new Serbian government of Ivica Dacic and President Tomislav Nikolic - the change of the governor of the central bank. Under point 9 in the declaration it is written: "Were aware of concerns regarding the post-election legislative initiatives leading to personal changes in the state institutions and in the civil service, e.g. through adoption of the new law on the National Bank or through the provisions of the newly adopted Law on Ministries, which enables a minister to propose a dismissal of any appointed civil servant".
In the very beginning of the declaration it is pointed out that the government has a limited progress on the its European integration agenda as of March 2012 onwards when the country received a candidate status. The country is encouraged to adopt and implement important, EU related reforms, especially in the area of justice, anti-corruption policies, media freedom, equal defence of minorities, environment protection, sustainable management of natural resources and biodiversity, structural reforms and improvement of business environment.
Kosovo or nothing
To some extent officially but not quite, Kosovo is brought up as a precondition for beginning of accession talks with Serbia, considered a key state for the European future of the region. How will the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade continue, will be a major test as for the Serbian authorities so for for the EU, in whose accession portfolio only difficult countries remained (excluding Iceland). In the joint declaration of the Europarliament and the Serbian national assembly, the problem is mentioned in point 14, which says that it welcomed "the reaffirmation by the new Serbian President and Prime Minister to continue the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and to implement all agreements reached with Pristina so far".
The signals from Belgrade, however, are more than mixed and difficult to interpret. In the margins of the UN General Assembly last week, President Nikolic met with Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, after which he denied the possibility the agreement for good neighbourly relations with Kosovo to be used as a foundation for a future high level dialogue with Pristina. "Ms Ashton knows that she cannot find in me an interlocutor for good relations with Kosovo as a state. She has in me an interlocutor for good life of Kosovo, for peace and security, for investments, but not that we can be one day good neighbours and I think that the citizens of Serbia know that very well and this is why they've elected me", Nikolic said for the national RTS TV from New York. So far, Serbia's position is clear.
But confusion begins from his answer to the question what do specifically mean direct negotiations with Pristina at the highest level. For Nikolic, high level means that the leadership of a country "cannot hide behind a treaty reached by civil servants". He said, however, that for him Hashim Thaçi, Kosovo's prime minister, was an unacceptable interlocutor and will remain such unless doubts are cleared about his direct involvement in "evil-doings against Serbs". In another interview he said that he would not take part in a high level dialogue with Thaçi but that he would talk to anyone pointed to by the parliament or the government of Serbia. In conclusion, Nikolic said that his country will not haste with the EU membership, although the Union remains a strategic goal of the country.
From Catherine Ashton's office a brief statement was issued of her spokesman after the meeting, in which it is said that Serbia has to undertake steps towards "a visible and sustainable improvement of relations with Kosovo, crucial for opening of accession negotiations and Serbia's EU perspective in general". According to Ashton's spokesman, she underscored the need Serbia to engage "boldly" with these talks and encouraged President Nikolic to be ready to take some "tough decisions".
Next week the European Commission will publish the progress reports of the candidate and aspiring countries. Serbia's report will probably contain in a much more detailed vein the recommendations in the declaration of the European Parliament and the Skupstina. How will this report be formulated and what message will it send, is crucial for what Serbia will undertake - to wait or to grasp reforms.