Control over the Media in Serbia
According to the report of the Anti-corruption Council of Serbia dated December 18th, 2015, “in Serbia the media are under powerful political pressure and are, as a result, under total control” (page 9). The absence of partialities in this stark assessment sends a strong message which is amply documented in the Council’s 141-page report. The fact that a high ranking official of the Council was beaten by “unknown assailants” only serves to reinforce the authenticity of its conclusions.
In its report, the Council goes on to say that “we have arrived at the conclusion that there is not a single media organization [in Serbia] which offers to citizens complete and objective information. Under the strong pressure of political circles, the media ignore events or informs about them inadequately.”
The Council devotes a significant part of its analytical attention to a form of indirect government control that is particularly susceptible to corruption: the buying of advertising space in the print and electronic media. In order to demonstrate how government agencies entice the media to (literally) follow the politically correct line, the Council analyzed 50 major Serbian media organizations that have benefited from the government budget in various ways. Among the sources of such government spending aimed at the media were all cabinet ministries, public (i.e. government-owned) enterprises, municipal organizations, public agencies, and other government-related entities.
In a previous report issued in February 2015, the Anti-corruption Council of Serbia focused on the ownership structure of Serbian media in relation to the central issue of control. The most significant problems that the Council identified were: (1) lack of transparency in media ownership, (2) lack of transparency in media financing and exertion of economic pressure through budgetary payments, tax benefits, and other indirect media financing schemes based on the corruptive use of public funds, and (3) censorship and self-censorship arising from a reluctance of many editors to be deprived of the status of financial beneficiaries of this system. The fundamental conclusion that the Council reached is that in Serbia “it is not the media that control the authorities and their performance but, on the contrary, it is the authorities that control the media.”
Following an ownership structure analysis of 50 leading Serbian media in its February 20th, 2015 report, the Council concluded that in at least 27 major Serbian media organizations ownership was not transparent or easily ascertainable.
As a result, the conclusion is drawn that “in more than half of the most influential media in Serbia the ultimate owner, or one of the owners, is a foreign-registered company. Among the owners of Serbian media we have identified corporate entities from Cyprus, Holland, the Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Luxemburg, Austria, Russia, Germany, and Switzerland” (Page 12, February 20th, 2015 report).
In its specific analysis of the ownership structure of major television broadcasters B92 and Prva TV, the Council has found the following:
With regards to B92 (a media organization dating back to the 1990’s that was set up with seed money from Open Society and other Western-based outfits to politically challenge the government of President Slobodan Milosevic), the Council has found a rather tangled ownership web that differs from the picture projected by the government-owned Broadcasting Oversight Agency (Radiodifuzna agencija). One of the facts the Council discovered is that Austrian-based Reiffeisenbank a.d. is today the absolute majority owner of B92, with 73,62% of the stock.
With regard to Prva TV, both corporate entities which own it are registered in Cyprus. Antenna Stream TV Ltd. owns 51% of the stock, while the remaining 49% belongs to Warraner Ltd. also registered in Cyprus.
Another major broadcaster in Serbia with a complex ownership structure which ultimately leads abroad is TV H1. It was set up in October, 2014 ostensibly as a Balkan competitor to Al Jazzera. The formal owner is a Belgrade-registered outfit by the name of Adria News a.d. which is owned by the identically-named Adria News S. a. r. l. from Luxemburg.
The main financial investors in H1 are United Group BV from the Netherlands, which has a cooperation agreement with Turner Broadcasting, the owner of CNN.
Since March 2014, the owner of United Group was the KKR Group (Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.), a US multinational based in New York. An adviser to the KKR Group is Michael Petreus, US general and retired CIA director.
Cameron Manter, the US ambassador to Serbia from 2007 – 2009, is an adviser to the United Group Board of Directors.
With regards to Serbian print media, one of the most influential players is the Ringier Axel Springer Group which owns a majority stock in daily and weekly publications Blic (daily), Alo (daily), and NIN (weekly).
In July, 2012, Serbia’s oldest and most respected daily newspaper, Politika, almost imperceptibly changed owners and became the property of the mysterious East Media Group registered in Moscow, about which no detailed information is available. Its previous owner was the German VAC conglomerate.
As for the major evening daily Večernje Novosti, the controlling package is owned by Trimax Investments and Ardos Holding from Austria (with 25% each) and Cyprus-based Karamat Holdings (with 12,55%). The balance of the stock belongs to the government of Serbia and the Serbian Pension Fund.
To complicate the ownership picture of VečernjeNovosti, in 2010 the controversial Serbian businessman Milan Beko stated that he was, in fact, the real owner of the three foreign companies cited above. Beko is an oligarch with close ties to all political coalitions that have ruled Serbia over the past several decades.
The previously-mentioned American corporate conglomerate KKR Group has also achieved absolute majority control over Serbia’s largest cable operator, SBB.
This allows American interests to exercise significant control over information flows and exert equally significant cultural influence over broad segments of the public through control over the programming that they will and (just as importantly) will not be able to watch.
Belgrade University economics professor Ljubodrag Savic points out that, apart from the issues of media monopoly and censorship, it is not to Serbia’s advantage to hand over such profitable segments of its economy to foreigners:
“The American KKR Group purchases businesses which bring in large profits. A collateral interest is to exert considerable influence in this region of Europe. It is not good for our country that we have sold such an important cable operator [SSB] or that the sale of the Telekom communications company was also actively under consideration. What will remain under our ownership? Will we become slaves in our own country?”
He added that competition for media space is not just a political issue but also a matter of huge profits. In Serbia, advertisers spend almost 90 million euros a year on television advertising.
The extent of the US “spider’s web” controlling the Serbian media, and the importance attached to it, can be seen from the following facts:
- In October, 2013, KKR Group paid the MEP Investment Fund the enormous sum of 1,2 billion euros to acquire the SBB cable network.
- A few months later, in February, 2014, KKR Group (with which ex-CIA director Petreus is associated) bought a 51% share of the Serbian entertainment giant “Grand Productions”. The price was never officially published, but according to informally circulated information, the previous owners of “Grand,” the Popovic family, were paid 15 million euros.
- In October, 2014, American interests launched their TV H1, whose ownership is ultimately traceable back to CNN.
- In the summer of 2014, KKR Group bought a packet of shares in the Swiss company Ringier Digital A.G. The KKR took over 49% of the shares in Ringier which, through associated companies, controls a number of Serbian media outlets, including the influential “Blic” internet portal.
It turns out that, in addition to numerous “NGO’s”, a number of Serbian media outfits are also beneficiaries of this form of financial assistance.
According to data provided by the U.S. Foundation Center [http://foundationcenter.org/], an organization that tracks spending of American “philanthropic” foundations abroad, Serbian NGO’s (which are almost by definition Western-oriented given the positions they advocate) have received about 35 million dollars from 39 U.S. foundations over the last 10 years. These funds were deposited in the accounts of 295 Serbian organizations of this character, and that does not even include financial support from other, more “official”, donors such as USAID and the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
According to Foundation Center data, the most significant “private” donors to Serbian “civil society” are the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation, Soros’ Open Society, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Major recipients in Serbia were the Humanitarian Law Fund (headed by Natasa Kandic) to the tune of 3,78 million dollars, the Belgrade branch of the Open Society Fund (3,72 million dollars), and the Trag Foundation [https://www.tragfondacija.org/pages/en/home.php?lang=EN] an outfit billing itself as “philanthropic” but which actually promotes West-friendly causes and shows on its webpage that it also receives funding from USAID in the amount of 3,33 million dollars.
Specifically with regards to Serbian media, Foundation Center data shows that the biggest U.S. donors were NED (National Endowment for Democracy) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The greater part of their funding was destined to reach internet portals such as Autonomija (promoting separatism in Serbia’s Vojvodina province), “anti-corruption” portals like Cenzolovka and Istinomer, and the often vulgar and provocatively scandalous, and now thankfully shut down “E-Novine”.
A favored funding beneficiary in the world of Serbian media is the “Association of Independent Journalists of Vojvodina” [NDNV]. Between 2012 and 2014, this association received 242.000 dollars from NED. The funds were earmarked for “organizing public dialogue about decentralization,” a code word of pro-Western organizations in Serbia for creating a climate propitious for separatism in the Serbian regions of Vojvodina and Sandzak.
The targeted expenditure of funds in both the “NGO” and media spheres in Serbia suggests rather strongly the geopolitical intentions that lie behind these investments.