Serbian Press Council wins plaudits and complaints

Three years since founding, Press Council has grown into a credible self-regulatory body in the Serbian media scene, but has yet to gain greater visibility, improve voting rules and see its decisions implemented.


“With a mere decision to address the Press Council’s Complaints Commission, the president of Serbia confirmed the justification of its [Council’s] existence and acknowledged the credibility and relevance of this self-regulatory body.” This is how Zoran Sekulic, director of Fonet news agency and one of the founders of the Council, described the place of the Council in the Serbian society, three years after its formation.

President Tomislav Nikolic complained against Alo and Blic daily newspapers for reporting on what he was allegedly doing in his hometown when severe floods hit the country in May. The Council, however, found that the journalists’ Code of Ethics had not been violated. But, this case will be remembered as a milestone in the self-regulation development in Serbia, since the president decided to address the Council and not court.

It all started in March 2009, when Serbian journalists associations, NUNS and UNS, agreed to adopt a joint Code of Ethics and thus replace their individual ones. Due to financial difficulties, the Council started working two years later, after getting support from the Norwegian embassy.

Its main goal is monitoring of observance of the journalists’ Code of Ethics in print and online media. Today, it brings together 14 daily papers, 26 magazines, 34 local papers, two web portals and two news agencies.

Gordana Novakovic, the Press Council secretary, says that at first, there were problems with tabloids, which perceived the Council as an inquisition and only started cooperating recently. Then, there was a problem with the obligation of the media to publish the decision of the Council’s Complaints Commission concerning them.

But, the situation has been improving gradually. Figures show that 70 complaints were filed in 2013, which is more than two times more than in 2012. Until July this year, a total of 146 complaints have been filed, 55 rejected, and 46 breach of Code of Ethics has been detected.

“People often complain on violation of section 1 of the Code (the veracity of reporting) and to the publication of false and unverified news, and lack of distinction of facts from reviews, assumptions and speculation. Then, violating the right to privacy and non-disclosure of denial is also a common reason for complaints. We also have a lot of cases when journalists or media complain to each other for copyright infringement,” Novakovic said.

However, many still do not quite know the purpose of this body or that it even exists.

“People (complainants) still do not fully understand that the Council is not there to punish the media. Also, I think there are still people who do not know that there is a Press Council, especially in smaller communities. We are trying to resolve this in cooperation with local NGOs.” Novakovic explained. She also added that another problem is that actual implementation of the Council’s decisions is still lacking. “Today, we still have the media repeating same mistakes,” Novakovic said.

Ljiljana Smajlovic, President of the Press Council, also believes that lack of visibility and the fact that publishers are less than enthusiastic in informing readers about the Commision’s rulings, are problems the Council is facing nowadays. “They give them short shrift or even sabotage their obligation to print those rulings by ignoring the substance of the complaint and simply running a pared-down version of the ruling. Neither the press nor the public ever find out very much about the essence of the arguments or the logic behind the editorial decisions that complainants challenge,” Smajlovic explained.

According to her, another problem is that Commission is not always evenhanded in applying the Code of Ethics. “Members’ political and professional allegiances sometimes take precedence over their fairness or professional judgment,” she noted.

Sekulic, however, believes that these problems could be solved if the Council founders obliged their members to strictly respect the Statute of the Press Council and if disclosure of the Council’s decisions was mandatory.

The case, which seems to have stirred most controversy in the three-year long Council’s history, is the complaint against an article entitled “The Third Bullet of Branka Prpa“ published in Politika daily newspaper on April 8 this year. In this case, plaintiffs included Vukasin Obradovic, Head of NUNS, while the responsible editor of Politika was Ljiljana Smajlovic, the president of UNS. There is a rift between the two journalists associations (and founders of the Council) that nourished their distinctions since 1994.

The text accuses a circle of people of discrediting, for political reasons, the investigation of the assassination of journalist and editor Slavko Curuvija. Historian Branka Prpa was Curuvija’s wife. According to the claimants, the text violated the provisions of the Serbian journalists’ Code of Ethics, which concerns the truthfulness of reporting, responsibility and independence of journalists and the culture and ethics of the public word.

On the other side, Politika defended itself by saying that the plaintiffs have failed to contest a single fact presented in the text or the accuracy of the statements and quotes the author has built his conclusions and value judgments on, but rather his personal opinion and views.

There was a two-thirds majority in the case, but no decision was passed because the majority did not include UNS. The rule envisions that such majority must include at least one representative of each of the four founders of the Council and no less than one representative of the public.

Obradovic sees this case as one of the rare examples when the Commission failed to do its job properly. “The rejection of the complaint comes as a result of the mechanism of decision-making in the Commission, which, unfortunately, provides the possibility to representatives of each of the founders to, despite the opinion of the majority, block the adoption of a solution that maintains the dominant position of other members.”

In order to prevent similar situations happening in the future, NUNS has launched an initiative to amend the Statute of the Press Council and the Rules of Procedure of the Complaints Commission. “We recommend that decisions are made by a majority vote of the number of attendees at the meeting of the Complaints Commission,” Obradovic said. However, this rule was instigated at the insistence of Obradovic’s NUNS, which how now changed its mind.

Smajlovic, on the other side, said that the article in question presented a provocative and different point of view. “Those who disliked it could not refute a single point of fact in it, they simply disagreed with the author,” she added.

Norwegian ambassador Nils Ragnar Kamsvåg, who has been following the process, since the start, said that much has been achieved. He commented that finding common ground for establishing the Press Complaint’s Commission had certainly not been an easy process, and compromises had been found. It was thus to be expected that adjustments in the functioning of the Commission would be considered in light of the experience gained. “Having said that, the establishment of the Commission seems to have contributed to strengthening professional and ethical debates in media and between media actors. The Commission does also gradually seem to be gaining the role it was meant to have as a self-regulatory body. The biggest challenge today may be the economic sustainability of the council, given the difficult economic situation in media.”

Last updated: 14.10.2014; Norwegian embassy