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REM Report Creates Misleading Image of Progressives’ and Opposition’s Media Presence in Election Campaign

04 Nov 2020
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic visit the Science technology Park Čačak on June 16; photo: Presidency of Serbia / Dimitrije Goll
By changing the way in which it shows political parties’ presence in the media during an election campaign, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media has created an image where the Serbian Progressive Party and the Alliance for Serbia were represented in a similar measure. The body included various kinds of media and actors in the total election campaign time, which it had not done before, and so instead of the Serbian Progressive Party getting tenfold more time than the Alliance for Serbia, it allegedly got only slightly more.

The final report on media reporting during this year’s election campaign was published on the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) website on Monday. According to the report, in the period from March 4 to 15 and from May 11 to June 18, the Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) share of programming content (except advertising) was 10.6% (around 68 hours), while the share of the opposition Alliance for Serbia (SZS), which boycotted the election, was 8.1% (around 52 hours).

Based on this, one might draw the conclusion that the authorities and the opposition were given approximately the same amount of time in the media which REM monitored during the election.

However, an analysis conducted by the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) shows that the difference between the authorities and the opposition was reduced through a change in the way this regulatory body presents data.

Thus, for the first time since the start of monitoring, the total election campaign time also included the appearances of analysts in the media, but also of representatives of the institutions that carry out the election procedure, such as the Republic Electoral Commission, investigative media, non-governmental organizations and others whom REM marked as “other participants in the campaign.”

Apart from televisions with a nationwide broadcasting license and public services, the total time also included the cable channels N1, which is a news channel, and Nova S. The extent to which N1 and Nova S change the picture is illustrated by the fact that, according to the report, these two TV stations broadcast around 287 hours of election campaign programming, which equals almost half of the total programming broadcast by all 12 media outlets monitored by REM. Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) representatives, the report says, refused to appear on certain shows on N1 because they did not want to engage in a dialogue with the boycotting parties.

REM also included the public radio services Radio Belgrade 1 and Radio Novi Sad 1 in the total time. This was the first time those two radio stations ended up in REM’s table presenting the total time, even though they were part of the monitoring in 2014 and 2016, as well as in the report which CINS has already written about.

If, like in previous years, the total election campaign time included only national free-to-air broadcasters and public services – channels 1 and 2 of the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) and the Radio Television of Vojvodina (RTV) – and if the time given to analysts and to those REM labels as other participants in the campaign was not included, the result would be very different. Based on that calculation, the Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) share of the election campaign programming was 25.59% (more than 51 hours), while the share of the Alliance for Serbia (SZS) was 2.34% (just over five hours).

Moving the slider shows the difference between the results of REM’s old and new methodologies

At a session of the REM Council two days ago, its members Slobodan Cvejić and Judita Popović called for a revision of the report, because of, among other things, the method of presenting the total election campaign time. However, their request was denied and the report was adopted.

Slobodan Cvejić told CINS that the problem lay in the term “election campaign time” itself because it encompassed categories that were not of the same type, for example radio stations and television stations, as well as televisions with 100% coverage and those that had 35%. Also, in his words, the problem is that all the public services and all the national free-to-air broadcasters were included, while on the other hand just two predominantly news-oriented cable channels were chosen.

“It is best that everything be included in the report, but to present broadcasters in a comparative way and the structure of time per election actors within their total time, and not to present the sum category for all of them combined at all,” Cvejić explains.

On the other hand, Zoran Gavrilović of the Bureau for Social Research (BIRODI) says that it is methodologically justifiable that N1 and Nova S were included in the monitoring and compared to national free-to-air televisions because they are televisions with a strong news program focusing on politics.

“The fact that these cable televisions were included in the sample is not a problem, because anyone can see in the report the total time in seconds and representation in percentage by both televisions and actors. It would be a problem if we did not have that in seconds, but only in percentage,” Gavrilović says.

Both Cvejić and Gavrilović believe it is all right that analysts and other participants were included in the monitoring because they influence the decisions of viewers, i.e. voters. Cvejić says that a comprehensive analysis requires a systematic measuring of tonality, that is whether these actors talked, for example, positively, negatively or neutrally about a subject.

The Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) noted in its report that analysts with a clear political orientation had also contributed to media providers’ uneven and insufficiently balanced treatment of the campaign participants. Given their participation in the overall election campaign programming of all the monitored media combined, REM concluded that this past election was marked by a “campaign of analysts.”

More Vučić than Serbian Progressive Party

In June, before the election, CINS reported that the REM service was documenting the appearances of government officials on TV shows during the election campaign, but that those results were not being published in the weekly reports.

The data are in the freshly published final report and show that in some media outlets monitored by REM, officials of the ruling parties appeared more than all the election tickets combined.

On Radio Belgrade 1 government officials were represented for about 71% of the measured time, while election tickets were represented for about 28% of time. Pink TV dedicated 68.2% of time in programming content of all kinds (except election advertising), whereas the percentage it gave to all tickets was 31.8%. The B92 and Prva televisions gave more than 60% of time to state officials, while RTS Channel 1 gave them 58.9% of time.

The report shows that in Serbia the media are an instrument of promoting the executive and public officials, says Zoran Gavrilović, adding that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić was the dominant actor in this election campaign, the same as he was in all the previous ones starting from 2014.

“Now we had two campaigns – one was the election campaign and the other was a campaign called COVID-19, which served the purposes of the election and Aleksandar Vučić, who contrary to Article 6 of the Constitution was a participant in the election campaign,” says Gavrilović.

President Vučić, whose name the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) ticket bore, dominated TV screens relative to other officials. He was given more than 169 hours of programming, whereas his party’s ticket was given almost two and a half times less, approximately 68 hours.

For example, Vučić’s appearances as president on RTS 1 totaled close to 15 hours, while the party was given just over two and a half hours. The difference was vast on other televisions, too, and so Pink TV reported on the president for slightly more than 44 hours, whereas the election ticket appeared for just over nine hours. On B92 TV the president got 36 hours, as opposed to almost seven hours given to his party.

In the report’s conclusion, REM touches on the appearances of officials from election tickets, posing the question of how the media informed citizens about their activities and when that presentation served campaign purposes. Given that media providers are not legally limited in this matter, REM concludes that a solution should be sought in the area of self-regulation.

At the aforementioned REM session, Slobodan Cvejić also mentioned election campaigning by government officials. He described the conclusion of the report as “highly biased” and proposed that it be rewritten.

“There are obvious inconsistencies in interpretation, comments to some important dimensions of the report have not been added – for example, election campaigning by government officials and tonality did not earn enough space in the report.”

Serbian Progressive Party Gets More Coverage from National Broadcasters, Alliance for Serbia Gets More from N1

Relative to those who boycotted the election, primarily the Alliance for Serbia (SZS), the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) was much more present on national broadcasters. For example, on Happy TV, the party got just over 18 hours of coverage, while the Alliance for Serbia (SZS) got just over 15 minutes. B92 TV gave the Progressives close to seven hours, as opposed to around one minute and 40 seconds to the boycotting parties.

The Pink and Prva televisions also gave a considerable advantage to the ruling party, and so on Pink TV the Progressives got more than nine hours, while on Prva TV they were given almost six hours. The Alliance for Serbia (SZS) got about 44 minutes on Pink TV and around 30 minutes on Prva TV.

Where the opposition election tickets are concerned, the one that was given the most time on national free-to-air broadcasters was United Democratic Serbia.

On the other hand, the N1 and Nova S televisions gave more time to representatives of the Alliance for Serbia (SZS) than of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The report shows that the opposition alliance got just over 36 hours on N1, as opposed to just under 12 hours given to the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The difference was even bigger on Nova S, where the ruling party got around 50 minutes and the Alliance for Serbia (SZS) got close to 10 hours.

As for the opposition that took part in the election, approximately the same amount of time on N1 was given to the Movement of Free Citizens (PSG) and United Democratic Serbia, while Nova S devoted the most time to the Movement of Free Citizens (PSG).

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