Owing to the agreements signed with the city and the local institutions, TV Best from Zaječar generated more than 147 million Serbian dinars of income since 2013, after Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came into power in this city. Nevertheless, they haven’t been airing the program since August, their accounts being blocked due to a debt higher than 21.6 million dinars.
The accounts of this regional TV station have been blocked several times during the last three years. However, TV Best has been facing real problems after Saša Mirković left SNS and resigned from the position of the president of the Zaječar City Assembly.
In public, Mirković is known as a show business manager. Prior to joining SNS, he was a member of the Serbian Radical Party while today he is announcing his candidacy for the president of Serbia. From 2011 to middle 2012, Saša Mirković was a member of the Board of Directors of TV Best, while in the media he was often referred to as its real owner. Yet, he denied this in an interview with the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS).
It is mayor Ognjenović, and not myself, who came into power after leaving the position of the director of Timočka Radio and TV station (previous name of TV Best).
The formal owner of TV Best is Danijela Vidosavljević, while besides Mirković, several city officials were managing this TV station within the last few years, including Velimir Ognjenović, current mayor of Zaječar.
In July 2013, Mirković was elected President of the City Assembly, while a month later Ognjenović was appointed the mayor of Zaječar, both as SNS representatives. It is since the year mentioned that TV Best started recording income increase deriving from the institutions’ budgets.
Data of Treasury Administration show that the income generated by this TV station from local self-governments and state institutions amounted to more than 42 million dinars in 2013. A year before they received less than 14.5 million dinars.
The payments made to TV Best kept rising, amounting to almost 44 million dinars in 2014, while 61 million dinars of budget funds were furnished to their account in 2015. In 2016 they were granted only 732,554 dinars.
Mirković said that his appointment to the position of the Assembly president had nothing to do with the business activities of TV Best, as he was the head of a legislative body that was not in charge of allocating money.
“It is mayor Ognjenović, and not myself, who came into power after leaving the position of the director of Timočka Radio and TV station (previous name of TV Best). Therefore, he is the executive authority in this city“, said Mirković.
Ognjenović was appointed the mayor of Zaječar on 21 August 2013. Two days later he signed an agreement with TV Best on allocation of 18 million dinars from the city budget to this TV station. At the time, he was still executive director of TV Best, resigning from this position as late as on 16 September 2013.
Ognjenović, still in his capacity of mayor, refused to talk on this topic with CINS journalists.
Mirković is no longer the president of the City Assembly of Zaječar. At the end of 2015 he came into conflict with SNS, thereafter leaving the party. This is when TV Best started facing hardships. An investigation and judicial proceedings are currently conducted against TV Best, while in September this year the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media initiated a procedure for revoking their broadcasting license.
Millions granted by local institutions
In February 2016, 13 workers of the Veterinary Specialist Institute “Zaječar” went on strike requesting dismissal of the director Miodrag Nikolić on the grounds of his irresponsible conduct in managing the Institute, reflected also in “granting millions of dinars to TV Best“. They say that, despite investing into commercials, fewer contracts were signed during that period, so the Institute had no benefits from these investments.
Previously, Nikolić was a member of the TV Best Board of Directors. Prior to his appointment as the Institute director in 2013, the Institute had signed no TV commercial contracts with this TV station. Shortly thereafter they started scheduling TV spots and guest appearances.
The first contract concluded in July 2013 between the Institute and TV Best, was signed by Nikolić himself, although at that moment he was still a member of the TV Best management. On behalf of TV Best the contract was signed by Velimir Ognjenović, later appointed the mayor of Zaječar.
Public officials and TV Best
Besides Saša Mirković and Velimir Ognjenović, other SNS officials were also members of TV Best management teams. Vladan Paunović, this party’s commissioner in Zaječar and a previous councilor, served as a director of TV Best between 2010 and 2012. He was replaced by Ognjenović who remained in this position until September 2013. Just one month before that, Ognjenović was appointed a mayor. Ognjenović’s current assistant in the field of culture and media is Suzana Stamenković, former editor-in-chief of this TV station.
Nikolić, still in his capacity of the Institute director, did not want to comment his employees’ statements or discuss the contracts, until the Prosecutor’s Office in Zaječar brings to an end the investigation based on criminal charges filed by the employees.
With SNS coming into power, higher amounts of money were being granted to TV Best by local institutions such as Special Rehabilitation Hospital Gamzigrad, Health Center, Pharmacy Zaječar, CEKIT – Cultural Center of Zaječar, Timočka krajina Theatre “Zoran Radmilović“, Technical Faculty in Bor, National Museum Zaječar, Sports Center, and by other local institutions.
CEKIT – Cultural Center of Zaječar was founded in 2013. Since September 2014, their account was blocked 12 times, yet they didn’t consider it a barrier to make payments to TV Best.
Through a public procurement procedure, CEKIT paid almost half a million dinars for broadcasting the concerts of Marija Šerifović and Željko Joksimović, on the occasion of a 2015 New Year’s Eve celebration. In 2015, CEKIT awarded TV Best with a job worth 3.3 million dinars, i.e. the celebration of the Day of the City, including the concert given by Aca Lukas.
By the time of writing this story, no TV commercial contracts in 2016 have been signed between the Veterinary Institute, CEKIT, National Museum, Sports Center and other institutions on one side and TV Best on the other side.
The Pharmacy Zaječar have informed CINS journalists that their advertising activities have been increased since 2013 as they were exposed to “aggressive advertising of private pharmacies in local media“, followed by a significant drop in sales“. In 2016 Pharmacy Zaječar granted no money to the media for advertising purposes.
Besides receiving money from local institutions and establishments, in the course of 2013 TV Best was also granted 473,050 dinars by the Ministry of Culture and Information.
Based on a sole public competition for financing the media conducted by the city of Zaječar in 2015, pursuant to the rules of the new Law on Public Information and Media, TV Best was awarded 18.8 million dinars, out of the total amount of 38 million dinars divided among 11 media outlets. According to the findings of the media coalition in charge of monitoring media competitions, only two TV stations in Serbia were allocated more than 18.8 million dinars at the competitions conducted within the last year. This year, the city of Zaječar hasn’t yet allotted the money intended for the media, as the competition was announced at end of June.
During the last year, TV Best participated in two more media public competitions: in Negotin and in Bor, being awarded 2 million dinars, namely 1.2 million dinars respectively.
Although the Law on Public Information envisages that the funds from the budgets of local self-governments can be allocated to media primarily through competitions, this rule was not observed in case of a contract signed between the TV Best and the city to the amount of 17 million dinars, for the project on informing about environment.
The City mayor Ognjenović agreed for this contract to be signed a day after TV Best had submitted a request for allocation of funds.
Last December, at the time when Mirković parted ways with SNS, the police entered into the premises of TV Best. This was ordered by the Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime that requested “exemption of the documentation pertaining to investigation on potential corruption.“ The case was transferred to Senior Public Prosecutor’s Office in Zaječar.
In January this year, the city of Zaječar filed a lawsuit against TV Best at the Commercial Court in Zaječar due to a debt of 16 million dinars. The City Attorney’s Office initiated a procedure for collection of 7.5 million dinars. None of these two disputes have been settled.
Informing per suggestions of the city
Another media outlet connected with an SNS official in Zaječar, has recorded income increase since the time this party came into power.
In August 2013, only a day after an SNS official Dušan Firović was elected a member of the Zaječar City Council, F Kanal, a company owned by his son Saša, was allocated 6.5 million dinars for purposes of media reporting. Previous year, with Firović not being a member of the City Council, the amount granted by the city to F Kanal was three times smaller – about 2.2 million dinars.
The agreement, signed by the city mayor Ognjenović, specifies that, although F Kanal is entitled to direct their editorial policy, “in the broadcasts covered by the agreement they have to observe and accept the information volume and the method of their provision suggested by the city of Zaječar“.
During 2013 and 2014 Radio and TV Station F Kanal was paid for commercials by the Zaječar based institutions and establishments as well, including Cultural Center, Technical Faculty in Bor, Pharmacy Zaječar, Zoran Radmilović Foundation and others.
Including the money granted by the city, F Kanal received over 9.2 million dinars during 2013. In 2014, they received somewhat more than 7.3 million dinars in payments, of which 2.6 million dinars were granted by the City Council pursuant to media competition.
Based on a 2015 media public competition, F Kanal was allocated 3.5 million dinars for informing the citizens on the work of the city administration. In the same year, as already reported by the CINS, they were granted another 1.5 million dinars for reporting on ecology issues, this transaction not being covered by the competition.
Since the moment Dušan Firović came into power, F Kanal was allocated 18 million dinars only by the City of Zaječar. In 2013 and 2014, as a member of the City Council, he had directly influenced the decision to allocate the city budget funds to his son’s company. However, he did not inform the Anti-Corruption Agency on possible conflict of interests in this case.
Public interest or regular business operations?
Within its project proposal submitted pursuant to a 2015 media competition conducted by the city of Zaječar, TV Best specified that their main activities are directed towards providing timely information on the work of the city administration, which is actually covered by the scope of their business.
Petar Jeremić and Radomir Irić, members of the committee that was in charge of allocation of the funds, noted that the project submitted by TV Best was not on such a level as to guarantee that the public interests of the citizens will be met. As for future competitions, their recommendation is to “pay more attention to meeting public interests of the citizens, than to simple provision of information on the work of city administration“. They requested inclusion of the above statement into the Minutes.
Jeremić and Irić also said that, out of the same reasons, the project drafted by F Kanal, on reporting on the city administration activities, does not guarantee that the public interest will be met.
Upon a denunciation and the proceedings conducted, in 2014 the Agency made a recommendation to dismiss Firović from the position of the City Council member as it was his duty “not to participate in awarding decisions based on which budget funds were transferred to the company owned by his son.“
It took the mayor Velimir Ognjenović two years to submit a proposal to the City Assembly to initiate discussions on possible dismissal.
As per findings of the Anti-Corruption Agency, Firović has violated the law, but in April this year the councilmen voted against the proposal for his dismissal – 27 were against, while only three of them voted for the dismissal. Three ballot papers were invalid.
Dušan Firović refused to talk to the CINS journalists, while his son Saša said that his father’s position has nothing to do with the money allocated to F Kanal.
“I am running a private company, while his business activities are different. We do not live together, and I can say that our mutual relations are not too good, so that he is not interested in any of my business deals “, said Saša Firović.
At the end of June 2016, Dušan Firović informed the Agency that he had submitted a request for exemption from the City Council session the agenda of which includes decision on allocation of budget funds, as his son’s company is to participate in the competition. The Agency notified CINS that, by doing this, he eliminated potential conflict of interest.
The story has been produced under an EU funded grant, awarded in the Media Programme 2014. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the EU.