Legal Framework on Transparency of Media Ownership on Hold

There is no progress in the legal regulation of the transparency of media ownership.

Author: Kristina Gadže / Photo: Pixabay

The law on transparency of media ownership has not yet been adopted despite the recommendations of the European Union (EU) and the efforts of civil society. The ownership structure can influence the editorial policies of the media, and therefore it is important for the audience to know who is behind a particular media company.

As stipulated by the EU, according in the Stabilization and Association Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) had until 2016 to adopt the law on electronic media. This was not achieved at the time, but it is still one of the main recommendations of the European Commission and the creation of a legal framework that would oblige the media to publish information on the ownership structure is a prerequisite for Euro-Atlantic integration of BiH.

In 2018, a consortium made up of the Association BH Journalists, the non-governmental organization JaBiHEU, the Council of Print and Online Media, and the Mediacentar Foundation presented a draft law to regulate the transparency of media ownership, pluralism of information and the advertising market in BiH as part of the Media and Public Credibility project, but to date there has been no significant progress in the adoption of this law. As pointed out by the Association BH Journalists, nothing significant has been done in that regard since 2019.

Lawyer and expert of the Council of Europe from Zagreb, Vesna Alaburić, who worked on the draft law on transparency of media ownership, pointed out that the transparency of ownership of media publishers in all countries is one of the fundamental requirements for the construction and development of pluralistic media communication. “Without publicity and transparency of ownership, it is not possible to ensure the pluralism of media groups, control the concentration of media entrepreneurs or prevent the creation of a monopoly. This applies to BiH just as much as it does to Croatia, or any other country,” Alaburić explains.

Lack of government interest and political influence are the biggest obstacles

Alaburić considers the lack of interest of the authorities to be the biggest obstacle preventing the transparency of media ownership from becoming a legal obligation, because “publicity and transparency are not important features of the political, economic or any other segment of work and life” in BiH. If the registration of entrepreneurs or the control of the ownership and management connection of entrepreneurs is not based on clear principles of publicity and transparency, Alaburić said, it is not possible to prescribe and effectively apply these principles only to the media.

Irfan Čengić, a representative in the FBiH Parliament, says that he proposed an initiative for the adoption of a law on the media of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), which would, among other things, regulate the area of media ownership transparency. “Back in 2019, the FBiH government rejected the initiative and took the position that this entity will not regulate it, even though the entity’s jurisdiction is the registration of entities dealing with the media. The initiative was rejected because, according to the minister, he believes that this law should be passed at the state level, even though he is aware that most of the competences are actually related to the entities”, says Čengić.

When talking about media registration and the transparency of media ownership, as pointed out by Čengić, it is particularly important to separate true media and provide them with protection from fictitious websites that are used to spread hatred, slander and the like, and whose real owners are unknown and do not respect journalistic standards and codes.

Nedim Pobrić, journalist and author of the research “Transparency of Media Ownership in Bosnia and Herzegovina” in cooperation with the Association BH Journalists, considers the lack of adequate laws and other regulations regulating the issue of media ownership transparency to be a major problem.

According to Pobrić’s research, the transparency of media ownership is only partially regulated through the process of registering business entities and organizations that are media owners or through the BiH Communications Regulatory Agency’s register of audio-visual broadcasting licensees, which does not include print and online media. Internet portals that have the national domain “.ba” are registered within the University Information Centre, which is in charge of issuing “.ba” domains according to the research. On the website of the University Information Centre, it was possible to see the business entity and contact person for each website with the national domain, but this option has been denied to the public in the meantime due to non-compliance with the Personal Data Protection Act, Pobrić pointed out.

The lack of transparency of media ownership in BiH, as Pobrić states, is one of the main causes of the low quality of the media market in BiH. “The existence of media without a clearly defined ownership structure has as a direct consequence media content that does not aim to provide timely and truthful information to the public, which should be the primary purpose of the media, but content that is subordinated exclusively to the interests of the real owners of those media. This problem is especially present when it comes to internet portals, which, although nominally present in the public space as information media, actually serve as platforms for representing the interests of their owners. Such media outlets often publish incomplete or inaccurate information in the public space, and people who are possibly harmed by such reporting do not have the opportunity to protect their rights in accordance with the existing laws on protection against defamation,” Pobrić points out.

Pobrić claims that the existence of such media outlets negatively affects the general level of information of the public as the consumers of information are unable to assess its credibility, and they adjust their attitudes and behaviour to incomplete or inaccurate information that such media present to them. However, Pobrić pointed out that Bosnia and Herzegovina lags behind in this matter compared to the countries of the region.

BiH among the worst in the region

Brankica Petković, a media researcher at the Peace Institute in Ljubljana, believes that the transparency of media ownership in the Western Balkans should be improved. “We believe that there should be a legal obligation to disclose the real owners in media registers or similar types of registers and that we should be regularly informed of these changes. Also, civil society can act on this issue and conduct its own research. This is necessary so that the state can make its own decisions in the creation of policy and so that citizens can have pluralistic access to different contents with different opinions and editorial policies”, said Petković.

Through amendments to the Law on Media in 2011 and the Law on Electronic Media in 2012, the Republic of Croatia provided for the obligation of the media to publish information about owners as individuals, and not only data about legal entities, i.e., companies that own media, Pobrić claims.

As stated in his research, in accordance with Article 32 of the Media Act of the Republic of Croatia, publishers are obliged to submit to the Croatian Chamber of Commerce by 31st January of each year information about the company and its registered office, name, surname and residence of all legal and physical persons who are directly or indirectly owners of stocks or shares in that print media with data on the percentage of stocks or shares. As stated in the research, the Law on Electronic Media of the Republic of Croatia prescribes the same obligation for electronic media organizations, except that they must submit the requested data by 31st January of each year to the Council of Electronic Media.

In the Republic of Serbia, according to Pobrić, the Law on Public Information and Media stipulates the obligation to publish an impressum and make available information about the media outlet for the needs of the public. If the publisher does not publish an impressum with the stipulated content, or if they do not publish it in the stipulated manner, the Law prescribes fines from 100,000 to 1,000,000 dinars.

Adis Šušnjar, journalist and author of the book “Integrity of Journalism and Media Transparency in Bosnia and Herzegovina” together with professor Enes Osmančević, says that journalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been in a crisis for a long time and that this crisis is multi-layered, ranging from political pressures, finances, interest relationships of political leaders and media owners, to censorship, working conditions of journalists and threats and attacks on journalists.

“As recipients of media content, citizens have the right to know whose capital is behind the published information. If we want to prevent propaganda and fake news, it is important to have a media register with an ownership structure. Also, the prevention of concentration in the media, that is, the preservation of pluralism of the media and media content depends on the transparency of media ownership. The consequences of non-transparency of media ownership are manifold,” says Šušnjar.

The official website of the BiH Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) contains all the Registers of license holders of the Agency. At the end of 2021, the CRA prepared amendments to Rule 77/2015 on the provision of audio-visual media services and Rule 76/2015 on the provision of radio media services. “With the proposed amendments, the responsibility of television and radio broadcasting license holders of the Agency would be extended to content published on websites under the license holder’s logo. This process is still ongoing. The public will be informed about all further activities in a timely manner”, said the CRA Public Relations Office.

According to Šušnjar, the mutual negative influences of the media, politics and centres of economic power lead to the violation of dignity and ethical standards of the journalistic profession, as well as restriction of freedom of speech as a fundamental principle of a democratic society. In such a position, Šušnjar believes, journalists become targets of blackmail, censorship, violations of labour and professional rights, but also of increasingly frequent threats, intimidation, and even physical attacks.

Pressure and work of organizations key to transparency

Lawyer and expert of the Council of Europe from Zagreb, Vesna Alaburić, sees one of the additional solutions to this problem in the public discussions of non-governmental organizations that will continuously deal with this topic, as well as in cooperation with international organizations that deal with the protection of freedom of speech. In addition, she considers it useful to apply pressure to ensure supervision of ownership changes through legislative and other measures in order to ensure the pluralism of media groups and prevent monopoly. “If the public debate dies down and if the media stop reminding the public of the importance of transparency of ownership in the media, media freedoms, media pluralism and the diversity of media content will be in very serious danger,” said Alaburić.

In his research, Nedim Pobrić emphasized that it is difficult to expect significant progress in the near future. He says that, in the Analytical Report from 2019 which is attached to the Opinion on BiH’s application for membership in the European Union, the European Commission ordered the adoption of the law on transparency of media ownership, and the establishment of a detailed register of media ownership in order to enable systematic insight into the ownership structure.

“Although more than three years have passed since the publication of the Analytical Report, no concrete steps have been taken to resolve this issue. More than three years ago, the Ministry of Communications and Transport of Bosnia and Herzegovina formed a working group in charge of drafting a law on electronic communications and electronic media, which would also regulate the area of media ownership transparency. It is not known whether any progress has been made in the drafting of this legal solution in the meantime,” Pobrić concluded.

The European Commission reiterated in the 2021 report that in 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina should, among other things, specifically adopt regulations on the transparency of media ownership and public advertising criteria.

The report also repeats that BiH has not made any progress in solving priority number 12 from the European Commission’s Opinion on the guarantee of freedom of expression and the media and the protection of journalists by ensuring appropriate judicial processing of cases of threats and violence against journalists and media workers and ensuring the financial viability of the system of public radio and television services. Earlier recommendations are still valid, and the legal framework should be harmonised with European and international standards and implemented in its entirety.

The reply of the Ministry of Communications and Transport of Bosnia and Herzegovina stated that the working group had prepared the Draft Law on Electronic Communications and Electronic Media. They said that “about 80 percent of the content has been roughly estimated”, without explaining what kind of content it is, and that the representatives of competent institutions from the entity and Brčko District did not participate in the development of the Draft Law. Similar working groups have been formed before, but the legal framework was never adopted.

As stated by the Ministry, working groups were formed in mid- 2021 to draft the Law on Electronic Communications and the Law on Electronic Media. Members of the working groups are from the Ministry, the Communications Regulatory Agency, the Directorate for European Integration, and competent entity-level ministries, while the Brčko District Government did not delegate its representatives.

The transparency of media ownership and transparent media financing, as well as the regulation of advertising, as pointed out by the Ministry, will be an integral part of the Law on Electronic Media, the preliminary draft of which is being prepared through the activities of a formal working group.

This text was created as part of the mentoring programme Solutions and Innovations in Media, which is implemented by Mediacentar Sarajevo and the Association Zašto ne, with the financial support of the embassies of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Western Balkans region.

Translation: Tijana Dmitrovic