This post was originally published in the Open Society Foundations website.
London, 11 February 2015 – Southeastern Europe suffers from some of the world’s least transparent media ownership. In a Mapping Digital Media (MDM) report on Macedonia in 2012, Roberto Belicanec and Zoran Ricliev wrote that “there are no formal or legal requirements for media, other than broadcasters, to disclose any data on ownership, turnover, or any other publicly relevant matter.” As if to prove the point, two years later, in the summer of 2014, journalists traced the real ownership of Kurir.mk, an influential Macedonian news portal, back to the brother of a senior official of the governing party.
The availability of accurate information about media ownership is essential for democracy. Public knowledge of owners’ identities helps to ensure that abuses of media power can be assessed, publicized, and prevented. It allows people to be informed about the interests that may be inappropriately biasing the news. And it makes it easier to establish whether a market is operating fairly and efficiently, especially towards new entrants.
But transparency around media ownership remains elusive in this region of the world, held back by powerful political and business interests who benefit from the opaque system. One of the saddest examples of this involves B92, a Serbian broadcaster that earned wide respect covering the wars of the 1990s but, following a change of ownership, is now seen by many as betraying its professional values.
According to a report by Balkan Insight, B92 raised money between 2006 and 2009 by issuing shares. In 2010, a Greek-Swedish joint venture registered in Cyprus called Astonko bought nearly 85 percent of the company. Serbia’s media regulator approved the purchase, but the country’s antitrust watchdog objected that B92 had not reported the change. The watchdog, whose mandate is to examine and approve such changes, also questioned whether B92’s new owners owned another national broadcaster, TV Prva, which would violate concentration rules.
The commission is quoted as saying, “TV Prva is a great example of how the lack of transparency of ownership, contrary to the law, allows the same owner to acquire a large number of media