International Radio Serbia gets axed in “Privatization Program”

A Radio Jugoslavija QSL card from the 1980s

A Radio Jugoslavija QSL card from the 1980s

The Serbian government intends to close International Radio Serbia (aka Radio Yugoslavia) on July 31. The broadcaster’s statement:

Dear listeners, by the decision of Serbian government, International Radio Serbia – Radio Yugoslavia – ceases to exist on 31 July 2015. Thus our fruitful cooperation with you and our tradition of continously informing the diaspora and the public worldwide of the current events, business and cultural capacities, beautiful landmarks, culture and tradition of Serbia and former Yugoslavia in 12 languages, via short waves, the Internet and the satellite will be terminated. Thank you for having listened to us and for having trusted us for more than 79 years.

It’s strange to think that a country with official – and public – views that frequently differ from the European mainstream would shut its own voice down, but that’s what Belgrade appears to be doing.

One might argue that Tanjug newsagency (also a news organization with quite some history, founded in 1943), would provide an alternative once Radio Serbia is off the air (and offline), but there are at least two drawbacks. One is that Tanjug is only available in Serbian and in English, while Radio Serbia speaks to the world in twelve languages. And the other is that Tanjug isn’t a broadcaster – you don’t get them on the radio.

It’s nice to know that Serbia-China relations are very good, isn’t it? And yes, Tanjug, quoting Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic, will let us know – they’ll even let us know more than Radio Serbia – but only in English. And sure, CCTV will let the Chinese people know – in the evening news, because, after all, the guy from Belgrade met with Zhang Gaoli. But look what you’ll get with this searchword combination: 托米斯拉夫·尼科利奇 “张高丽”. Or with another one: “尼科利奇” “张高丽”.

Sorry to lay this on you, government of Serbia, but there’s no Tanjug among these results. If you think most Chinese people – old and young, high-ranking officials or even students (chances might be somewhat better there) feel easy with English, you may still want to go ahead, though. Good luck with that – God knows what your management consultants may beputting into your heads.

Another point in Radio Serbia’s favor is the coverage of culture and daily life. Most people will be at least as interested in that, as in the world of politics and diplomacy. Or, as Johann Gottfried Herder put it more than two centuries ago, when explaining his goals with the “Letters for the Advancement of Humanity”: in this gallery of different ways of thinking, aspirations and desires,

we certainly get to know periods and nations more deeply than on the deceptive, dreary route of their political and war history. In the latter, we seldom see more of  a people than how it let itself be governed and killed; in the former we learn how it thought, what it hoped and wished for, how it enjoyed itself, and how it was led by its teachers or its inclinations.

This isn’t to say that International Radio Serbia would be a beacon of lofty enlightenment concerning the country – but you do get to listen to Serbian music and cultural descriptions, for example.

A statement by Radio Serbia’s German service, published on June 30, mentions media privatization in Serbia. According to a news article published by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), 47 state-owned media outlets were put on sale on July 1, and should be completed by October. And, not surprisingly if you know the European Union (or the role it frequently plays as a scapegoat, blamed for unpopular policies by national politicians, when they are out of more reasonable points), the Serbian government, according to BIRN, says media privatization is an important part of the pre-accession process with the European Union that will enable Belgrade to open Chapters 23 and 24 of the negotiations on the judiciary.

According to Radio Serbia on June 18, the original deadline for privatization, i. e. June 30, wasn’t met, and Minister of Culture and Information Ivan Tasovac has stated that […] if the process of privatization of the state-owned media is not completed by June 30, it will certainly be commenced by that deadline, and then completed over the next four months at the latest.

The German service’s June 30 post mentioned a debate in parliament where members demanded the inclusion of Radio Serbia into the new timeframe, with a deadline of October 31. However, a total of 35 amendments was rejected by the government majority (three of them referring to Radio Serbia). The most eloquent advocacy reportedly came from the leader of the Socialist Party group Dijana Vukomanović, who emphasized both the multi-lingual program range and the costs – several times lower than those of Tanjug (“dessen Ausgaben mehrfach niedriger sind als die Agentur Tanjug”).

The article, tinged with bitterness, comes to the conclusion that

in this way, the incumbent Serbian government, just like its predecessors since the year 2000, has demonstrated that it is only interested in domestic politics, while the country’s promotion abroad is of no priority.

It appears to be true that the government was in no mood to have a genuine public debate. But the question remains why. If privatization and EU standards were the reason, Radio Serbia could still continue as a media corporation under public law. Many EU countries run broadcasting houses under this formula – to my knowledge, no EU objections have ever been reported.

But then, different standards may be applied after all – and a Reuters report of June 30 mentions not only Brussels, but another big player, too. According to Reuters, Belgrade plans to trim the public sector under a 1.2 billion euro ($1.3 billion) three-year precautionary loan-deal with the International Monetary Fund.

Would that be domestic or foreign politics?

____________

Remarks

Radio Serbia runs a Chinese service. However, chances to listen to the station on shortwave appear to be small in China, as the target area for the only broadcast in Chinese appears to be Europe, at 16:30 UTC on 9635 kHz.

Programs for Europe, in Italian, Russian, English, Spanish, Serbian, German, and French, start at 17:30 UTC on 6100 kHz, and end at 23:30 or 24:00 UTC. Unfortunately, China Radio International (CRI) broadcasts on the same frequency from 20:00 to 23:00 UTC, but usually stays in the background, with a fairly readable signal from Radio Serbia.

There’s an online petition calling for the continuation of Radio Serbia, and a tradition of nearly eighty years.

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