The draft law on changes to the LAAVMS (we first saw the text in July of this year, when we received it through the informal communication channels of the community of professional associations and civil society organisations working in the media sector) raises a number of issues that need to be addressed – both by the media community and the society in general.
The issues can be grouped in several larger topics. First, that is the question of design, production and dissemination of public information campaign (or as the proposed bill states, the “public interest campaigns”). Second, there is the issue of spending public funds to support the media, with the associated matters of securing and distributing the available funding. Third is the issue of political advertising, including the government and state advertising. Fourth is the issue of procedure for its adoption, especially in the context of the long-standing need for deep and comprehensive reforms of the media system in the country.
1. I don’t we can or should renounce in advance the possibility for government, state and public institutions to plan, design, produce and disseminate public information campaigns to the public. The need for such public information campaigns is real and indisputable. The very recent memory of the Covid-19 pandemic should be a sufficient reminder why we may need such campaigns. The state, government and public institutions must be able to inform and educate the citizens on a variety of issues related to matters of public health and safety, or to raise public awareness on a number of issues related to respect of human rights, the development of modern, democratic and multicultural society, etc.
Obviously, the issue of production and dissemination of public information campaigns needs to be regulated properly. The problem is that the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services is not the right place for such a regulation. Among other things, because the proposed bill focuses on the audiovisual/broadcasting sector, ignoring the past two decades of development of the digital domain and the internet, with all of its positive and negative sides and effects.
The aim of the public information campaigns is to ensure that the intended messages shall reach the target-audiences. Sometimes these may be campaigns and messages intended for the general public, but they are likely to be intended for more narrowly defined target audience. Even if we take into account such a general public (although such “monolith” public never truly existed and we always dealt with a collection of many publics), it is still divided into larger groups, especially by age, by extension, by media consumption habits.
It has been well established that online media have already grown into an equally important source of information as the television. In addition, the younger the audience is, the greater the probability that it will use internet – both online newspapers and social networks and social media – as primary and almost exclusive source of contents. Television, all relevant research in the world, in our region and in the country (see, for example, the research paper “Influence of new media on creation of public opinion and the functioning of traditional media“, published by the Institute RESIS in 2020), is increasingly the medium of choice for the older audiences. For instance, I have been told by representatives of Belgrade-based organisation CeSID (Centre for Free Elections and Democracy), which has conducted surveys of audiences’ media consumption habits in several countries in the region for several years in a row, that they have concluded that the boundary is drawn at the age of 43 years and seven or eight months. Everybody younger is most likely to get their information and other media contents online, while the older people tend to satisfy their needs for media contents primarily watching traditional linear television.
Therefore, the bill’s focus on the broadcast media, without even mentioning the print media or the new online media outlets defies logic, to say the least. How will a public information campaign aimed at the youth broadcast on television will reach them if a huge majority of them, and in some age groups all of them without exception, get their information on the internet (they also consume all other media contents of their interest online)? I repeat, the proposed bill that ignores the online media is far from adequate solution for such a complex issue.
A true solution for regulation of this matter – public information or public interest campaigns – simply has to be aware of the new media environment and cover the online media, including the social media and social networks. A future regulatory solution should especially offer mandatory audience research before a campaign is implements, in order to determine where the target-audience is (which media it follows or consumes) so that the most adequate method or media platform can be chosen for the messages to reach the target audience. For example, in some cases, especially in emergencies and natural disasters, SMS messages have proven themselves the quickest and most efficient method to disseminate information and communicate with the public.
While the proposed bill doesn’t touch on that issue, we have to deal with the related problem of “state” or “government” advertising. That is, the practice of state, government and public institutions and enterprises to engage in media buying to promote their activities, policies or results (or, in fact, to cover up for the lack of results in one area with focus on the results in another). It is often difficult, especially when public interest campaigns are produced and disseminated by government or public bodies, to eliminate the possibility to use them for promotion of the policies and activities of the bodies that commissioned them.
That is not a naïve matter. We need to remember the reign of Gruevski’s government, and that memory provides the basis for the opposition to any discussion about the possibility for entry of public money in the media, on any ground. The manner in which VMRO-DPMNE’s government used the funds from the budget to “purchase” the favour of the media, to reward the obedient and punish the independent media and the media critical of its policies, is a warning that we can’t forget. Also, the scarcity of funding in the media sector – especially evident in an oversaturated media scene such as ours – the temptation for the media to accept such a “deal with the devil” may be too great to avoid.
The temptation is equally important for the government. While it may not be prudent to claim in advance that the government will abuse such funding to secure influence over the providers of audiovisual media services, we have seen enough past abuse and we have been burnt so many times that we have to adhere to the old maxim “once burnt twice shy”. It has to be said that such a “gallant” approach to tax-payers’ money is abuse in its own right, knowing that it is difficult to view the whole affair outside the context of the need to “purchase” the favour of the media, especially the largest television broadcasters.
That, in fact, is a problem faced by many other countries, including EU member-states. Examples of use of “state advertising” to influence the media – primarily in Hungary and Poland, but also in Austria and in other countries where spending of budget funds on promotional and public information campaign is growing in importance as revenue stream for the media – have forced the European Commission into action. The new Media Freedom Act, adopted by EC on September 16 of this year and submitted to the European Parliament for adoption, recognizes the danger of distortion of media markets and systems, as well of the possibility to use that funding to influence the media. The regulation doesn’t seek to ban or eliminate that type of media buying, but focuses on transparency and fairness of distribution of government and state advertising and promotion budgets.
Of course, we have to take into account the question, should be allow placement of such campaigns on television or not, especially as a form of paid for promotion. The European practices are diverse, from states that ban all forms of political advertising (within or outside an election campaign), to state that have accepted and allow that practice. MDC remains on the position that the most acceptable solution would be for such public information campaign to be disseminated in the programmes of TV broadcasters, but only free-of-charge (with mandatory airing on the programming services of the public broadcasting service). Ultimately, which solution we will go for is an issue that needs to be considered in a process of comprehensive public debate and discussion that will involve all stake-holders, and not in an urgent, shortened procedure.
2. The second group of issues (some of them we touched upon already), arises from the proposed solutions on the funding of such “public interest campaigns” and the formulas for their distribution among broadcasters.
Lest start with the proposed percentages of the state budget and the budgets of the local self-government units to fund such campaigns. First, we can’t prescribe in advance, when drafting and adopting the state budget or the budgets of the local self-governments, how many and what types of public information campaigns will be necessary. What if we have a year in which we need more than the proposed prescribed maximum of four public interest campaigns per year? The public information campaigns, by their very nature, usually arise from an urgent need or situation (pandemic, natural disaster, etc.). Will it be prohibited to disseminate such excess campaign in the media? Can we have a situation where such a campaign may be prohibited if (God forbid!!!) a pandemic emerged after the maximum of four campaigns for that year has been exhausted?
Second, the proposed amounts from the state and municipal budgets, both as percentage and as the respective absolute amount, means that they will account for a huge share of the total available advertising spending in the country (about a sixth of the total advertising spending in broadcasting). The state will likely emerge again as the biggest single advertiser, a position that offers boundless possibilities to exert influence on the media, a temptation that any government anywhere will find difficult to resist.
Third, the proposed distribution of the funds for production and dissemination of public information (public interest) campaigns defies all logic. All experiences and research indicates that costs of TV production (across all genres and formats) are growing, which the costs of distribution of contents, thanks primarily to new inexpensive options offered by the growth of internet, are falling.
Fourth, the distribution, as defined and codified in advance, between the DVB-T broadcasters with national coverage (they get the lion’s share), in relation with the need to reach the desired, often very narrowly defined target audience, is not justified. For instance, why should 50 percent of the funds that municipalities will have to spend on public information campaigns (it doesn’t seem to matter whether they need them or not) go to national DVB-T broadcasters? One would expect that local TV and radio would respond far better to the need (not to mention the fact that it may turn out that poster and leaflet campaign would fulfil the task far more efficiently and effectively). Also, where do the regional media stand in that regard? No “regional” public interest campaigns are proposed or prescribed. What share of the funding should go to them?
Therefore, the proposed bill doesn’t treat all media equally, first because of its focus on broadcasting, and then within the broadcasting sector, where national DVB-T broadcasters are put in a privileged position. That, in itself, is sufficient reason for the proposal to be retracted, or if the MPs that submitted refuse to do so, to be voted down in the Parliament.
3. All of the above indicates that the proposed changes to LAAVMS are an attempt to introduce a system of indirect subsidies for the broadcasting industry (similar to the mandatory public notices in the print media). From the very beginning of its development, our media market has been over-saturated, with serious negative consequences for its sustainability. The available advertising spending is not enough, by any degree of imagination, to sustain so many television broadcasters. It is, in fact, the quality of programming contents offered to the viewers that suffers the most.
It is an indisputable fact that our TV broadcasters, just as all broadcasters functioning in small linguistic and cultural communities like ours, need some assistance to be able to produce quality contents intended, primarily, for the domestic audiences. Such programmes are active in all European states and all European states provide assistance for production of quality feature or documentary television. We haven’t seen the latest data, but a 2015 report by the European Audiovisual Observatory of the Council of Europe found that 249 film funds working on different levels in Europe (supranational, national, regional, and even in some major cities) allocated about a quarter of their funding for production of TV content (made for TV films, quality TV drama or documentaries).
Another issue we have to bear in mind is that the establishment of such assistance, aimed primarily at production of TV contents that we chronically miss – quality drama or documentary television – should follow after the much needed consolidation of the market of audiovisual media services. In essence, it means that the number of active broadcasters needs to be reduced, one way or the other, to a figure that the available advertising market can sustain and still ensure some level of quality.
We should also be aware that, like all European countries, we also have a dual system in which a public broadcasting service and commercial broadcasters function. In a situation in which the public broadcasting service has been systemically underfinanced for years, it should be the primary address for all public funds that we can dedicate to broadcasting. Only then will the PBS, as materialisation of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and guarantee that the public/audiences in Macedonia will have access to quality information, entertainment and education audiovisual contents, shall be able to perform its important social functions and mission.
4. Finally, the intent to adopt the proposed bill in an urgent, short procedure, under the excuse that “it is not a complex or comprehensive law”, aims to avoid the necessary proper public discussion of the proposed solutions. It is unacceptable on several grounds.
The proposed changes have to be viewed in the context of the necessary media reforms. The need for such reforms, especially in the area of audiovisual media services, has been recognized since the start of function of the pluralist media system in the country. It was officially recognised in a number of documents – the two Priebe Reports and the EU Urgent Reform Priorities, even several government short-term plans – adopted five-six years ago. With exception of several intervention in the media legislation, we have not really started with the reforms. That happened, among other things, because of the lack of any unified or common strategic, long-term vision of the ultimate goal or the reforms and the ideal situation that should emerge after the completion of the reforms. That vision will have to answer some difficult questions, including about the need to consolidate the audiovisual media services sector to a more sustainable number of active broadcasters. The existing scene, we fear, is unsustainable, especially on the local level, but also regarding regioanl and national broadcasters.
Similarly, it is not clear why should we engage in such minor intervention in the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services at this particular times (we can roughly guess the motives, but that is not an issue that we would touch on this occasion. We know that the LAAVMS will have to be “opened” very soon, to synchronize it with the amended Audiovisual Media Services Directive, but also to review several chapters of the Law that offer provisions which are, to say the least, outdated and inadequate for the newly emerging situation in the media industry as a whole.
MDC believes that the matter of regulation of production and dissemination of public information (public interest, if you prefer) campaigns, even the “government” or “state” advertising, together with the question if such campaigns should be allowed on television (as paid or free-of-charge media buying), should be put on hold and be part of that process of comprehensive review of LAAVMS. The issue of public subsidies for production of feature or documentary TV contents, on the other hand, should wait for the implementation of the reforms and the consolidation of the scene to be completed. Only then can we do proper analysis of the type of assistance that will be necessary and decide on the scope and reach of such assistance programmes.
For all of the reasons above, we recommend and we ask the Members of Parliament to dismiss the proposed changes to the LAAVMS as inadequate, unnecessary and potentially harmful.