Uneven levels of transparency between commercial and non-profit media

Source: Government of Montenegro

Montenegrin media associations urged authorities to improve the country’s legislation to secure transparency of media ownership and funding.

Montenegrin media associations urged authorities to improve the country’s legislation to secure transparency of media ownership and funding. According to official data in Montenegro, there is an uneven level of transparency between commercial and non-profit media, as a large part of non-profit media doesn’t report data on management or funding. This finding is also confirmed by the MOM study carried out in Montenegro from April to November 2023, where media operated by non-profit organisations proved to be less transparent than for-profit enterprises.

The head of the Podgorica-based NGO Media Centre, Goran Djurovic, warned that the country’s legislation should be stricter in order to secure media transparency.

“There is a lot of room for manipulation and abuse, and this issue needs to be further regulated as soon as possible so that the entire media sector and the sector of non-profit organizations are not further compromised. Those interested in promoting content that is mostly propaganda through non-profit media have a large area that is not monitored by anyone”, Djurovic said.

According to the country’s legislation, commercial media must be registered in the Ministry of Culture and Media, as their founders must provide data on the media’s name, founder and editor-in-chief names, e-mail, and tax identification number.

However, the Ministry’s register, which also contains data on ownership structure, is not public. Ownership data is only partially available through the Central Registry of Commercial Entities of the Tax Administration.

Non-profit media, on the other hand, are bound by the Media Law to register only the founders, as they do not have owners and cannot disclose the ownership structure. Official data showed that a large part of non-profit media register founders, but not editor-in-chief and journalists. Non-profit media are media operated by non-profit organisations which are more widely known as NGOs, non-governmental organisations. The law in Montenegro allows non-profit entities to run media. In MOM Montenegro 4 radio stations (Radio Homer, Radio Srpska, Radio Fatih and Radio Svetigora), 1 television station (Srpska TV) and 1 online media (Portal In4S) are operated by NGOs with little transparency on their financial, managerial and editorial operations.

In its report from 2017, the European Council Judicial Expertise on Freedom of Expression and Media in South-East Europe (JUFREX) warned that transparency of media ownership remains difficult to achieve.

“Media outlets are frequently owned and controlled in a non-transparent manner, either because of a lack of transparency obligations under domestic law or through non-transparent legal constructions of indirect or hidden ownership, which is often linked to political affiliations or economic or religious interests, or to the foreign political propaganda interests of the true owner of a media outlet”, it was said in the report.

“All necessary steps, including legislative and practical, should be taken in order to ensure the transparency of the media ownership”, it was added.

But in practice, some media don’t report key information such as editor-in-chief or address. News portal IN4S, founded by the same-named NGO, refers to the famous Cuban boxer Felix Savon as their editor-in-chief and Havana as their official contact address. IN4S is not registered in the official Montenegrin media registry, which renders the publicly available information on this media and the NGO minimal and useless.

In January 2020, police detained one of the IN4S founders and de-facto editor-in-chief, Gojko Raicevic, for causing panic and public disorder, after having published false news about an explosion. The State prosecution dropped the charges in December 2020. How the police officially linked Raicevic to the reporting of IN4S, despite the officially declared but false information of the Cuban address and Savon as editor-in-chief, remains unclear.

On August 16, 2023. Raicevic confirmed he is the editor-in-chief of IN4S, stressing that “Felix Savon is his satirical pseudonym”.

“The truth is that IN4S does not adhere to generally accepted journalistic standards, so it makes us more attractive for attacks, mostly without any basis," Raicevic told daily Vijesti.

The Montenegrin Media Union urged that media should provide transparency of ownership, publish the imprint, and report donations.

“In some cases, media outlets are under the influence of various interest groups, and the audience does not know who is behind them. Since media registration is not mandatory under the Media Law, there is a huge space left for the manoeuvring of political and economic sources of influence”, the Media Union said in a statement.

Official data showed that ownership transparency requirement is not respected in some cases when the media are founded by religious communities. Non-profit religious radio station “Fatih”, founded in 2018 by the Islamic Community in Montenegro, has no reported official data about the ownership or revenue. They are not enlisted in the Central registry of business entities or the taxation authorities and there is no available data on the number of employees.

Non-profit religious radio “Svetigora” was founded in 1998 by the Serbian Orthodox Church Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, while archpriest Nikola Pejovic is reported as the editor-in-chief.

“There is no regulation governing the financial operations of non-profit organisations such as religious organisations. Religious organisations are the founders of the media, which they finance from sources about which there is no publicly available information”, Djurovic said.

Poor Control on Public Funds Donations

But NGOs, as publishers of non-profit media, can benefit from donations, especially from public funds. Unlike commercial media, NGOs can receive donations and are not subject to the control of state aid.

According to the Media Law the Ministry keeps records of financial resources allocated to the media from public funds. In 2014, the Montenegrin tax administration made public the financial data of media companies for the first time, which revealed that in such an overcrowded market, only few media outlets can sustain their activities.

A Montenegrin Media Trade Union report from 2021 revealed that Montenegrin media had 18,7 million € in total revenues and 16,4 million € in expenses in 2020. More than 20 million € of income were paid from public sources, such as state and municipal budgets, while almost 22 million € were from marketing, projects, and grants.

According to the report, only 37 percent of the media reported funds received from the public sector. Law obliges the media to report donations or advertisements within 30 days to the Ministry, while the public sector must also publish donations or advertisements in media.

Even though Law envisages penalties for those who don’t publish those reports, the Ministry didn’t report on proceedings on those who violated the law.

“When the media are founded by NGOs and companies, the financial reports they submit to the tax authorities refer to the operations of the entire NGO, without special reference to the media, so their business results cannot be monitored in that way”, Media Trade Union said.

“Also, both media and state institutions don’t respect legal obligations to report advertising or donations to media, which leaves room for abuse and media control”, the Montenegrin Media Trade Union added.

According to Ministry of Culture and Media data, media founders and business companies which are not only in media business, registered in the Central Register of Business Entities (CRPS), generate 22.2 million € in revenues. Although the number of registered online publications is 104, it is estimated that the real number of those operating on the market is significantly higher. However, due to unimplemented legal solutions, media founders do not report their work and activities.

In the media strategy adopted on October 19, the Montenegrin Government said that transparency in media ownership is necessary to enable citizens to form an opinion on the value of information, ideas and observations placed by the media.

“In order to improve the transparency of media ownership, it is necessary to consider enabling the Agency for Electronic Media to ensure transparency of media ownership up to the ultimate real owners. Amendments on the Law on Electronic Media should enable the Agency for Electronic Media to ensure that media concentration does not lead to the creation of media groups whose dominance could harm pluralism and diversity”, it was said in Government strategy.

It is important to note that the mandate of the Agency for Electronic Media and the Law on Electronic Media does not extend to print and online media which are partially regulated by the Law on Media and its executing body, the Ministry of Culture and Media. It is clear that the media regardless of whether they are operated by commercial companies, non-profit NGOs or public institutions are accountable to the public with regards to editorial control and sources of funding.