State aid based on clear rules is in the interest of all media

Centre for Civic Education (CCE) calls on the Agency for Protection of Competition to assess and publicly explain whether the Decision of the Government of Montenegro on assistance to commercial TV broadcasters with national coverage, adopted on 8 April, is legitimate. We also call on the Government to explain according to which procedures it decided to support three media, and not the others.

CCE points out that Government selective financial support to the media strengthens the so-called soft censorship in the media sector and it is not stimulating for a market that should be based on equal opportunities. Discretionary and non-transparent allocation of state aid to the media is a Government’s continuation of the bad practice of the previous one in this domain as well, which has often been justly criticized.

Namely, by taking over the obligations of three televisions – Vijesti, Nova M and PRVA TV – towards the Broadcasting Centre (BC), in the amount of 200,000 euros, the Government, inter alia, put other media that have debts to BC or other entities at a disadvantage through direct intervention in the media market. It is unclear whether and through what procedure, as well as according to which criteria, the media have the right to address the Government with the same request and expectations, and how the Government will respond to all similar ad hoc requests.

Also, the obligation of the Government was to announce whether its latest decision was in line with the De Minimis rule, ie. whether these televisions were individually granted assistance in the last three fiscal years amounting to EUR 200,000 or more, with this payment included.

CCE acknowledges the fact that the obligation to pay services to BC represents a significant burden on the work of electronic media in Montenegro, which operate in difficult circumstances, which consequently causes the accumulation of debts. Due to the underdeveloped media market and unfair competition, commercial electronic broadcasters do not generate enough revenues to enable them to pay these obligations regularly. Additionally, the expediency of paying for the services of the BC at the time of digitalization is questionable, as well as the determined costs of services that the media have criticized for years as too high, which is why an increasing number of them have been redirected to signal transmission via cable systems. Nevertheless, despite the above mentioned, assistance to the media must be transparent and based on the principle of equal opportunities.

CCE reminds that the Government of the former Prime Minister, Duško Marković, also financially supported the media, which was also accompanied by controversies when it comes to transparency. Thus, for example, the Government allocated significant funds for the media in 2020, but the data on how much money is precisely allocated through various types of assistance to the media are not systematized. In order to mitigate the economic consequences caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the previous government also helped the media through wage subsidies, working capital loans, deferred payment of taxes and contributions on employees’ wages, deferred payments and exemption from regulatory fees, one-time grants, etc.

CCE has been advocating for years for the development of clear mechanisms for controlling public funding of the media, in line with EU regulations and international best practices and standards. Montenegro has also entered the phase of frequent changes of government; therefore, the greatest interest of all media is to resolve this issue in a manner that does not privilege anyone and in which no media depends on who will be in power.

Damir Nikočević, Development Coordinator