Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Game on for the Premier League in the Balkans?

How Telekom Srbija’s push to buy TV rights to major European tournaments could undermine media freedom in the region

Marko Milosavljevič
16 July 2021, 12.00am
Premier League match between Liverpool and Crystal Palace on 23 May 2021
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Sebastian Frej / Alamy Stock Photo

In the 1990s, the Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević appeared to liberalise the Serbian TV market by allowing a select few private companies to broadcast. However, these companies had to have a contract with the state broadcaster, RTS, meaning that only those with shows that were to Milošević’s taste were allowed to operate.

Milošević particularly liked broadcasters such as the notorious Pink TV, which offered glitzy entertainment featuring non-stop turbo folk music on giant stages with seemingly endless numbers of semi-naked singers.

These programmes provided a useful distraction from the war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They helped dull the sensitivities of the population to the bloody sieges of Vukovar, Srebrenica and Dubrovnik. They also kept viewers on an exclusive diet of government propaganda because they offered no space for alternative political views.

Almost 30 years later, the situation in Serbia remains eerily similar. Now however, it is not turbo folk music that is used to distract people from reality, but sport – primarily English Premier League football.

These programmes provided a useful distraction from the war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina

These days, Serbia’s president is Milošević’s former information minister, Aleksandar Vucic: Telekom Srbija, the state-owned cable and broadband provider, has taken over from RTS. But the tactics remain the same. Vučić is in charge as key decision-maker in every aspect of Serbian society and that includes the media where he keeps media and journalists on a very tight leash. Serbia today has serious problems with media freedom, the rule of law and democratic standards, in conditions that some claim are even worse than in the times of Milošević, with only a few independent media outlets left, as noted by many international organisations such as Freedom House.

For its part, Telekom Srbija has assumed the role RTS had in the 1990s as the ultimate gatekeeper, the controller of what can happen and what can be distributed in the broadcast and cable system. Now, both Vučić and Telekom Srbije seek to expand and export their influence both economic and political across the whole of the western Balkans, including EU members Slovenia and Croatia.

Premier League

Over the past 18 months, Telekom Srbija, through its subsidiary, Arena Sports, has been buying up rights to the world’s major tournaments, and not just for Serbia but for the whole region. Its focus now is said to be on the jewel in the crown – the English Premier League, which sources report it hopes to win the rights to broadcast in Serbia and other Western Balkans countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.

By buying these rights, the intention is not just to be the dominant cable operator in Serbia but to be a major media player across the Balkans region – including in EU countries such as Slovenia and Croatia. This is part of an aggressive strategy by Vucic to spread his regime’s influence and promote Serbia’s geopolitical agenda using Telekom Srbija.

To make the policy work, attractive TV content is key. Just as Rupert Murdoch recognised in the 1990s, making football – especially the Premier League – available to subscribers is a sure way to get people to sign up. And particularly so in the football-mad western Balkans.

Taxpayers’ money

It is no coincidence that Telekom Srbija has been issuing bonds, which have been bought by the country’s national bank, to raise funds. The purchase rights to the Premier League and other major tournaments come at ridiculously high prices. Telekom Serbija has already paid more to show the Italian, French and leagues in the former Yugoslavia than was paid for the rights in Germany and Austria. This mismatch becomes even more glaring when considering the audience in the western Balkans is only 20 million compared to 90 million in Germany and Austria.

Why would Telekom Srbija, a state-owned company in a poor country, be willing to pay such an obviously exorbitant fee?

Why would Telekom Srbija, a state-owned company in a poor country, be willing to pay such an obviously exorbitant fee? How can it provide a return on this investment of taxpayers’ money?

The answer is that the value is political. Serbia’s leadership wants to lock Balkan audiences into its channels with anti-Western narratives that correspond with the country’s growing ties to the likes of China, Russia and Hungary. At the same time, it wants to destroy competition in the telecoms and media distribution market in Serbia and in the whole region, and make it impossible for independent media in Serbia to operate by bankrupting them. This will prevent the political opposition from having access to national television coverage and help further solidify the ruling party’s grip on power.

This raises obvious political, media, and economic concerns. The Serbian regime is using its state-owned Telekom to open the gates to the other countries to extend its political and geo-strategic influence in the western Balkans. It is also using Telekom Srbija to prevent critical voices from being distributed in its cable system, but also to ruin any competition in the cable and broadcasting sector, thus limiting the freedom of media and critical journalism in the country. In addition, it is also trying to become a leading economic player in the telecommunication sector within the region as a whole.

The EU

This raises a number of issues at the European economic level. Is such a state-owned and state-funded company a privileged player not only on the national market, but unfair competition for companies in countries such as Slovenia and Croatia? Are state aid and state funding being used to destroy private competition? Are all the market protection safeguards being adequately deployed?

The Premier League would no doubt welcome a buyer willing to draw on taxpayers’ money to pay a seemingly irrational sum for its media rights. But if it were to sell media rights to Telekom Srbija, it would risk making itself an accomplice to Vučič in exacerbating Serbia’s democratic deficiencies and cementing in place his increasingly authoritarian rule.

With the commercial upside there is also risk. The deal with Telekom Srbije might lead to repercussions for stakeholders on the EU level. The world’s most watched football league could become the modern equivalent of the 1990s turbo folk during Milošević’s regime: a colourful distraction from harsh political realities and human rights issues, just as the giant stages full of dancing singers in miniskirts helped to cover-up war time atrocities. The question is, does the Premier League want to participate in this game?

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