WED, 09 FEB 1994 20:32:08 GMT
The newspaper business in Serbia is in a difficult financial situation. The Federal Government is selling its shares in the BORBA, the POLITIKA has given itself up into the hands of the regime. A foul play seems to be going on because of the weekly NIN which is trying to preserve its independence taking the course of privatization in troubled waters.
AIM, Belgrade, Dec. 26
The Yugoslav Federal Government decided last week to sell its 17 per cent of the shares in the daily BORBA, at the Belgrade Exchange. And, although the price of the entire package of property at the Exchange could be quite modest, for the time being - and according to our knowledge - a potential purchaser has still not appeared. It is not hard to guess what the reason for this is: when at the end of February, the balance sheet for the past financial year will be completed, the shareholders of the BORBA will have to make up for the significant losses of the newspaper.
This newspaper, just like all the other dailies and weeklies in Serbia and Montenegro, is struggling for its survival. To be precise, it is a miracle that the press, in spite of everything, has not altogether ceased to come out. The circulations were quite modest even in better days, and today the potential readers earn less than ten German marks a month and can hardly afford the luxury of buying a newspaper. When the installations of the only manufacturer of printing paper in the country, the "Matroz" factory in Sremska Mitrovica, are mostly at a standstill due to the lack of raw material and fuel, and all the other supplies necessary for printing (dye, films, and other) cannot legally be imported due to the international sanctions, making and selling of a newspaper in Yugoslavia is truly a business adventure.
Truly, the BORBA, the weekly VREME and several other minor papers in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Prishtina and Podgorica, which have earned the reputation of being independent, received some aid from certain international foundations, primarily in paper, but that is by far insufficient to enable their undisturbed coming out.
On the other hand, in the neighbourhood of the BORBA, in the company of the POLITIKA, once the largest newspaper in the Balkans, which publishes three dailies and about ten weeklies and reviews, and has its own commercial radio and television programs, a seemingly similar, but essentially somewhat different drama is taking place.
When a year and a half ago, the Socialist Government in Serbia tried to nationalize the company POLITIKA, the journalists and the typographical workers went on strike, and for the first time in its ninety-year-long history (not counting the period during the occupation in the course of the First and the Second World War), the daily POLITIKA did not appear at the stands. The Government was forced to withdraw its proposal, and the management of the company announced acceleration of the already initiated process of privatization, believing that it was the best way for the preservation of the independence and the reputation of some of the renowned edition of this publisher.
But to this day, privatization in the company POLITIKA has taken a strange course. First, the shares of the TV POLITIKA were sold to several public, or better to say, state enterprises directly controlled by the Government. Then, it was made public that the weekly INTERVJU was purchased by BRACA KARIC company, which also showed interest for purchasing the oldest and the most renowned political weekly, the NIN.
What type of a firm this is, is best illustrated by a statement of the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, who revealed that BRACA KARIC company supported his party in 1992 elections with 500,000 German marks. "When we referred to them for help this year, they told us: no, you are against Slobodan Milosevic now and because of that you will get nothing from us", Seselj said before the latest elections.
When privatization of the NIN was attempted in the similar way, complications began. The journalists and other employees, which during the long decades of the communist regime carefully guarded its liberal and independent position and which consistently still strive to preserve its independence in respect to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, accepted (by voting at a referendum) privatization of the journal, but refused to sell it, at least, as a whole, to the BRACA KARIC company. The management of the POLITIKA reacted immediately with harsh counter-measures. The editorial staff was ordered to free the premises of the POLITIKA company, and the newly established NIN joint stock company, which started its privatization independently and began negotiations with potential private investors, was denied property rights by the POLITIKA company even to the part of the property which the NIN (founded in 1935 and renewed in 1951) had contributed to the POLITIKA when it merged with it in 1959. The representatives of the NIN were told: if you want more, you will have to sue us!
In spite of very precise contractual liabilities, the POLITIKA company is persistently avoiding to transfer to the new joint stock firm even the minimum funds and equipment necessary for its survival in the next few months, it had finally agreed to do after long and tedious negotiations. And the sales network of the POLITIKA and other supporting services which, according to the signed contract in the transitional period, during the past three months, were obliged to offer certain services to the NIN, started an actual war, with the aim to completely destroy this journal: the price of the journal which always amounted to twice-thrice the price of the daily POLITIKA, was raised sky high, amounting to forty-fifty times the price of the daily newspaper, and it is simply not delivered to many news-stands in order to cause a drop in its circulation. When finally the NIN began working on its own, from January 1, 1994, it became highly questionable whether it would be able to win back its lost readers.
During all that time, the daily POLITIKA tried not only to survive, but to increase its own circulation thanks to its low (dumping) price which cannot cover even the minimum costs of its production and which is even twelve times lower than the price of its major competition - the BORBA. The key of the operation lies in special donations of printing paper from state reserves, given to the POLITIKA by the Serbian Government, and in other "financial injections" this newspaper received from the regime in Belgrade.
In other words, while majority of the newspapers in Yugoslavia - despite the international sanctions - still seek rescue in privatization, choosing to swim in the uncertain waters of the destroyed domestic market, the POLITIKA chose a different road: it sold itself to the regime, and it let its once prestigious editions drift down the stream in this or that way... Unfortunately, it seems that both have uncertainty in line for them, because in the present conditions, chances for survival of the press in Belgrade, despite its long and celebrated tradition, are not especially good.