Technicality helps viewers save money

BUDAPEST — Radio Television Serbia (RTS) is abandoning a scheme to charge the country’s 1.4 million TV households a monthly 210 dinars ($3) license fee to fund the broadcast network, after weeks of controversy.

RTS director general Aeksandar Crkvenjakov said on Jan. 20 that RTS was axing the tax, due to be implemented Feb. 1, because of a technicality. RTS does not formally exist until Serbia’s newly passed Broadcasting Act comes into force and a broadcast council is appointed.

Serb lawmakers are scheduled to elect a council in the coming weeks, but the political impasse over passage of a new Yugoslav constitution may delay both the selection of a broadcast council and final implementation of the broadcast law.

But the real reason for the U-turn could be the row that erupted late last year when Serbs received the bill in their mailboxes from RTS.

Although $3 is a modest sum even by local standards, Serbs threatened to go to the streets to oppose the tax. The Development Democracy Fund asked Yugoslavia’s Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of having citizens pay for services that would make a profit for the state company, such as music “production.”

RTS’ controversial past appears to be the reason that Serbs do not want to pay for their state TV. RTS was the main media arm of the former regime of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and, according to critics, spent most of the 1990s disseminating false information on Yugoslavia’s four civil wars.

Three years after Milosevic’s ouster, groups like the Development Democracy Fund say it is unacceptable that the old dictatorship’s propaganda machine is now demanding payment from viewers it once deceived.

Crkvenjakov says the money would have been put to good use to “finance unprofitable programs, e.g. educational and scientific programs,” adding that it needs the cash to survive.

Budget cuts and competition from commercial nets has caused the public broadcaster to flounder since 2000. RTS’ low ratings make it difficult to attract advertisers; the new Broadcasting Act limits advertising on the company’s two TV stations and three radio nets to 10% of total daily programming, or six minutes of ads each hour.

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