It could be a dismal enterprise to list all those things that have not changed. But among them is the tender attention ruling parties in Serbia always pay to the largest state-controlled newspaper, Politika, and to the largest state-controlled broadcast outlet, Radio Televizija Srbije (RTS). Both of these have taken beatings from competition, and consequently have weaker positions than they have had in the past. But Politika remains a semiofficial paper and RTS remains the only broadcaster which has access to resources for large-scale production (even if they use these resources poorly) and which is available everywhere. When Vojislav Koštunica became prime minister, he installed his journalistic admirer Ljiljana Smajlović as editor of Politika and his media advisor (media advisor to lots of folks, actually, and for a brief period minister of information for Slobodan Milošević) Aleksandar Tijanić as head of RTS.
Both Smajlović and Tijanić have some good things to show for their service. Smajlović engaged the much-admired designer Mirko Ilić to reconceive the look of Politika, and it is now more legible and more stylish than it was, with especially enjoyable graphics on Sundays. Under Tijanić RTS television looks a lot less haphazard and hackneyed, more like a professional TV outlet and less like the way a tech school dropout put onto video the hallucinations of a hatful of people to whom nobody can say "that's a bad idea."
And there are things that they failed to do. Smajlović cut short the path that Politika had begun back to respectable journalism. Times have changed, but you are as likely to find tendentious headlines and selective reporting in that paper as you were in the 1990s. She also handed out patronage in the form of columnist contracts to Koštunica's political supporters. Miroslav Lazanski? There. Slobodan Antonić? Him too. Đorđe Vukadinović? What a surprise. For good measure, the management board was packed with political supporters as well. Emir Kusturica was installed as its chair. Tijanić used RTS as a vehicle for personal promotion and the political promotion of his rotating cast of friends and business associates. So as much as the heads of these institutions polished their surfaces, the stuff underneath looked very much the way it did in the old days.
Now with a new government, new board members are heading to those media outlets. Tijanić and Smajlović are predicting, probably correctly, that they will be removed from their positions. But at the same time they are defending their positions using the rhetoric of "journalistic independence." Now the independence of media is a value that lots of folks for good reason would defend. In this case the rhetoric is in the wrong hands. The people using it did not come to assume their positions as independent journalists or because of their journalistic independence, but for precisely the opposite reason. In the second place, an important point is being missed: no media outlet is independent of its own managing board, which means that the problem is structural. Form the managing body of a media outlet with people appointed by political parties, the result will always be politically controlled media. Allow politicians to name the editors of media institutions, they will be anything but independent.
There might or might not be reason to imagine that the Cvetković-Daček government will appoint a higher class of lapdogs than its predecessors. What would really be interesting would be to see editorial independence practised as a general operating principle.