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IRIS 2010-2:1/31

Serbia

New Legal Framework for Cable Distribution of TV Discussed

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Miloš Živković

Belgrade University School of Law - Živković Samardžić Law offices

In November 2009 the Serbian Broadcasting Agency (SBA) announced plans to pass a "general mandatory instruction" (type of regulation or by-law under the 2002 Broadcasting Act) to regulate cable distribution of TV programmes in Serbia. The issue gave rise to public debate as it involves the fragile regional relations in the Western Balkans (or former Yugoslavia) and is also very complex from the legal point of view.

Cable distribution of TV has significantly advanced in Serbia in the last five years; most of urban Serbia receives TV programmes through cable distribution. Cable distribution companies offer domestic and foreign programmes, including ones from Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, in all of which the language is practically the same as in Serbia. Given the fact that some of those regional programmes broadcast events for which exclusive broadcasting rights for the territory of Serbia have been purchased by Serbian broadcasters (e.g., F1 racing or Football Champions League), a few years back the practice was established for the cable companies to "blacken" the screen of the foreign broadcasters during such events, upon request of a local rightsholder.

Lately there have been complaints from Serbian broadcasters who purchased rights to copyrighted content other than live events (e.g., TV series, movies), that foreign broadcasters through cable distribution severely reduced their ratings, although they had not purchased the rights for such programmes to be broadcast in the territory of Serbia. This problem is especially emphasised in relation to regional broadcasters, given the fact that a language barrier does not exist, and that most Serbian broadcasters are prevented from entering cable distribution in the other countries of the region.

The SBA therefore announced its intention to pass a regulation by which the rights of cable distribution companies to include foreign TV programmes will be limited or even excluded, by a system of licensing all foreign programmes that may be found in the cable distribution in Serbia. This was publicly interpreted as an intention to remove all programmes coming from the region from cable distribution in Serbia and caused strong reactions from regional ethnic minorities and freedom of expression organisations. SBA explained that the eventual ban of certain programmes shall, by no means, pertain to own programming of regional broadcasters available in cable distribution in Serbia, but rather to the segments of such broadcasters’ programmes that are not purchased for the territory of Serbia. Such explanation was questioned following the behaviour of cable distribution companies during the four days of mourning proclaimed after the death of the Patriarch of Serbian Orthodox Church in November, when all regional programmes were removed from cable distribution, which was allegedly based upon SBA instructions.

The discussion is still going on among the SBA and interested parties and has slowed down the passing of the planned SBA regulation. Some of the associations involved in the discussion have proposed that the issue should be dealt with by independent regulators in all countries involved, so that balanced and non-discriminatory rules providing the same conditions for cable distribution in all countries of the region could be adopted at regional level.