Online and citizen media on a turning point: if they wish, web platforms can be equalled with media
State gives up the intention to regulate free forms of expression on the Internet?
Government of Serbia confirmed the proposals for the set of media laws and sent it to the National Parliament for adoption through an urgent procedure, which is usual for proposals of the laws from the “European agenda”. Still, SHARE Defense shares the concern of journalist and media associations and other civil society organizations about the common practice to adopt laws through an urgent, shortened procedure, which leaves Members of the Parliament and experts little time to have a good insight into the legal proposals.
Draft Laws were put on public discussion in 2013 (Draft Law on Public Information and Media in March and the other two Draft Laws – on Electronic Media and Public Broadcasting Services during October). Since then, we have witnessed drastic endangerment of media freedoms and freedom of expression in general, and the Internet has been dealt the strongest blow since the beginning of the year (content removal in the “Feketić” affair, detaining social media users for expressing their opinion, disabling access to content during the emergency situation declared because of the floods, bringing down of “Peščanik” and “Kurir” websites, “quarrel” with the representatives of the international community because of media freedoms being endangered and so on). That is why sending media laws for adoption, and we hope without delay, is one of the rare positive things in the media sphere, which should be applauded.
SHARE Defense, aware of the risks of endangering Internet freedoms and digital rights, took active part in the public discussions on the Draft Law on Public Information and Media and Draft Law on Electronic Media. The goal of our intervention was to prevent online and citizen media, i.e. different free forms of expression on the Internet, from being regulated just like traditional electronic media, which would mean additional responsibility.
Firstly, in the Draft Law on Public Information and Media it was not explicitly stated that free channels of communication on the Internet, such as forums, blogs, social media, are not considered to be media in accordance with the law. The nature of these and other similar forms of communication is that they cannot automatically be included in the concept of traditional media, so the essence of SHARE Defense’s initiative was to change the regulatory approach, in such a way that online and citizen media were offered an option to register as media (if they wish to do so) and receive appropriate status along with all the rights and responsibilities. It is very commendable that the proposer of the law recognized this problem and entirely included the formulation given by SHARE Defense in the text of the Proposal of the law. It should be noted that this legal solution is unique when compared to others, especially because it is flexible and in line with modern tendencies regarding the regulation of speech on new media platforms. It can also be viewed as a victory for digital rights and freedoms and a landmark moment for online and citizen media.
Article 30, paragraph 2 of the newly adopted Law on Public Information and Media clearly states:
“Media, in accordance with this Law, are not: platforms, such as Internet forums, social networks and other platforms that enable free exchange of information, ideas and opinions of their members, and neither are any other independent electronic publications, such as blogs, web presentations and similar electronic presentations, except if they are registered with the Media Registry, in accordance with this Law.”
As for the Draft Law on Electronic Media, our proposals regarding the definition of “electronic edition” were not fully accepted. SHARE Defense still considers this definition to be controversial, but by interpreting the law we can conclude that alternative forms of communication on the Internet won’t be subjected to the regulator’s control. Also, according to the lawmaker’s interpretation, the definition of electronic edition would exclude “activities, i.e. contents that are being published by private Internet users, whose content in its nature does not represent media”.
We do not advocate for complete anarchy in the online environment – our goal is to point out that direct state intervention in this field would not make sense, nor it would have any effect, which is why regulation should be left to other mechanisms, based on the principles of self-regulation, which are more successful in preventing and sanctioning behaviour that is not in accordance with the generally accepted rules.
SHARE Defense will closely watch the final versions of the laws, and actively participate in the oversight of how the laws are implemented, continuously advocating for models of regulation that are motivating, non-repressive and flexible for the new space of freedom and specific forms of expression existing in it.