A new deal between Telekom Srbija and Telenor Serbia is being lambasted by critics as a threat to media plurality in a country already markedly low on media freedom
At the end of January, state-controlled Telekom Srbija announced that it has plans to lease fibre optic infrastructure to Telenor Serbia, in a deal Telekom’s CEO Vladimir Lucic claims will be worth over €250 million over the next 15 years.
The move will allow Telenor to enter the media and broadband spheres in Serbia, allowing them to “buy media content [from Telekom] but also choose to buy content from other producers and distributors, as well as make their own,” according to Telekom.
"Such cooperation would bring numerous benefits to users and enhance competition and innovation in the telecommunications industry, which is the basic intention of both companies," said Telekom said in a statement.
However, onlookers are less sure that the partnership is quite so harmonious. When Serbian news channel N1 broke the news on the 25th of January, it also published an alleged internal document from Telekom that outlines how the deal with Telenor will “completely collapse Serbia Broadband (SBB)”.
The news channel N1 is owned by United Group, which also owns SBB, the second largest fibre operator in the country. The channel is a mainstay for the Serbian opposition parties, which are often excluded from other media channels. Last year, around 300,000 Serbian households lost access to the channel and others from United Group when they were removed from platforms under Telekom’s control.
Critics fear that this latest deal between Telekom and Telenor could thus negatively affect media plurality and increase state influence across the media.
Telenor, however, has rejected these accusations, suggesting that SBB is instead trying to defend the duopoly
The deal now awaits regulator approval from the Commission for Protection of Competition.
In 2018, Telenor sold its eastern European mobile operations to Czech Republic-based financial investment group PPF Group. Speaking in Belgrade today during an official visit, the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, was asked to comment on the situation, responding that he was “not supposed to deal with the topic
“If I understood correctly, it’s a dispute between private companies, and as far as I know, the Commission For Protection Of Competitions should resolve it,” said Babiš.
Serbia currently ranks 93rd out of 180 countries in the 2020 Press Freedom Index report compiled by Reporters Without Borders
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