Violence, misogyny and vulgar insults are common on reality TV — and it harms viewers, say experts. One man in Serbia is campaigning to change the law and prevent an adverse societal impact.
In the average Serbian household, the television blares all day long — almost without interruption. Children are usually allowed to stay glued to the screen for hours.
Reality TV shows, shown by commercial broadcasters around the clock, are particularly popular. A typical show can feature a range of participants, from mentally unstable personalities to notorious criminals. Crude behavior, insults, violence and sex are commonplace.
Read more: Serbia: The land of guns
According to psychologist Aleksandra Djuric, "the indignities the show's participants have to endure provide some sort of consolation for the miserable living conditions and troubles of their audiences." Djuric, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Serbian reality TV, told DW that both children and adults suffer the consequences of unrestricted exposure. Negative impacts include "increasing inactivity, the dulling of critical thinking, a loss of integrity and reduced emotional and intellectual development."
This deluge of uncensored reality TV is becoming an increasing problem in Serbia. Although a broad legal framework exists to regulate the shows, there is enough room for interpretation that allows regulatory institutions to look the other way.
TV violence 'outside our jurisdiction': authorities
Savo Manojlovic, a 33-year lawyer and activist, thinks this laissez faire attitude is unacceptable and has decided to do something about it. In 2015 he founded the Association for the Protection of Constitutionality and Legality (UZUZ) with the intention of reforming the laws that govern electronic media, in an effort to remove the loopholes that allow these uncensored shows to exist.
To highlight the seriousness of the issue, Manojlovic told DW about a clip from a Serbian reality show that featured a man threatening a woman with a gun. When the show was broadcast live into living rooms across the country, the threat appeared very real.
Such scenes, he stressed, set a dangerous example for impressionable viewers. "In the end, when a boy harasses a girl at school, it's because he has seen these behavior patterns on TV shows," he said.
UZUZ has written about the issue to various Serbian institutions, sending along a YouTube link to the scene with the gun as proof. The public prosecutor's office hasn't responded, and the independent state commission, charged with monitoring the legal compliance of television stations, merely replied: "The monitoring of online channels such as YouTube is outside of our jurisdiction."
Manojlovic called the response ludicrous, likening it to sending the public prosecutor a video of a crime being committed only for the prosecutor to reply that he doesn't write film reviews.
Accusations of censorship
Manojlovic points out that according to Serbian law, the glorification of violence on television is a punishable offense, as is "misleading viewers." UZUZ is now campaigning for reform, and has collected signatures to petition the parliament to change existing laws.
One prominent voice against the lawyer's initiative is Zeljko Mitrovic, owner of the Pink Media Group. "Everyone would like to have television programs created according to their own taste and exert censorship accordingly," he said. A year ago, the media mogul used his close political ties to support his industry: When Serbia's Culture Minister Vladan Vukosavljevic voiced criticism on the proliferation of reality shows in the country, his concern was swiftly dismissed by none other than President Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic.
In a written response, Manojlovic rejected the media mogul's accusation of censorship. He noted that Mitrovic's Pink Media Group channel broadcasts more than seven hours of reality content every day — which makes up almost 40% of its entire programming.
He also pointed out that Pink doesn't devote a single moment of airtime to cultural or educational content, or programs suitable for children. There are laws that stipulate quotas for such shows, and by ignoring these, Manojlovic argued that Pink was breaking the law.
Pink Media Group did not respond to Manojlovic accusations.
'First they ignore you...'
"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win," said Manojlovic, citing a favorite quotation of his often attributed to India's pacifist leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Initially, even among his peers, Manojlovic's actions have been met with skepticism. Many argued that in Serbia such measures could not succeed without the corresponding support of political parties, he said.
But some UZUZ members, along with students and NGOs, have been inspired to take up his fight. "Our biggest success was that with zero budget we were still able to show that the will of the common citizen is still sovereign. People are power," said Manojlovic.
A civic initiative can become legislation in Serbia if 30,000 signatures are collected within seven days. By comparison, the number of signatures needed for a political party to run in an election is just 10,000 — which can be collected over a much longer period of time. But drawing on a group of dedicated volunteers, along with borrowed stands and handmade posters, UZUZ has now managed to collect more than 42,000 signatures for a petition to change the media laws.
Manojlovic knows that the draft bill could end up gathering dust, lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. But he doesn't intend to end his campaign now, and plans to keep up the pressure on public institutions, buoyed by the success of the volunteers.
"All of a sudden people realized they are not alone, and that many in the country hold similar views," he said. "Once this happens, the victory of this common aim only becomes a matter of time."
Manojlovic has a message for those in power who oppose his plan. "Parliament will only block the proposed amendment if top lawmakers intend to pass something unlawful. We are not part of the problem — we are part of the solution," he said.