Solak for Guardian: My focus is to point out media freedom situation in Serbia

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Source: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Prior to purchasing Southampton F.C., Dragan Solak almost never gave interviews and avoided public appearances. After becoming the owner of the English Premier League club, he spoke for the British daily The Guardian about his fears when it comes to the state of media in Serbia and why he lost in the race for the rights to broadcast the Premier League.

“I really like being a private person, and hopefully I’ll go back to that soon,” Dragan Solak, owner of Southampton F.C. and co-owner of United Group, the leading telecommunications and media group in Southeast Europe, told The Guardian. He is especially thrilled that last weekend Southampton played a draw with Manchester City 1: 1 at St. Mary’s and thus broke a winning streak of 12 consecutive victories of the opposing club, saying it was “an absolutely supreme performance playing against probably the best team in the world.”

“It would be difficult for me to think of a better fit of a club,” Solak said, adding that “it’s a club that likes to develop players, it’s a club that’s engaged, it has a great fanbase, a very family oriented club and a nice location.” He noted that the colours of the club are also red and white, similar to the Crvena Zvezda club in Belgrade which he grew up supporting.

According to The Guardian, Solak’s fortune, estimated at 1.4 billion pounds, comes mainly from a 33 percent stake in United Group, a Dutch company he built from scratch, and within which media, including N1, operate across the Balkans.

In the interview, Solak was interested in talking about the political situation in his home country, where President Aleksandar Vucic “has continually tightened his grip on the media since he first became prime minister in 2014,” the Guardian writes.

“My focus is really to put the light on the media freedom situation in Serbia,” says said Solak, whose news channel N1 is now in Vucic’s crosshairs, the newspaper said. “I think Vucic is making a case of how a dictator can, by playing nice and polite, get really far in Europe,” he said, criticising those in the EU who support Vucic.

When news about the Southampton purchase deal became public, Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic attacked Solak on Twitter with claims that he was part of an “oligarchy” close to the previous government. Meanwhile, pro-government tabloids frequently “spew abuse about Solak, and claim he represents shady forces or foreign influence,” the Guardian writes.

The hidden, political motive behind Telecom's offer

Solak explained that he has no political agenda other than wanting fair elections in the country and that he has no links with any political parties.

“My top priorities are my family and golf, and then I would say business. Politics is nowhere in the top 100. I don’t care about politics. I became a political figure only because I wouldn’t allow them to change the way we operate our news channels,” Solak said, adding that the United Group has been subject to pressure in various ways.

He spoke about the issue of the Premier League rights.

Previously, United Group was paying €11 million yearly for them. But last year, when the contract came up for renewal, it offered €35 million a year for the next six years – which was dwarfed by Telekom Serbia’s offer, believed to be €100 million a year, the newspaper said.

“I can’t calculate how Telekom Serbia would make a profit with the prices they paid for the Premier League, for Uefa league,” Solak said, adding that he believes there is an ulterior political motive behind the move.

Telekom Serbia has denied any political motivations, but others are sceptical, the Guardian writes.

Solak said his decision to purchase Southampton was not connected to losing the Premier League rights and noted that he wanted to get involved in elite sport for a while.

“My family said they haven’t seen me so happy and excited about a business venture for a long time, so I guess it must be a good investment,” he said.

The market in Serbia accounts for only 10 percent of the Group's revenue, and it is clear that the situation in his homeland has infuriated Solak, who no longer travels there for security concerns, the British newspaper said, quoting Florian Bieber, a professor at the University of Graz, who stated that “few people have been as much attacked in the media as he has” and said that Solak is “pretty much public enemy number one.”

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