As we've previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, concerns have been rising over a perceived increase in state affiliated civil society. Most worryingly, these groups have been shown to play a role in smearing and harassing independent civil society groups that are critical of the government.
Zasto 18 dana nakon mog gostovanja na @N1infoBG ova organizacija izdaje "demanti" povodom komentara o odgovornosti ministra Vulina za najavu drzavnog udara i strajka gladju i producira 4 minutni video protiv @bezbednost_org i drugih OCD i medija? Sta im najvise smeta kod nas? https://t.co/kfg0Em8Qq1— SonjaStojanovicGajic (@StojanovicSonja) May 1, 2019
As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, concerns have been rising over a perceived increase in state affiliated civil society. Most worryingly, these groups have been shown to play a role in smearing and harassing independent civil society groups that are critical of the government.
Most recently, Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, Director of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP) was involved in a smear campaign by a state affiliated group. The incident started after Gajic appeared on a television show where she drew attention to Serbia's Defence Minister's proposed hunger strike over violence by political opposition. During the interview, Gajic labelled the Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin's attempts to smear political opposition as an attempt to "divert the attention of citizens from the current issues and issues being discussed".
In response, a state affiliated group called National Avant-garde later published a video criticising the work of the BCSP and attacking Gajic personally. The BCSP has recently been targeted as a result of their work and especially their reports which have labelled Serbia as a captured state. A captured state implies a state of widespread corruption, which enables public resources to be used for private purposes, while control mechanisms are neutralised, either by legal or illegal means. In light of the European Commission's (EC) recent independent expert report about the rule of law in Macedonia, the BCSP stated that if the EC sent experts to Serbia to produce a similar report, it would highlight issues faced by citizens. After making these claims, state affiliated CSOs and pro-government media ramped up their campaign against BCSP. The video released by National Avant-garde can be viewed below.
On the other hand, other civil society groups close to the security sector have worked to promote nationalistic and right-wing sentiments. The Center for Security, Investigation and Defense (DBA) recently suggested that the establishment of civic patrols would help fight against juvenile delinquency and narcotics dealers who use children for drug trafficking. Others have drawn attention to the role of this association as attempting to strengthen a narrative of national security, under the veil of patriotism.
Nakon pokušaja ubacivanja Pomoćne policije, ko to sada plasira uvođenje Građanskih patrola?!— Marinika Tepić (@MarinikaTepic) May 6, 2019
Ali kriju ko stoji iza DBA.
Stevan Đokić, sumnjive biografije!
U družbi Srpske desnice.
Izdaje plaćene značke i legitimacije.
Da čuva mlade! pic.twitter.com/gmVqiNFGJF
In early May 2019, another pro-government group recently started an online petition calling for the introduction of a new law on NGOs in Serbia. Modelled on Russia's notoriously burdensome "Foreign Agents Law" the petition called for further controls on human rights groups who access foreign funds to complete their work. CIVICUS Monitor partner, Civic Initiatives publicly asked the online platform Change.org to remove the petition because it violates international law, domestic laws.
Dear @Change, in line with your policies, please remove the petition for the ban on work of human rights defenders in Serbia, all together with misogynist comments and hate speech toward these brave women. @CIVICUSalliance @freedomhouse @amnesty @hrw @coe @FrontLineHRD pic.twitter.com/al0zgPkZMY— građanskeinicijative (@gradjanske) May 6, 2019
As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the issue of media freedom has been a recurrent issue in Serbia recently. In this context, The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia and the Independent Journalists Association of Vojvodina announced during Media Freedom Day that the authorities in Serbia are crushing critical reporting. In particular the CSOs noted that Serbian media's editorial independence is increasingly undermined by financial pressures. According to their allegations, the Serbian government is primarily responsible for this trend through their channeling of public money, intimidation, defamation and aggressive rhetoric towards journalists and the media. In response, State Secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Information Aleksandar Gajovic stated:
"If you say that the media is not free, it means that the media is captured. Who captured the media? Who keeps them captive? Privatisation of the media in Serbia was completed on December 31, 2016. All media are completely free."
In a separate but related incident, on 15th April 2019, the owner and director of Novi Sad's TV Kanal 9 went on a hunger strike. Maja Pavlovic began her strike to draw attention to the numerous pressures that local television stations face in Serbia. Her protest drew attention to the decisions and financial pressures which independent media disproportionately face in comparison to their state-affiliated counterparts. In particular, Pavlovic's strike started in protest against state licensing fees which she claimed are killing regional news. In a statement, Pavlovic said:
"In Serbia, 125 electronic media have been closed in silence, I cannot allow this to happen to K9 after twenty years."
Pavlovic's hunger strike ended after 23 days on 7th May 2019. On the 22nd day of her strike, Serbia's prime minister scheduled a meeting after Pavlovic's health was seriously endangered. After the verbal promise that the government will do everything in its power to help Pavlovic and Kanel 9, she halted her hunger strike.
Serbian journalist Maja Pavlovic of @TVKANAL9 has been on a hunger strike for over 2 weeks. @RSF_inter is calling Serbian Government and PM @anabrnabic to answer her appeal and initiate conversation. Journalists should not endanger their lives to be able to talk with authorities.— RSF_Europe (@RSF_Europe) May 1, 2019
A number of protests have taken place recently in Serbia. Below are some examples: