As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the work of independent media in Serbia can face discrimination and threats from the government. A recent example is the "Kragujevacke" newspaper, the only printed media in Kragujevac, whose editor-in-chief recently spoke out about the two-fold discrimination that the outlet faces. Firstly, high officials avoid giving publication's reporters statements, which hampers their ability to report on critical issues and secondly, they are unable to access funding from the city budget, which threatens their financial sustainability.
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, independent media in Serbia can face discrimination and threats from the government. A recent example is the "Kragujevacke" newspaper, the only printed media in Kragujevac, whose editor-in-chief recently spoke out about the two-fold discrimination the outlet faces. Firstly, high-ranking officials avoid providing statements to the publication's reporters, which hampers their ability to report on critical issues and, secondly, they are unable to access funding from the city budget, which threatens their financial sustainability. The issues outlined in Kragujevac have been compounded by allegations of unlawful surveillance across Serbia. In particular, suspicions have been raised about reports of wiretapping which has further intimidated independent media and investigative journalists.
Another media outlet that has been regularly targeted is N1 TV. The channel is recognised in Serbia and beyond for its objective and professional reporting, yet it has faced repeated smears by government officials. Due to a conflict between the TV’s rights holder and cable operators controlled by state-owned Telekom, citizens could not access N1 for the first few months of 2020. During this period the broadcaster lost its reach of around a million potential viewers. Restrictions on the plurality of media in Serbia in the run-up to planned elections in 2020, which were postponed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, are an alarming turn of events. In a statement, a spokesperson for N1 said:
“N1 insists it be treated on equal terms with less popular channels which have Government friendly editorial lines and owners close to the Serbian administration in terms of pricing...free carriage of N1 on all Telekom’s networks can without a doubt give more credibility to the coming elections but without contractual guarantees it can be switched off at any point thereafter."
In response to the growing outrage, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic waded into the unfolding situation. Brnabic reacted by smearing N1, labelling the broadcaster as a political party, and accusing them of spreading fake news and arguing that N1 was banned due to censorship and violation of media freedom. The Secretary of State, Aleksandar Gajovic, also commented, stating that he was not exactly sure if N1 is operating within the law. The interference of senior government officials is emblematic of the continuous pressure and concerted campaign against N1 TV in the past twelve months. Dissatisfied citizens who pay for Telekom’s services protested the decision to cancel the broadcasting of N1 TV and emphasised that such a move suppresses media pluralism, calling on EU institutions to intervene.
In another recent incident regarding N1, on 28th January 2020 the channel’s website was subject to several online attacks. One incident was a DDoS attack, meaning that several thousand computers coordinated to jam N1's web server, network or another part of the infrastructure and that makes a website unavailable to users. Cyber security experts have highlighted that these incidents do not happen by chance and usually form part of an organised attack on a website.
The harassment for N1 has not ended there. On 7th March 2020, the Serbian Council of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) placed N1 and Nova S televisions under scrutiny for their coverage of Serbia's elections. While the council highlighted that it monitors all channels during the election campaign, some media watchdogs have highlighted that the intervention of REM is a new form of pressure and intimidation of independently critical media. In a statement, N1 said:
"[we] welcome the monitoring but at the end of the monitoring process we could also see the results of all other TV stations."
According to the Curuvija Foundation, which promotes independent media and investigative journalism, the REM has been shown to take the side of the ruling party which has ultimately damaged the operation of independent media in Serbia. Similarly, these restrictions on certain media outlets also jeopardise the public’s right to be informed objectively.
In the past two months, there have been many examples of attacks on journalists. Namely, members of the Independent Journalists' Association of Vojvodina, were named as being a "separatist organisation" and labelled as “enemies of the state”. Vesna Malisic, editor-in-chief and journalist of the weekly NIN, was accused of "anti-Serb activity and NATO lobbying" in a tabloid campaign backed by numerous social media accounts, after expressing her views on the political crisis in Montenegro following the adoption of a law on religious freedom. N1 journalist Slavisa Lekic was called a propagandist and "associate of the Albanian mafia", together with the interviewees who appeared in the documentary series "The Ruler", authored by Lekic, dealing with the political life of President Vucic. The last incident was followed by damaging a car displaying the logo of the TV station that aired the documentary, and again no serious steps were taken to resolve the case.
Responding to a report by Civic Initiatives showcasing the shrinking of civic space in Serbia, The Office for Cooperation with Civil Society has further expressed concerns about the threats CSOs face. The Office called on authorities to secure the safety of CSO representatives and of all citizens in Serbia. The Office also noted the need for additional policies to create an enabling environment for the operations of CSOs and stressed the need to take additional measures to improve the cooperation between state institutions and civil society, while ensuring their participation in decision-making processes.
Yet, there are worrying signs that authorities in Serbia are taking steps to obstruct citizens’ rights to participation. In particular, after a petition to ban the construction of mini hydropower plants in the area of Prokuplje was submitted, local police began questioning citizens who allegedly signed the petition after suspicions were raised by the City Assembly of Prokuplje regarding the authenticity of signatories. The public prosecutor's office stated that the evaluation of signatures is only possible with a graphology expert, as some people whose names were on the petition came forward and stated that they had not signed such a petition. On the other hand, activists state that this is a measure to intimidate the citizens who, through democratic means, want to protect their right to a healthy environment. Citizens living in this area have been protesting the construction of mini hydroelectric power plants for years and they have previously faced various forms of pressure and, in some situations, physical attacks.
Independent associations have also reported the opaque distribution of state funding to CSOs, due to the co-optation of funding bodies by individuals affiliated to the ruling party. In an example, independent media associations, especially those at the local level, have reported that committees deciding on the allocation of state funding are comprised of organisations that frequently defend Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. According to the Association of Journalists of Serbia, in 38 of 67 funding committees, the largest number of members belong to pro-government associations. As a consequence, independent media associations may choose to self-censor in order to ensure that their financial sustainability is preserved.
Protest Ne davimo Beograd organizovan kao spontana reakcija zbog pogibije 2 radnika - NOVČANA KAZNA!— Ne davimo Beograd (@nedavimobgd) February 11, 2020
Organizovani protest SNS-a u Nišu i Leskovcu protiv slobodnih medija - POLICIJA PROCENILA DA JE SPONTANO OKUPLJANJE!#SLUGErežima #ACAB 1312https://t.co/fvC0KdUbw4
There have been several incidents related to peaceful assembly in Serbia over the past few months. These include the persecution of activists, attacks on protesters and the failure of authorities to facilitate assemblies. Below are some examples: