Expression

N1 journalists have faced a wave of aggression from Serbia's President and other senior ruling party officials. In particular, the media smear campaign against TV N1 program director Jugoslav Cosic accused him of receiving illicit funding to work against Serbia's interests. Given the failure of Serbian authorities to condemn the smear campaign, Cosic's lawyer announced he would seek a security risk assessment to ensure his physical safety. Attacks on Cosic began after his interview with Kosovo's new Prime Minister candidate, Albin Kurti. The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia urged for a thorough and impartial investigation into the situation as well as drawing attention to the implications of this case on freedom of expression. The organisation highlighted that this is not just a case of public vilification, but rather a systematic attack on independent media in Serbia.

“We condemn the attack on N1 director Jugoslav Cosic, as well as the leaflets with a message to N1 to leave Serbia, which were thrown by masked individuals while the TV was broadcasting the interview with a candidate for Kosovo’s next Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Besides, the threats included those via social networks. Cosic received threats in that way as well. Also, in mid-October, we recorded that unknown perpetrators approached N1 reporter, threatened him and told home to go back to Luxembourg."

On another occasion, Minister of Education Mladen Sarcevic verbally assaulted a N1 journalist after she asked him who was responsible for the  poor results of Serbian students in a recent exams. Instead of answering, the minister replied to the journalist that she "did not listen in class" and "that she would certainly do very poorly in the PISA test", after which he left the press conference. 

After President Aleksandar Vucic labeled TV N1 journalist Miodrag Sovilj a provocateur and an “opponent of Serbia's progress”, Sovilj became the target of an all-out smear campaign by pro-government tabloids and senior Serbian Progressive Party officials. The campaign started after a press conference where Sovilj questioned Vucic about a document implicating Serbia's Minister of Interior, Nebojsa Stefanovic's father in an arms scandal. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the scandal implicated Stefanovic's father in the sale of weapons from Krusik, Serbia’s state arms manufacturer, to a private Saudi Arabian company. Investigations later showed that the Serbian arms had subsequently been sold to ISIS in Yemen. During the press conference, Sovilj pressed the Serbian President for answers regarding the revelations about his Minister of the Interior. 

Just a few hours after the conference, President Vucic was admitted to the Military Medical Academy due to health problems. According to official sources, Vucic was suffering from cardiovascular problems following his questioning by the N1 journalist. After his hospitalisation, an intensive campaign was launched blaming Sovilj for the President's poor health. 

Another N1 journalist was also harassed by the President in a similar occasion, after asking about the same affair and the involvement of Stefanovic’s father. This is yet another example of how the president and other ruling party senior officials are avoiding journalists’ questions, and choosing instead to verbally harass journalists instead.

The Krusik also forced the weekly newspaper NIN, for the first time ever to release an edition without a cover photo. In December 2019, the paper's editorial board took the decision to leave the front cover blank after a social media backlash against the paper's initial decision to place a photo of Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic at an arms fair. The photograph showed Vucic surrounded by guns. 

Within hours of the announcement of the new issue, an intense campaign was launched against the newspaper. The fact that the photograph contained a shotgun was enough to accuse NIN of calling for the assassination of the president. The editor-in-chief of NIN weekly, Milan Culibrk, refuted the allegations and explained that the controversial photo had been repeatedly published by other news outlets. In fact, he underscored that the pressure against the news outlet was designed to intimidate journalists from writing objectively about the scandal. 

As covered in the December update to the CIVICUS Monitor, the Krusik affair was discovered by Aleksandar Obradovic, a whistleblower from the arms factory. He was arrested in September 2019, held under house arrest, moved to prison, and after public outcry placed again under house arrest. Although he was released three months after the arrest, he is still accused of publicising business secrets and has been a target of almost all the top state officials in recent months, who claim that the entire Krusik factory affair was a strike by foreign intelligence services on Serbia's military industry. Despite the pleas of a conspiracy, the Council of Europe included the incidents related to the Krusik case in the official record of threats to media freedom and designated the State of Serbia as the perpetrator of intimidation against the media and whistleblowers.

In a separate incident on 16th January 2020, The Ministry of Culture and Information pursued misdemeanor proceedings against the weekly "Vreme" with a front cover featuring a story about the abduction of a young girl from Nis. The Ministry launched proceedings against several pro-government tabloids for violating the law on public information, but claimed that “Vreme” had violated the rights and interests of the minor for publishing photographs. Such a case is uncommon and represents a dangerous and unfair application of journalistic standards. In a press release, Vreme said the goal of the charges was to “exert pressure on independent media and control the damage done by regime tabloids.” They said: 

“We can’t believe that the Ministry of Culture and Information has filed misdemeanour charges against our weekly for pictures included with the story Evil From the Newsstands in issue 1515 which explicitly condemns the media regime vulture tabloids...It is completely incomprehensible how we could have violated the rights or interests of minors after tabloids freely violate them every day on all newsstands in Serbia”. 

The selective targeting of outlets has caused serious concern among freedom of expression advocates in Serbia. 

On 11th January 2020, unknown individuals broken into and trashed the office of Kolubarske.rs portal. While nothing was stolen, drawers and documents related to the outlet's journalistic investigations had been searched. Portal editor Darija Rankovic said she believed that the attack was supported by local officials and that the purpose of the break-in was to intimidate journalists. The allegations are supported by the fact that Kolubarske.rs has conducted numerous investigations into corruption, misuse of budget funds and suspicious public procurement by the government. The attack was condemned by NUNS and UNS, and the perpetrators are yet to be found. 

Critical journalists have also faced travel bans. On 17th December 2019, Stevan Dojcinovic the editor of the Crime and Corruption Research Network (KRIK), was deported from the United Arab Emirates where he was scheduled to participate in a UN conference on corruption. Dojcinovic was detained at the airport for being on a "black list" at the request of "another country”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, however, rejected the possibility that Dojcinovic was on that list at their request. This is not the first time that Dojcinovic has been prevented from participating in international conferences; in 2015, he was mysteriously barred from entering Russia following several of his investigations into corruption.

Finally, a woman named Aleksandra Jankovic Aranitovic has been held in detention for five months after swearing at the Serbian President on her Twitter account. According to her lawyer, the detention was an inappropriate measure and has been “used by the regime as an example to try to control social networks”. What is especially troubling is that at no point was Jankovic Aranitovic's history of mental issues taken into account with her sentencing.

Peaceful Assembly

The "1 in 5 million" movement demanded that the police find and prosecutes those responsible for assaulting a student and a member of the movement, Srdjan Markovic, or they would stop reporting their protests - taking place every Saturday in Belgrade for over a year - to the police. Markovic was attacked by a man filming other participants in the protest, but the police failed to provide information on his identity, or whether a criminal complaint was filed against the person.

Radomir Lazovic, an activist from the "Don't let Belgrade d(r)own" initiative was sentenced to arrest by a court for painting "a crime scene" graffiti on the fence of the Belgrade waterfront construction site. Lazovic and other activists of the initiative repeatedly organised protests seeking answers to who is responsible for the demolitions in the Savamala area of Belgrade. Given the number and frequency of proceedings against members of this initiative, it is considered that there is a systematic attack on the initiative and a conscious restriction on the freedom of assembly of citizens in order to silence those who question the government.

Association

The president of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, who has been convicted as a war criminal, criticised the appropriations intended to co-finance projects and assist civil society organisations within the draft Law on Budget. His son, SRS PM Alexander Seselj, went a step further and emphasised that organisations such as the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, the Humanitarian Law Centre, the Human Rights House, Open Society Fund and Civic Initiatives, are "anti-Serbian" and promoters of "Kosovo independence", in particular by organising the Mirdita festival. The long-espoused narrative that Serbian CSOs are "foreign mercenaries and traitors working against Serbia's interests" is further stimulated by giving space to individuals and organisations to use their platform to smear critical civil society organisations with baseless claims.

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Belgrade Bar Association's attempts to de-register lawyers involved in pro-bono civil society work has prompted an outcry. Fourteen CSOs filed a complaint against the announcement that the lawyers working in civil society organisations who applied for free legal aid would be subject to an assessment by the competent bodies of the Bar Association. Most worryingly, this has been viewed as a way to intimidate lawyers working to promote human rights in civil society. The complaint states that the process of de-registering lawyers who are statutory representatives of NGOs has begun, which limits their right to work in the public interest. The case is ongoing.