Surveillance, Intimidation and Harassment of Critical Journalists Continues in Serbia
The onslaught against independent journalists and outspoken critics of the government continues in Serbia, with pro-government newspapers calling for the arrest of alleged foreign mercenaries, who are supposedly working to destabilise the country. On 4th August, a group of journalists and civil society organisations lodged a criminal complaint against 4 pro-government media houses for labelling them traitors and for persecuting them in the public domain without any evidence. In a statement, the group said it was taking this action to defend freedom of expression and to ask the Serbian authorities to clarify on what basis it is correct to label someone a traitor or conspirator.
Despite the court action, Serbian journalists continue to be threatened. In June, a journalist from the VOICE media house was followed on her way to work and claims she is being targeted by the authorities due to the investigative nature of her work. A satirical TV news host announced that he was threatened after the release of 2-year-old footage, which was edited to making it appear as though he was ridiculing Serbia. In June, a local politician treatened a camera operator and tried to prevent TV Novi Pazar from filming during a session of a local parliament in Prijepolje. The state is also using the legal system: to target five critical freelance journalists working for the public broadcaster RTV. The five had signed a protest note against RTV's Board and were then made redundant, while the contracts of other 22 freelancers have not been extended.
Civil society also continues to documented disrespect for free expression on social media in July as journalists from the KRIK media network received threats and accusations on social media through anonymous accounts. One of the threats called for the journalists to be lined up and shot as foreign agents in Serbia. KRIK, which investigates crime and corruption in Serbia, is taking legal action in response. Authorities also used intimidation to prevent journalists from covering certain stories.
Censorship and self-censorship also continue to occur within the Serbian media. A journalist left her job at RTV due to censorship, explaining that professional journalists were prevented from directly reporting on protests and purposefully given other stories to work on.
There were a range of protests in Serbia during June and July, with the security forces facilitating all demonstrations equipped with crowd control equipment. For the most part, gatherings took place peacefully, although there were exceptions. On 18th July, a protest outside the Belgrade Assembly turned violent. Civic group Don't Drown Belgrade were protesting about the lack of government accountability regarding secretive demolitions in Belgrade's Savamala District. Belgrade's Mayor, Sinisa Mali claimed he was injured by the protesters as he attempted to enter the building. One policeman was injured in the ensuing fracas, leading to one activist being summoned for questioning by authorities.
In a separate incident, in July a group of CSOs accused the Tanjug Agency of broadcasting false recordings from one protest and asked the Serbian Press Council to investigate all the printed media who used this information.
Other projects in June and July included peaceful protests on night time demolitions in Belgrade's Savamala district; 'Podrži RTV' (Support RTV) continued to protest demanding the resignation of their board; trade unions mobilised over the National Hungarian Council's editorial policies; the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative organised a protest against a para-police state and selective justice of police services; and finally human rights activists assembled to pay tribute to Bosniak victims of the Srebrenica genocide. During this period, no requests for protests were denied, nor were any unwarranted time and place restrictions imposed.
The distrust of civil society organisations continues in Serbia, as the government targets civil society activists and others by labeling them ‘Soros mercenaries’ (in reference to billionaire philanthropist George Soros). A list of the so called ‘Soros mercenaries’, including CSOs, journalists, activists and professors, was published in an attempt to discredit those receiving funds from Soros' foundations.
In a separate incident, a court judge was disqualified from presiding over a court case due to his membership of a professional association (The NGO Centre for Judicial Research: CEPRIS). CEPRIS conducts research and advocacy aimed at improving the role of the judiciary in Serbia and ensuring the separation of powers between the executive and the courts. Many groups have drawn attention to what they call the government's political motives in removing him from the case, claiming that the authorities's actions demonstrate a clear infringement of freedom of association.
CSOs have been mobilising around the Law on Associations and the Law on Endowments and Foundations, proposed laws which could hinder freedom of association and contravene international standards of best practice. Consultations are ongoing.