Journalists face legal suits, threats and obstruction for their work
The Centre for Judicial Research (CEPRIS) has been under investigation by the financial police, as ordered by the Prosecutor's Office, to determine the regularity of the organisation's operations and finances. CSO representatives from 29 organisations have demanded that the authorities urgently stop the pressure on CEPRIS. They state that the ongoing investigation has basically disabled them from doing their jobs and that it constitutes an attack on the freedom of association of organisations that have critical stances towards the government.
The investigation of CEPRIS comes almost nine months after the Directorate for Prevention of Money Laundering of the Ministry of Finance asked banks to inspect all transactions for 20 individuals and 37 organisations (see previous update).
In a separate development, Fascist and threatening graffiti appeared on the walls of the cultural centre "Magacin" and the Creative Educational Centre for Persons with Disabilities, including the inscription "We are waiting for you", which remains to be investigated. It is unclear whether the messages were intended for the artists using these spaces or another group.
Protests in Serbia during this reporting period were a common occurrence, driven by various motives: environmental protection, dissatisfaction with the political situation and the management of the COVID-19 crisis, or gender and minority issues.
- A controversial proposal for high taxes on the income of freelancers in Serbia was met with a serious response from the community, resulting in several days of protests with protesters setting up a camp in front of the Parliament building on 7th April 2021.
- On 10th April 2021, environment activists from Serbia and the region staged a protest in Belgrade, dubbed the beginning of "an ecological uprising." The protest took place peacefully and without any incidents.
- Joining protests held in other countries, on 12th May 2021, residents of Belgrade gathered to protest against Israel and the violations perpetrated against Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian diaspora in Belgrade organised the demonstration under the slogan “Freedom for Palestine”, in solidarity with Palestinians.
- On 24th May 2021, power plant workers held a gathering to voice their concerns about the decision of the Ministry of Mining and Energy to stop all construction and activities of the Kolubara B thermal power plant in central Serbia. In order to become an EU member state, Serbia must harmonise its regulation with EU norms and eliminate coal use by 2050. According to the workers’ union representative, workers fear losing their jobs if the coal power plant is shut down.
- Five activists of the initiative "Roof over the Head" were detained by police during a gathering organised to prevent the forced eviction of retired colonel Gojko Lalović. The gathering resulted in physical clashes with the police, with reports of police dragging one activist. There were also clashes with a group of non-uniformed people, whose presence at the site remains unclear.
At a session of the National Assembly, MP Snežana Paunović from the Socialist Party appealed to the Ministry of Interior to monitor protests in front of the Assembly and elsewhere and to conduct security- and risk-assessments, upon which certain gatherings could be banned. Referring to an incident in which she and other MPs were allegedly verbally and physically attacked, she also appealed to the police to conduct regular ID checks of protest participants.
Several cases of lawsuits being filed against journalists and activists were reported in this period:
- The "Millennium Team” construction company filed lawsuits against local portals Info Vranjske and JugPress for reporting from a press conference of the opposition People's Party and conveying the statements by officials which, according to Millennium Team, damage the public image of the company. The company is claiming damages of 100,000 Euros against Info Vranjske and 200,000 Euros against JugPress. Info Vranjske considers this direct pressure and an attempt to silence the media who are professionally doing their job.
- The same company, Millennium Team, also filed a lawsuit against the initiative “Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own” for causing material damage of over 100,000 Euros by publishing an article that reveals a change in the urban plan – a change benefitting the company’s construction plans, while allowing the demolition of a research institute in Belgrade. The initiative’s Dobrica Veselinović said:
“We consider this lawsuit a threat and pressure on us to stop publishing about harmful projects implemented by the authorities and companies close to them. It is obvious that our writing has nothing to do with the stamp of the Millennium Team, but it wants to threaten those who write and publish about this company with a high lawsuit. Our legal team took over this case, so we will provide details about the lawsuit itself soon,” (translated from Bosnian).
- Representatives of the Niveus Team company filed lawsuits against five journalists, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Vojvodina Research and Analysis Center (VOICE), for publishing an article on suspicious public procurement. Both lawsuits demand damages amounting to one million dinars (approximately 8,500 Euros) each. VOICE representatives consider these so-called SLAPP lawsuits a new mechanism of government pressure on independent media.
- The director of the Security-Information Agency, Bratislav Gašić, sued the investigative portal and OCCRP partner KRIK for publishing an article on allegations made against him at the trial of prominent underworld figure Zoran Jotić Jotka. The lawsuit alleges that the publication of that article directly damaged Gašić's honour and reputation. The editor of KRIK denied the allegations that the published article violated legal norms or professional and ethical codes.
The worrying trend of attacks, threats and obstructions on the work of journalists has continued.
- Radio host Daško Milinović was physically attacked by two men in Novi Sad, who sprayed tear gas in his face and then hit him several times with a metal bar. Positively, the police reacted quickly, and the two attackers were arrested soon afterwards, while a third man was arrested for incitement.
- In addition to this attack, journalists were the target of insults and threats from right-wingers through social networks, as was the case with journalist Verica Marinčić, who received vulgar and insulting threats. The Association of Journalists in Serbia (NUNS) said:
“It is a very vulgar message that contains a certain threat, which caused fear in the journalist, especially because she was attacked several times in previous years, that is, she was threatened and she has been under constant pressure for a long time because of the work she does."
- A group of NGOs and media from Sandzak condemned the call for lynching of the author of an article about a sandzakpress.net fake news campaign on the restoration of a local mosque in Novi Pazar. The article caused an avalanche of comments directed at the author, with offensive and threatening content calling for his murder.
- The phantom portal Južne vesti info (as reported on in previous updates), which in addition to its name, almost completely took over the visual identity of the reputable portal Južne vesti, continued with a targeted campaign against that portal. This time the focus was on Južne vesti journalist and editor Gordana Bjeletić. This occurrence was condemned by Reporters Without Borders, which in its statement asked the Minister of Culture and Information, Maja Gojković, to support journalists who are victims of such attacks.
#Serbia 🇷🇸: @RSF_inter condemns a dangerous smear campaign targeting @juznevesti & its Editor-in-Chief @GordanaBjeletic. A fake Južne vesti site, created earlier to discredit the independent media, has published lies, insults, manipulated photographs & threatening comments. pic.twitter.com/R2m9fGOJdN— RSF in English (@RSF_en) March 31, 2021
Several cases of obstruction of the work of journalists were reported:
- An activist of the association OSNA and journalists of "Green Patrol" were verbally attacked and threatened by the owners of a construction company, Svetorog LLC, while they were filming a location where the company has started construction. The police responded to the incident and proceedings will be initiated against the perpetrators for attacking and damaging the journalists’ property. The company has been ordered by the Inspectorate for Environmental Protection to suspend its operations due to its flouting environmental regulations.
- Milan Jovanović, a journalist from Žig Info portal, was temporarily deprived of liberty by a certain Živadin Mitrić during an attempt to report about Mitrić's property which is allegedly illegally connected to the city’s main water supply. While Jovanović was photographing the property, Mitrić got out of his car and locked the gate, thus preventing him from leaving, and went on to take a photo of the journalist with his mobile phone and left. Jovanović has previously also been a target of attacks and threats, including having his house set on fire.
- The Linglong car tyre factory security in Zrenjanin obstructed the work of and later attacked a team of Dutch journalists while they were trying to take a statement from activist Ivan Živkov. The private security, hired by a Chinese investor, tried to dissuade journalists with the Dutch outlet Nederlands Omroep Stichting from filming the statement, explaining that it was forbidden to film within the factory complex.
According to the latest Freedom House report, Serbia scored 48 points out of 100, with 3,9 points for democracy, classifying the country as a Transitional Hybrid Regime.