Prosecution and intimidation of independent journalists persists
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the conditions for investigative journalism in Serbia have become more difficult in recent months. This update details a number of infringements against journalists and media outlets that have been critical of the Serbian government.
The scandal surrounding the Mayor of Belgrade's complicity in demolishing buildings in the Savamala district of the city remains controversial. Reports claim that masked men secretly demolished buildings at night to make space for a government-sponsored development project. Mayor of Belgrade, Sinisa Mali, has faced a wave of opposition and calls for his resignation after his ex-wife confirmed his complicity in the demolition scandal. On 7th March 2017, Mali was reported to have pushed a journalist from the online portal, Istinomer, after the journalist asked questions about the mayor's alleged role in the demolitions. Footage of the incident can be seen below.
In a separate incident on 16th February 2017, the Information Service of the City of Belgrade allegedly barred journalists from attending one of its meetings. The news outlets Danas and Television N1, in particular, were purposefully excluded from the Service's mailing lists. In response to the exclusion, journalists reported on the incident to showcase government obstruction of media professionals' activities.
Serbian journalists also face unwarranted interference and harassment in their work. On 22nd March, Predrag Blagojevic, editor of the news portal, Juzne Novosti, was followed and filmed by unknown persons in the city of Niš. Blagojevic had claimed previously that he was under surveillance by the authorities. After contacting the Interior Ministry for further information, he was informed that such details are strictly confidential and too sensitive to be released into the public domain. Local police have confirmed they will conduct an investigation into the allegations.
The state has also used the legal system to target those who express critical opinions. A misdemeanor court in Čačak fined a local farmer, Milos Pajovića, 10,000 RSD for violating public order and peace. The incident occurred when he took his neighbour to a hospital and mentioned the Serbian premier in a disparaging manner during a disagreement with the hospital staff.
In another incident on 14th March 2017, a court in Vrsac found journalist Stefan Cvetkovic guilty of unauthorised publication, plagiarism and defamation. Cvetkovic had written extensively on the misuse of funds by ruling party officials in his municipality, thus many believe that the criminal proceedings are connected to his work as an investigative journalist. He was sentenced to 27 months in prison and a fine of 2,15 million RSD (approximately 19,000 USD). In a statement, Cvetkovic commented on the court's ruling, stating:
"Without any doubt, the only motive was an attempt to suppress free media, and those who are bothered by the public do not choose the means for this kind of showdown".
In this environment of frequent prosecution and harassment of individuals, self-censorship is on the rise in Serbia. In a statement, Radio Television of Vojvodina admitted to regularly censoring journalists if their stories do not coincide with the editorial policy. The broadcaster highlighted several situations in which they were forced to remove content after receiving "orders from above". Many have viewed this revelation as further proof that any journalism critical of the executive branch and the Serbian Progressive Party is being systematically suppressed.
Finally, in a progressive court ruling on freedom of expression, a journalist working for the media outlet Novosti won a case proving he was unlawfully dismissed from his position. Srdjan Ilic, was removed as the head of the broadcaster's board over three years ago and demoted to a lower position. At the time, many viewed llic's removal from the post as a tacit form of censorship by authorities. The judgement on the 24th March 2017 has been widely welcomed by free speech advocates in Serbia.
While there were no illegal arrests and violent protests, on the 15th February 2017 Serbian security forces intervened in a confrontation at a protest by the Ne davimo Beograd (Let's Not Drown Belgrade) movement. The demonstrators, who were assembling to voice their opposition to the night time demolitions in the Savamala district of Belgrade, were confronted by a counter protest that quickly escalated into clashes between the two groups. There was no evidence of injury, however and scenes from the protest can be seen in the video below.
On 7th March 2017, activists from the initiative Let's Not Drown Belgrade planned to hold another assembly outside of the Belgrade Mayor's office. However, security forces prevented the activists from reaching their destination. While the authorities have denied any wrongdoing, protesters claim their right to freedom of assembly was unlawfully restricted.
Nastavljamo da tražimo ostavku Kradonačelnika. Sad su ispred nas i kordoni policije. Neko nam se uplašio pic.twitter.com/wWJbCLJ9PP— Ne davimo Beograd (@nedavimobgd) March 7, 2017
From February – March 2017, numerous protests on a variety issues have taken place peacefully in the country. A few examples include:
- Let's Not Drown Belgrade continued protesting and demanding the resignation of Belgrade’s mayor. The protest was organised on Serbia's Statehood Day;
- Pensioners protested against cuts to pensions;
- The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Serbia protested to demand a repeal of the Law on Temporary Reduction of Salaries and Prohibition of Employment;
- Police officers in Novi Sad protested to demand stricter prison sentences for attacks on police;
- Military and police union members in Belgrade protested over their social and economic status, while a counter-protest also took place nearby that was organised by members of the Union of Veteran Associations of Serbia in support of the government;
- Education workers protested to demand an improvement in working conditions;
- Thousands protested over the cancellation of Vlado Georgiev's concert in Serbian town of Smederevo, which was allegedly done for political reasons;
- 150 vehicles and 200 drivers participated in Belgrade's van-ride protest to change the Law on Transport of Passengers on road, which has kept them from working;
- Residents of a new Belgrade settlement protested when the Building Directorate of Serbia did not fulfill its promise of building kindergartens, schools and other facilities;
- Construction workers protested over unpaid overtime and the issue of performing tasks they were not qualified to do;
- Prijepolje residents protested over a rubbish dump;
- The Association of Serbian Internet Media protested in front of the Embassy of Montenegro over the persecution of Serbian people, Serbian free media and Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro; and