SLAPP lawsuits contribute to growing trend of pressure on critical voices
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
During the reporting period, two cases concerning freedom of association were documented in Serbia. In January, the YMCA Serbia, based in Bački Petrovac, Vojvodina, was forced to vacate its premises at the request of the owner, the municipality of Bački Petrovac. The municipality had provided the YMCA Serbia with the premises free of charge since 2015, but had not responded to efforts to find a suitable solution for the continued operation of the organisation.
Secondly, on 13th March 2023, three unknown persons vandalised the premises of the Krokodil association and wrote threatening messages on the façade of the building using red spray paint. This incident occurred after the association had raised the Ukrainian flag on the anniversary of the Russian Federation's aggression against Ukraine. Krokodil staff have been repeatedly attacked by right-wing groups in recent times after painting over nationalist graffiti in Belgrade in a public action.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Belgrade residents protest construction on the banks of the Sava
Environmental protests have flared up again in several key locations in Serbia, with activists encountering a heavy police presence on the ground. Environmentalists in Šodroš, Novi Sad, have reported that legal action has been taken against them in 11 cases, one of which involves criminal charges. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, these actions were set in motion over the course of two days after activists protested against ongoing construction work in Šodroš, which they claimed would completely devastate the last remaining green oasis in the city.
At the same time, environmentalists gathered along the Sava River in Belgrade to stop construction work on the Sava embankment, which is being carried out to provide a water supply pipeline for nearby floating restaurants. The activists claimed that these works would further endanger an important structure that protects the city from flooding and that the construction project was being carried out without the necessary permits.
Multiple protests against the German-French plan for Kosovo
At the end of February, a right-wing demonstration took place in Belgrade against the EU plan to settle the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia. Organised by right-wing associations, including the People's Patrols (Narodne patrole), whose leader had visited the paramilitary formation Wagner in Russia at the end of last year, several hundred people took part in the demonstration. The protest was coordinated by multiple right-wing associations and individuals, with the People's Patrols having a significant presence.
On 7th March, a group of students from the University of Belgrade held a demonstration against the plan under the slogan “Students for Kosmet”. The demonstration began at the Faculty of Philosophy before moving to the headquarters of the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS). They called on the public broadcaster to give the public the opportunity to hear an alternative point of view on the issue. The protest was attended by several hundred people.
On 14th March, another right-wing demonstration took place in Belgrade, directed against the European plan to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo. The event was once again presented as a student protest. Participants in the demonstration wore right-wing and nationalist symbols. The organisers called for the rejection of the EU proposal and instead advocated a complete halt to negotiations and the annulment of all agreements resulting from the EU-mediated talks. They proposed to start negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. On 17th March, another protest unfolded in Belgrade, operating under the slogan “No capitulation.” During the demonstration, a group of masked people, some of whom carried signs associated with the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, displayed a banner reading “People and Church in defence of the country.”
Solidarity protests after series of homophobic attacks
Following two violent attacks on LGBTQI+ people in Belgrade at the end of February, LGBTQI+ and other rights groups staged a solidarity protest on 3rd March. They also demanded a meeting with Police Minister Bratislav Gašić. Four young men were injured in the attacks at the end of February. In Manjež Park in Belgrade, one person was stabbed with a knife in a homophobic attack, while two others were attacked with a bottle. The following day, another person was beaten by security guards at a club in Belgrade.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The sentencing of Dragoljub Simonović, the former president of the Belgrade municipality of Grocka and a member of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), to five years' imprisonment for inciting the journalist Milan Jovanović to endanger his life is a notable victory for freedom of expression in this reporting period. In the March 2023 verdict, three other persons were sentenced to prison terms of four years and six months and three years and six months respectively. This is the second first-instance verdict, as the first verdict, in which all defendants were sentenced to imprisonment, was overturned by the Court of Appeal, leading to a retrial. This development underlines the importance of upholding the rights and safety of journalists in Serbia.
Attacks on journalists continue
The escalating threats and attacks against journalists and the media in Serbia are extremely worrying. In January 2023, journalist Gorica Nikolin of the portal 021.rs received death threats via the portal's Instagram profile due to an article she authored. In February, journalist Pero Jovović from Nova S also received death threats again, without any progress in the investigation of previous cases.
The same month, Marko Vidojković, an author and journalist, announced he had to be relocated from Serbia with the help of the Serbian PEN Centre because he had been subjected to persistent death threats. Although he has been receiving threats for years, only a few cases have been resolved. Milan Nikić, a correspondent for TV N1 in Kragujevac, was repeatedly pressured for his reporting. While covering a demonstration on 3rd March, he was verbally assaulted, and a day later he reported that he was being watched by an unknown person in a car parked near his home.
Reporter Marko Dragoslavić of the FoNet news agency was physically assaulted on 7th March 2023 while covering a right-wing protest in Belgrade. On 11th March 2023, threatening leaflets attributed to the far-right organisation Naši were again distributed at the premises of N1 TV. This organisation also sent threatening emails to the Association of Independent Journalists of Vojvodina.
Politicians continue to harass journalists and media critical of the government. In February 2023, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić used television time to target the Crime and Corruption Research Network (KRIK) after it reported links between the ruling party and criminal groups. In March 2023, Brnabić referred to N1, Nova S and Danas as "tycoon media". These incidents pose a significant threat to press freedom and the safety of journalists in Serbia.
Politicians continued harassing journalists and media who critically report on government activities. In February 2023, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić targeted the investigative outlet Crime and Corruption Research Network (KRIK) after this portal previously wrote about the ruling party’s ties with criminal clans. In March 2023, Brnabić referred to N1, Nova S and Danas as “tycoon media”.
Critical voices targeted
In March 2023, two women attempting to deliver a protest letter to President Vučić were harassed by police officers. The officers not only confiscated the letter, but also detained the women and interrogated them at the local police station. They reported that the officers did not identify themselves and that they were denied the opportunity to contact a lawyer.
In another concerning development, two prosecutors involved in a case related to embezzlement in the state-owned power company (EPS) have faced reprisals for investigating the case. On 23rd February, media reported that Bojana Savović, the lead prosecutor, was removed from her post and transferred to another department, followed by the dismissal of Jasmina Paunović, another prosecutor in the case. The European Commission has expressed its interest in the case and stressed the importance of Serbia fulfilling its obligations to implement a reform of its justice system.
In addition, in March 2023, three staff members of the Faculty of Political Sciences were targeted, as posters showing their faces and the words “traitors” were put up in front of the institution. This incident occurred after an event that was supposed to bring together researchers from this faculty and the Faculty of Philosophy in Pristina, Kosovo, was cancelled due to threats of possible attacks on the participants.
The detention of lawyer Čedomir Kokanović on 27th January 2023 on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by the Basic Court in Novi Sad in an insult case brought by another lawyer, Vladimir Beljanski, is also a cause for concern. The Belgrade Bar Association considers this a precedent and argues that pre-trial detention can only be imposed for acts prosecuted ex officio, whereas this case is a private criminal case initiated by Beljanski. Kokanović is known in legal circles for his long-standing opposition to the leadership of the Belgrade Bar Association, of which he is a member, while Beljanski is president of the Vojvodina Bar Association.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs)
The criminal prosecution of individuals in Serbia for insult is indicative of a worrying trend. Vladimir Gak, the president of the municipality of Inđija, has filed charges against 15 people for disparaging him in the comments of the municipality’s official Facebook page. One of these cases concerns Milan Milosavljević, who commented on Gak's credibility by simply writing “liar” under one of the posts. Milosavljević was subsequently sued for insult and is facing a fine of up to EUR 2,000 if found guilty.
Predrag Koluvija, charged in connection with the Jovanjica case in which he is suspected of leading an organised crime group that produced more than 1.5 tonnes of marijuana, filed a civil lawsuit against the Balkan Investigative Research Network (BIRN) in February, claiming mental health problems stemming from coverage of his trial in which the prosecution mentioned his involvement in previous drug-related cases in Hungary.
The lawsuit filed by the former head of the Pančevo Police Department, Igor Arsić, against the editor-in-chief of the Pančevo SiTi portal, Nenad Živković, and the executive director of Pančevo Civic Action, Ljiljana Spasić, is also representative of the increasing trend of SLAPP lawsuits in Serbia. The suit, filed in February, stems from the publication of a satirical article about Arsić on the portal. Živković and Spasić have been subjected to ongoing pressure and threats due to their critical writings and activities against the authorities. These incidents raise serious concerns about freedom of expression and the safety of people exercising their right to criticise those in power.