Smear campaigns against CSOs, opposition and independent journalists continue
The Odbranimo Sume Fruske Gore association and the Fruskac Association, which have for years been campaigning against the irregularities in the purchase of land in the Fruska Gora National Park by the Galens company, have been sued by the company's owners. The company is demanding financial compensation and a prison sentence for Dragana Arsić from the Movement for the Defense of the Forests of Fruška Gora. CSOs consider this case a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
Separately, the Pride Info Center (PIC) Belgrade reported that a man tried to vandalise their premises. Due to the prompt reaction of security, the man was prevented from causing major harm; he has been arrested by the police and the Ministry of Interior published an announcement the following day saying that it would submit a request for a misdemeanour proceeding to be initiated. The PIC, however, stressed that 12 cases of attacks have yet to fully proceed.
U četvrtak 17.02.2022. godine oko 19h u Prajd Info Centar, koji se nalazi u Kralja Milana 20, upao je muškarac i počeo da lomi inventar i preti zaposlenima. Niz👇 pic.twitter.com/dE8Vtyydcn— Belgrade Pride (@belgradepride) February 18, 2022
Donors, international CSOs accused of sponsoring environmental protests
Separately, at a press conference discussing the government's decision to annul legislation related to the lithium exploitation project in Loznica, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia Ana Brnabic made accusations against environmental associations and activists, and international donors, whom she called “hypocritical”. She accused donors of financing protests which are aimed at "breaking the spine" of Aleksandar Vucic. The embassies of the United States of America, Germany and Great Britain reacted to these accusations by issuing a joint statement rejecting the accusations; international organisations denied the claims as well.
Additionally, Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin accused environmental activists and the organisers of a protest held on 15th February 2022 of being "foreign mercenaries". In particular, he accused activist Savo Manojlovic of having received one million Euros from Soros and of being "financed by Rockefeller". Moreover, the leader of the “Enough is Enough” political party, Sasa Radulovic, attacked CSOs in a series of tweets labelling them as “mercenaries” who are trying to “sell the Serbian country”.
Ahead of the upcoming elections, Djordje Miketic, a representative of the opposition coalition “Moramo”, claimed that many notaries canceled their planned trips to signature collection stations- the collection of a certain number of signatures is a prerequisite for participating in the upcoming local elections. For example, “Moramo” only opened 7 out of 14 planned stations in Belgrade, and in some rural areas no stations could be opened at all. Miketic explained that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party did not encounter such difficulties. The opposition list "Marinika Tepic - United for the Victory of Serbia" reported similar difficulties.
Several violations of the right to peaceful assembly were documented:
- The privacy rights of Djordje Stankovic have not been respected during a trial in which he is accused of organising an unregistered demonstration in Nis in December 2020. Personal information, such as the identity of his parents, private property ownership and his political affiliation, was listed in the court files. According to the Stankovic’s lawyer his client is being politically persecuted.
- After being warned by the police not to attend protests, three members of the Mitic family from Paracin are facing misdemeanour charges for participating in protests related to environmental rights on 4th December 2021. Opposition councillor of the Municipal Assembly, Dragan Mitic and his young daughter are facing charges for organising the protest, while his mother Ljiljana Mitic is facing a charge for a traffic violation, even though she did not attend the protest and was teaching at a local school on the day. Dragan believes that the case against his family is a political attack for being part of the opposition.
- On 15th February 2022, during an environmental protest against lithium and pine mining, four unknown persons physically attacked protesters who were blocking roads. Despite several appeals, the Ministry of the Interior refused to provide safety measures for protesters.
- Activists demanding an improvement in basic sanitation in Belgrade (e.g. the construction of a sewer on the Danube’s left bank and the problem of illegal landfills) were threatened prior to a protest taking place. The association “Equal with everyone” states that the community has been struggling for waste management for years. Despite the President of the Republic announcing the construction of a sewerage system in 2019, the construction is yet to begin. As a result of the threat against activists, the rally which was meant to take place on 22nd February 2022 was cancelled.
- On 9th January 2022, a news programme on Pink Television presented a documentary called "Target Family", which targets many public figures, independent media and investigative journalists. In the film, their work is linked to criminal groups and foreign intelligence services and they are accused of aiming to “liquidate the President of Serbia and members of his family”. Among others, the video uses well-established phrases about "foreign mercenaries" and "domestic traitors". On this occasion, the Coalition for Media Freedom called on the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Republic Public Prosecutor's Office to take appropriate actions, as “silence” would only encourage further attacks and indicate complicity by institutions. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) encouraged Serbian authorities to initiate an investigation.
- In addition, a local portal close to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party described the Department of Media Studies of the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad, as well as several independent portals and journalists as foreign mercenaries, traitors and "Soros people", who are "attacking the state, constructing false scandals and are inventing accusations of genocide".
- Activist Brajan Brkovic was denounced in the "Alo" tabloid as being, among other things, a "traitor", "foreign mercenary" and "terrorist". The next day, a group of activists from the Youth Student Action (YSA), of which Brkovicis a member, were physically attacked by three man while removing hate graffiti which insulted them. The incident has been reported to the police.
Attacks and intimidation against journalists
- During an environmental protest in Uzice, a journalist of the Nova.rs portal was attacked by a person and had her phone destroyed by the attacker.
- Nova.rs journalist Pero Jovovic received death threats on social media for the third time in the past three months.
- According to the SafeJournalists network journalist Nikola Krstic was threatened with death on Twitter. The threats followed comments made by Krstic during a debate on the genocide in Srebrenica.
- N1 TV journalist Milan Stojanovic was attacked while reporting about the shortcomings at a construction site of the public utility company "Naisus". Employees threatened the journalist and prevented him from filming. Police refused to use the video material of the incident as evidence. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) condemned the incident, calling for stronger protection of journalists.
- Jeton Ismaili, a Bujanovac based journalist, stated that thePublic Prosecutors office in Vranje refused to open an investigation into threats his wife received at his home, in relation to his reporting. He claimed that the decision was taken based solely on the testimonies of the suspects. Moreover, the legally prescribed deadline for informing him about the decision was exceeded by a year.
- After criticising the decision of the local assembly of the Municipality of Indjija to produce an online TV programme, which, as the Independent Journalists' Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) points out is in contrast to the government’s announcement to withdraw from media ownership, journalists of the ”In Medija” outlet were verbally insulted by a local public official.
- The Vice-President of the Serbian Progressive Party, Aleksandar Sapic, has once again filed a lawsuit against Marko Vidojkovic and Nenad Kulacin, authors of the “Dobar, los, zao” podcast, for alleged insults (see previous update). He is seeking financial compensation of 350,000 dinar (EUR 2,976). Vidojkovic and Kulacin believe that this SLAPP is aimed at stopping their critical commentary.
Separately, civic activist Aida Corovic was intimidated and physically attacked for the second time in a week. The latest incident occurred close to her home in Belgrade, while in the first case she was attacked during an interview with Dutch television RTL News near the mural dedicated to convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić. Both incidents were reported to the police.
In a further incident, Radio Television Kragujevac (RTK) signed an agreement on media coverage solely with actors who are part of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, excluding actors who boycotted the past election or did not pass the electoral threshold.
In a recent court ruling, two thirds of the pension of the journalist Miroslav Jovanovic was confiscated due to unpaid debts stemming from lawsuits issued against the now closed newspaper "Svetlost". Despite the newspaper having paid all issued fines, Jovanović is now held personally responsible as well. According to him, the ruling does not uphold the freedom of expression and violates Serbia’s media laws.
During the process of collecting signatures for the upcoming elections, citizens reported incidents of exerted pressure and influence (e.g. employees of local public company being asked to come for “filling out papers” and collecting names of “safe voters”) from persons linked to the Serbian Progressive Party. Incidents occurred in Cacak, Vlasotince, Blace, Smederevo and Loznica, among other places.
Public officials and members of the Serbian Progressive Party have been conducting a smear campaign on social networks against opposition supporters. In this regard, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic attacked Ratko Ristic, the University of Belgrade vice-rector, on Twitter after he declared support for an opposition group, the “We have” coalition. Additionally, Defense Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic and SNS Presidency member Vladanka Malovic denounced the environmental activism of Savo Manojlovic via Twitter.
In light of the upcoming elections, the Bureau for Social Research (BIRODI) called on the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) to harmonise its monitoring methodology with OSCE standards, as a failure to do so would, according to BIRODI, continue the practice of a biased media sample selection.
According to media reports, an information stand of the Serbian Progressive Party in Batajnica was attacked; the attacker insulted the activists and sprayed paint on the stand. He was sentenced to four months imprisonment soon after the incident.