Smears against journalists labelled as "traitors" increase
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Serbia has witnessed a wave of protests in 2019. On 20th April 2019, under the new banner, “All as one – 1 in 5 million”, protesters marched across the country. The new name was coined after the organisers of the four month long #1od5miliona, anti-regime demonstrations reiterated their calls on the government to resign, but also added new demands to their list. These included the formation of a joint commission made up of government and opposition representatives to create conditions for fair elections, replacing the board of the Electronic Media Regulating Agency, REM, and changing the management of the public broadcaster, RTS. Serbian opposition leaders say the protest was a success, while the government claimed a small turnout. The protest took place without any incident or violence.
April 2019 was marked by attacks on journalists working for independent and investigative networks. In this context, the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders also highlighted that Serbia has dropped 14 spots in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index and now ranks 90th on the list of 180 countries.
Persistent smears and threats against critical voices has created a constricted environment for independent journalism in Serbia. On several occasions recently, the Programme Director of N1, Jugoslav Ćosić and other journalists have been threatened. Often these threats and smears have revolved around journalists being portrayed as foreign mercenaries or anti-Serb traitors. In response, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on media freedom condemned this pattern of harassment. Harlem Désir publicly denounced threats against journalists and those targeted at the N1 news channel, by saying:
“I am seriously concerned by the tone of the accusations against N1. Such allegations could put journalists’ safety at risk.”
International CSO, Freedom House also echoed this growing concern over journalistic freedom in Serbia. In particular, the repeated and the systematic targeting of privately-owned outlets represents a concerted campaign to intimidate independent media by ruling party officials. In this context, a number of Serbian journalists spoke out regarding their fears. The constant labelling of critical media workers as traitors and mercenaries has led to a situation of intimidation and harassment which could fuel self-censorship.
RT!! JEZIVO I OPASNO!!— Ana Novakovic (@Ann_Novakovic) April 17, 2019
Molim da reaguju odmah svi@avucic @anabrnabic @NesaStefanovic @ivkovic_biljana @sns_srbija @EFJEUROPE @NUNS_1994 @UNSinfo @Europarl_EN @SerbianGov @policijasrbije @Dunja_Mijatovic @JHahnEU @NDNV https://t.co/c6qm5cJs04
On 19th April 2019, journalists in Belgrade organised a protest after Slobodan Georgiev, the portal editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network was singled out as a traitor in a video intended to intimidate him and other journalists. The video circulated on social media networks smeared Georgiev, and vilified other prominent journalists. This video can be viewed in the tweet above. The protest was organised to urge Serbian authorities to do more to protect journalists and during the mobilisation, Georgiev addressed participants by saying that prosecutors are not willing to act on charges filed by journalists working for independent media. The started after BIRN published a photograph which revealed links between the Serbian president’s brother, Andrej Vučić and Kosovo Serb businessman Zvonko Veselinovic despite earlier denials. The controversial businessman, Veselinovic is linked to several criminal acts.
Several other worrying developments involving journalists have been recorded in Serbia lately:
- Tamara Skrozza, a journalist working for Vreme, was targeted in a smear campaign in Politika daily. The article, written by the Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, was broadly viewed among the journalistic community as an attempt to discredit Skrozza's work.
- The Independent Society of Vojvodina Journalists (NDNV) said that their three young associates, the authors of the “Albanians Are Our Sisters” (Albanke su naše sestre) documentary received death threats. In fact, the threats were so bad that the journalists were forced to cancel a screening in the Kraljevo and a screening was also interrupted in Novi Sad.
- Finally, Suzana Vasiljević, President Vučić's media adviser criticised journalists who had recently participated in the recent #1od5miliona protests. Speaking to Television Prva, the spokesperson for the government said: "You are not a journalist if you go to a protest where a particular political message is sent." Vasiljević listed media outlets, claiming that they are free to work and criticise government in Serbia.
On 10th April 2019, during the gathering of International Civil Society Week, held in Belgrade, representatives of 20 CSOs signed The Three Freedoms Platform. The declaration states that signatories will work together to protect vulnerable freedoms and create conditions for the smooth participation of citizens in public affairs through the development of civil society. In a statement, the group highlighted the rationale behind the group:
"...CSOs are exposed to more frequent attacks in pro-regime media and attacks on the physical integrity, reputation and honour of their activists, but also since the Serbian Government has not adopted the Strategy for creating an enabling environment for the development of civil society and because the EU accession process is not being used for substantive reforms."
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor independent Serbian civil society and media outlets have faced a variety of restrictions on their work. As a result, the platform hopes to contribute to democratisation and citizen participation in Serbia.
In a separate development, there has been a surge of new websites registered by unknown subjects, such as Istraga and Patriot with striking similarities to other media websites. Articles published by these newly formed websites contains information which discredits prominent NGOS. The Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), a CSO working to promote transparency and free elections was targeted in both of these new media outlets. An article published both in Istraga and Patriot claimed that the CRTA is funded by foreign governments and is actively working against Serbian interests. Articles with similar accusations can also be found on other pro-government websites, highlighting the systematic approach to smear campaigns against independent civil society.
The issue of smears against civil society remains a key issue in Serbia. In another example, The Association of Prosecutors of Serbia (UTS), an NGO dedicated to preserving the autonomy and independence of public prosecutors within the judicial system, has faced intense pressure recently. Pro-government media outlets have published a number of articles discrediting members of UTS by describing them as traitors and mafia members. More worryingly, is the recent formation of a rival professional association. The Association of Judges and Prosecutors has strong links to ruling party officials and has been at the forefront of promoting a number of pro-government positions, including campaigning against the UTS. The orchestration of pro-government associations by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), is an increasing concern for independently critical organisations.