Inauguration Day attacks on journalists signal decline in media freedom

Expression

On 1st June 2017, journalists were verbally and physically attacked during the inauguration of Serbian President Alexsander Vučić. Vučić, who previously served as Prime Minister from 2014 to 2017, won the presidential election on 2nd April 2017.

Examples of the violence against journalists during Inauguration Day protests are as follows:

Lidija Valtner, a journalist from the daily newspaper Danas was attacked while filming an altercation between a protester and supporters of Vucic. A Radio Belgrade reporter was pushed by a group of men. Reporters from VICE and Insajder were threatened with physical attacks, should they ‘"leak" any information to the public. After responding that they would go to the police, the journalists were told that "the police cannot help". Another Insajder journalist was threatened by a protester who told him that he would be arrested. Other journalists had equipment forcibly taken from them or were prevented by force from reporting.

Journalists reported that police did not intervene when such incidents took place, even when help was requested. A government statement released following the inauguration described these reports of police inaction as "tendentious, inaccurate and malicious".

Civil Society and the international community has spoken out against the violence and threats faced by journalists in Serbia. Slavisa Lekic, President of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, condemned the attacks on Inauguration Day in a letter to the Ministry of Information, entitled: 'Stop being silent!’. Also in response to the attacks, on 14th June the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, the Embassy of Australia in Belgrade and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe organised a conference in Belgrade on “Media Freedom and the Safety of Journalists in Serbia What is the Next Step?”. 

Media coverage in the lead up to the presidential election illustrated the narrowing space for independent and objective media in Serbia. For example, a photo taken on 30th March, three days before the election, shows six individual Serbian daily newspapers displaying Vučić’s election campaign poster on their front pages. 

Slavica Lekic of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia described the photo as an example of the level of control Vučić has over the Serbian media. According to Lekic,

“[Vucic] directly controls the most popular TV station, TV Pink, and the most read newspaper, Informer. The other media are subject to self-censorship due to the pressure of advertisers connected to the government. [Vučić’s election] is definitely the end of freedom in journalism in Serbia”.

Peaceful Assembly

Following Vučić’s inauguration, citizens organised a series of protests via social media referred to as "Protest Against Dictatorship", to demand the new president's resignation. The protest movement has spread to 15 other towns outside Belgrade. 

Participants in the "Protest Against Dictatorship" movement have faced harassment and threats. Philip Bozilovic, a leader of the movement in Pozarevac has received multiple threats since protests began. A father of two, Bozilovic was threatened with the words, “You have children, watch what you are doing”.  Protesters in Novi Sad reported being followed and filmed after participating in the protests.

Throughout April and May 2017, a series of other protests on a range of issues took place across Serbia:

  • On 22nd April, the March for Science was held in protest over the limited budget that the Serbian government has allocated for science, as well as its inadequate science-related policies.
  • On 25th April, several thousand supporters of the Ne davimo Beograd (Let's Not Drown Belgrade) initiative protested to mark the first anniversary of the controversial demolitions in Belgrade.
  • On 1st May, a number of Serbian Unions and their supporters protested in front of government buildings in Belgrade to mark International Labour Day, demanding higher wages and improved workers’ rights.
  • On 20th May, the Serbia without GMO initiative protested the importing, breeding and trade of genetically-modified organisms, submitting a petition to Parliament requesting a referendum on the issue.
  • On 22nd May, journalists protested in front of the Radio-Television Vojvodina building to demand accountability from the management for the decline in ratings and quality of the provincial public service programming.