Serbian women in the media face threats, intimidation and harassment

As previously featured on the last CIVICUS Monitor update, the conditions for freedom of expression in Serbia have considerably worsened around the country's recent presidential election. In this update, CIVICUS Monitor research partner - Balkan Civil Society Development Network - details worrying examples of threats, harassment and intimidation being used to silence critical journalists and impair investigative reporting in Serbia. In particular, female media professionals have been disproportionately targeted as the space for media freedom continues to close.   

Expression

On 7th July 2017, the home of a journalist working for the investigative news network KRIK was broken into and ransacked. Dragana Peco, an award winning journalist known for her work in exposing organised crime and corruption, was targeted with this break-in after investigating the violent events at President Aleksandar Vučić's inauguration. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Vučić's inauguration was marred by numerous acts of violence against journalists perpetrated by unknown assailants; Peco was working to expose the perpetrators' identities, while also investigating their political affiliations. Despite the break-in and clear evidence that the perpetrators had been through her belongings, no valuable items were taken from Peco's flat. In a recent statement, several civil society organisations focused on promoting media freedom and freedom of speech by highlighted the politically-motivated nature of the attack. The Association of Online Media (AOM)Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) and the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina (NDNV) stated: 

"Bearing in mind that the apartment nothing was stolen, but that KRIK has recently published several research articles on political, economic and criminal networks, the signed associations suspect that this is an attempt to intimidate the journalist".

Similarly, in a recent interview, Peco commented on the worrying climate of fear for investigative journalism in Serbia:

"When you do this job and you go through things like that - someone takes your equipment while you work, you get threats on social media, as well as some politicians openly supporting the people behind the attacks...then you are ready for this kind of thing". 

While Serbian authorities have conducted an investigation into the incident and suspects have been identified, at the time of writing no one has been charged for committing the offence. The break-in epitomises a situation wherein journalists in Serbia can face intimidation for simply conducting legitimate investigations. 

The case has also sparked debate over the unfair and discriminatory treatment of female journalists in Serbia, particularly those who report on national political developments. Of late, politicians and government officials from across the political spectrum have made comments that are derogatory, sexist or designed to humiliate female journalists. In one recent example, when being questioned by a female interviewer on TV N1, leading opposition politician Saša Janković replied, "I can tell you, but then I have to kiss you." While the incident was widely condemned by the broadcaster and civil society alike, the brazenness of the comments are illustrative of a situation wherein female media professionals are regularly forced to endure humiliating insults which demean their journalistic integrity. Janković was later shamed into apologising for his outburst. 

Several other threats against journalists have been documented in recent months, including:  

  • In late June another female journalist and deputy editor-in-chief of media outlet, Cenzolovka, received death threats on social media. Marija Vučić was targeted on social media and told she will “soon go under the sword”. Despite the tirade of abuse, Vučić has vowed to continue her work unbowed. 
  • On 10th June 2017, the management and editorial office of Nasha TV were threatened by unknown assailants after they aired a programme, "Let’s not lie ourselves”. During the programme, journalist Dejan Anđus claimed that President Vučić financed his own private army through public companies that offer jobs to companies owned by supporters of the president. 
  • In early June, stickers appeared in Novi Sad which slandered leading journalists and civil society activists as enemies of the state who allegedly “control the media" and create "anti-Serb public opinion”. 
  • On 14th June 2017, Serbian singer Aca Lukas assaulted a photographer and a journalist from the daily publication, Srpski Telegraf, while they were standing on the street in front of the singer’s house. The confrontation quickly turned violent as the singer beat the photographer with a wooden stick and broke his camera. Lukas later threatened the journalists by saying he was going to get his gun and kill them. He was later detained by police. 
  • On 11th June 2017, Saša Janković, former Ombudsperson and leader of the opposition Movement of Free Citizens claimed that he was constantly being followed by unknown individuals. While Janković believes he is aware of who is behind the surveillance, he also reported that he is concerned about unmasking their identity for fear of potential reprisal. The case has become emblematic of a shrinking space for the opposition in Serbia and a growing climate of self-censorship. 

Issues of media ownership and pluralism have been under the spotlight in Serbia lately. According to a recent investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a growing threat to freedom of expression in Serbia is the concentration of audiences in a few outlets, as well as clear political collusion and influence over media. The research demonstrates that out of the four main media broadcasters attracting the majority of views in Serbia, at least two of them are frequently accused of having a pro-government bias. A similar picture emerges with print media; out of the three largest print media outlets in Serbia, one is considered to be openly pro-government and the state is the largest shareholder in another. The findings are supported by the recent revelations that government officials exerted influence over financial spending in local media projects.  

Finally, while no new laws have been enacted or existing laws amended, on 15th July 2017 the Ministry of Culture and Information established a working group for drafting a Strategy for the Development of the Public Information System in Serbia until 2023, with space for input from civil society stakeholders. Though civil society was invited to provide input, some have criticised the fact that only a handpicked number of activists were allowed to participate in the consultations. 

Association

The Serbian Youth Initiative for Human Rights recently organised festival “Mirëdita, dobar dan!", from 31st May to 3rd June 2017 to expand greater awareness of Kosovo's culture, while promoting the sustained peace between Serbia and Kosovo. On 1st June 2017, a hundred masked people gathered in front of the Youth Centre in Belgrade, where the festival was taking place, and proceeded to set up stands and chant slogans offensive to people from Kosovo. While a heavy police presence prevented any violence, the confrontation was widely thought to impede the festival's operation. 

Peaceful Assembly

Over the past few months a variety of peaceful protests have taken place over numerous issues in Serbia. Some recent examples include: