Civil society mounts backlash against rampant attacks on journalists

Expression

As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, investigative journalists in Serbia working on issues of corruption can face intimidation and threats from public officials. In another recent example on 19th September 2017, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin published a statement labeling a journalist from the investigative network KRIK as a "drug addict" and accusing him of being paid by foreigners to defame politicians. The journalist, Stevan Dojčinović, who is also the editor-in-chief of the KRIK network, was targeted after he published a report investigating money used by Minister Vulin to buy an apartment in Belgrade in 2015. Despite questions regarding the legality of the money, the public prosecutor and police failed to conduct an adequate investigation into the purchase. KRIK revealed that the money originated from Vulin's wife's aunt in Canada, yet there is no documentation of how the money entered Serbia. Dojčinović reiterated calls for an independent and impartial investigation into the alleged act of corruption. 

In a separate incident on 7th November 2017, a journalist working for the media outlet Blic had his car broken into and laptop stolen. Vuk Cvijić had been conducting an investigation into organised crime networks in Serbia when evidence of his investigation was taken in the break-in. Upon closer inspection, Cvijić noted that nothing else had been taken and only his laptop and documents relating to the case were missing. The incident comes barely a few months after another investigative journalist, Dragana Pećo, had her flat broken into while conducting an investigation into corruption. The repeated harassment of journalists has been increasingly perceived as a method to silence Serbian media workers seeking to expose the murky dealings of corruption and money laundering. Despite the setback of losing his laptop and documents, Cvijić vowed to continue his work, saying that: 

"I will continue to work as before, and I'll be even stronger".

A police investigation has been opened into the case. 

In another case on 6th November 2017, a journalist working for the news outlet Kurir was verbally threatened by the brother of Serbian singer Ana Nikolic. The journalist, Ljiljana Stanišić, was waiting at Belgrade airport for Nikolic's spouse, Stefan Djuric, to return from a trip to Sweden accompanied by her brother, Marko Nikolic. Upon seeing the two men, the journalist simply asked how the trip went, prompting Nikolic to react badly, shouting

"You come here! I will rip your head off!"

While no physical attack took place, Stanišić was left badly shaken by the confrontation and later reported the incident to the police. While an investigation is still ongoing, the event drew criticism from Serbia's Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, who condemned all attacks against journalists. If convicted, Nikolic could face up to three years in prison for the incident. 

Threats against journalists 

In recent months, two other instances of journalists being threatened have been reported.

  • On 28th September 2017, the mayor of Zaječar, Boško Ničić, went on Facebook to insult two media editors. The comments came after two journalists reported on budget expenditures under Ničić. In addition to insulting them, Ničić also posted photographs of the two media workers, drawing condemnation from media freedom groups. 
  • On 28th October 2017, the director the Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights (YUCOM) and a journalist were threatened after they had made statements on a convicted war criminal who was made a lecturer at the Military Academy. In a statement, Director of YUCOM Milan Antonijevic highlighted the growing climate of fear for outspoken activists in Serbia, while also alluding to the increasingly prevalent problem of self-censorship. 

State coercion of funding 

  • On 5th October 2017, Zajecar Municipality announced they were cutting funds for local media from 24 million dinars to 2.7 million dinars, leaving local media groups suddenly bereft of funding. While officials claim that the decision was not politically motivated, media watchdogs claim that the lion's share of the funds will be siphoned into media outlets that are politically aligned to the government, starving critical outlets of funding.   
  • On 21st October 2017, Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali misused government funds for media projects without taking the appropriate steps for procurement. Media groups have drawn attention to the face that the commission overseeing the allocation of funds had no media stakeholder present and primarily distributed funds to pro-government media outlets and CSOs.

Fightback by civil society

Given the concerning situation with media freedoms, Serbian media outlets and CSOs blacked out their websites or went off the air in protest on 28th September 2017 to decry the assault on media freedom. Rallying under the hashtags #StopMedijskomMraku, #ZaSloboduMedija and #StojimUzVranjske (#StopMediaDarkness, #ForMediaFreedom and #I'mWithVranjske), the groups were prompted to take action after the news portal Vranjske announced the cessation of their activities due to mounting political and economic demands from authorities. Similarly, in light of the growing momentum among civil society groups regarding freedom of expression, on 20th November 2017 the coalition of civil society organisations behind the media blackout issued a call "For Media Freedom" listing13 demands in a letter to Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic. 

Finally, while the drafting process for the new media strategy is still in progress, a public debate is expected in December 2017 to discuss the plans. 

Peaceful Assembly

While a number of protests have taken place in Serbia lately, there is only one example of a mobilisation turning violent. On 16th September 2017, a protest organised by the right-wing political party Dveri Movement and two other organisations turned violent. The protest, held outside Pink TV's headquarters in Belgrade, ended in clashes and attacks on two journalists. Pink TV journalists Gordana Uzelac and Mara Dragovic were both injured in the confrontation, leading to one suspect being later charged with violent behaviour at a public gathering. The incident can be seen in the footage below: 

In a separate incident, on 17th October 2017 two students were summoned to a court hearing over their alleged role in organising a protest against the Serbian president in April. The students maintain that the rally was organised on social media and had no official leadership. The case continues at the time of writing. 

A number of other protests have taken place without incident over the past few months in Serbia. Here are some examples: 

  • Police and military unions protested under the slogan "Return us Our State" demanding the establishment of democracy and rule of law;
  • Serbian anti-war group Women in Black held a protest performance commemorating the 25th anniversary of the deaths of 16 Bosniaks from the Serbian town of Sjeverin who were kidnapped and killed by Serb forces in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Activists from Women in Black also protested in front of Myanmar Embassy in Belgrade against the persecution of Rohingya ethnic community;
  • CSO Zambak and their supporters protested in Tutin following the killing of a 22-years-old boy by a police officer;
  • Serbian journalists demonstrated in support of newspaper Vranjske founder who has gone on hunger strike after being forced to close down;
  • Education and healthcare workers protested against the proposed changes to the Draft Law on Public Servants as it is discriminatory and unconstitutional; and
  • LGBTI activists and their supporters gathered for the Pride Parade march, and were joined by the Prime Minister for the first time.

Association

Although there have been no legislative developments regarding freedom of association, CSOs seeking to promote human rights have suffered smear campaigns from media outlets aligned with the government. In one example, the Serbian anti-war group Women in Black were labeled as the “biggest foreign mercenaries” in the Serbian tabloid the Informer. The article also alleged that the group was involved in a subversive plot to accuse Serbia of war crimes while working in collusion with Western donor agencies. In response, Women in Black are suing the Informer for libel in a hearing set for the December 2017. A spokesperson for the group claimed that although the organisation isn't seeking financial compensation, they do wish for the Informer to publish the verdict.