Continued attacks on independent journalists

Expression

As we've previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the conditions for investigative journalism have continued to decline in 2018. In this update, we detail a situation where critical Serbian media outlets have continued to face pressure and harassment from Serbian authorities. 

Online media platform targetted by tax authority, through courts

Media outlet, Južne Vesti  accused Serbia's tax authority of harassment by deliberately subjecting it to undue financial inspections because of its critical reporting. The inspections, which have been carried out for the last 5 years and lasted 5 months revealed no irregularities, leading journalists to conclude that Serbian authorities are placing unwarranted pressure on media freedom. In a statement, the editor in chief of the outlet, Predrag Blagojević commented on the situation by saying: 

“It’s difficult for me to believe that the motives behind so many frequent and intense inspections are anything but political.”

The independent outlet has recently suffered judicial harassment because of its journalism. On 8th March 2018, The Appeals Court in Belgrade acquitted media outlet Južne Vesti following litigation by the former Mayor of Nis, Zoran Perisic, who sued the media house for "intense mental pain and damage of honor and reputation". The Court of Appeal altered the verdict of the High Court in Belgrade that initially found Južne Vesti guilty, stating that the media outlet had reported in the public interest. 

Južne Vesti faced additional challenges to its work when, in March, its editor Predrag Blagojević was accused of damaging the honor and reputation of colonel Dobrivoje Stanimirovic and private detective Mija Jankovic. The counter-claims were filed after the Supreme Court of Cassation acquitted Stanimirovic and Jankovic of serious threats to Blagojević, in a previous verdict of the High Court in Nis in February 2016.

Poor progress on media freedoms

According to the latest European Commission country report, Serbia – described as a captured state – has made no progress regarding freedom of expression since November 2016. The report, dated 17th April 2018, points out the political and economic influences contributing to self-censorship, but also the threats, intimidation of and violence against journalists. According to Freedom House, this has been part of a continuing decline since 2014, notable in all categories, including media and civil society independence.

Other reports have noted that media laws are yet to be fully implemented, and there is lack of transparency of media ownership and financing. The development of a strategic document to regulate the functioning of the media in the next five years was initiated in 2017, but the draft media strategy controversially proposed establishing new state-run media through public-private partnerships. However, the process was stopped in April 2018 after several journalists and media associations opposed the draft strategy. They criticised the process as illegitimate, because the draft strategy was created without the participation of relevant experts and representatives of civil society, it was a non-democratic procedure and lacked broader public consultations. The creation of a new working group was announced members of Serbia's biggest media association left the previous working group.

Civil society calls for withdrawal of public information law

More than 80 civil society organisations (CSOs) supported an initiative to withdraw the draft Law on Free Access to Information of Public importance presented by the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government on 22nd March 2018. They demanded the urgent removal of provisions that leave room for abuse and seriously threaten citizens' rights to oversee the work of public institutions. The proposed provisions could allow public institutions and State-owned companies to avoid answering freedom of information requests, among other concerns.

As we've previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the Serbian authorities' failure to publicly condemn hate speech has compounded and normalised an aggressive environment for independent journalists. This is particularly problematic because the threats and attacks are reportedly instigated by senior state officials and the attackers are often selectively punished. In a positive development however, a suspect who physically attacked a TV crew was promptly arrested. Nevertheless, in only the first two months of 2018, the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (NUNS) recorded five attacks on journalists. In a statement, NUNS drew attention the worryingly hostile environment for journalists by saying

"We have many situations in which public officials have created a serious and more hostile atmosphere in society, against journalists and the media. This has legitimised a dangerous atmosphere, because the targeted journalists were sent death threats a few days later." 

In a positive development, a Belgrade court has fined pro-government tabloid newspaper Informer for publishing untruths about Balkan Investigative Reporting Network - Serbia (BIRN) and its editor, Slobodan Georgiev, thus damaging his reputation. Georgiev brought the case before the Belgrade Higher Court in March 2015. Despite the verdict, the case remains open until the editor and publisher of Informer pays the fine and publishes the verdict. Informer, however, has still not published the verdict, and continued to insult the journalist.

Association

Populist attack on human rights defender

Local elections in Belgrade, held on 4th March 2018, were marred by populist and nationalist rhetoric, particularly targetting human rights and investigative journalism associations that are critical of the official policy of the Serbian Progressive Party. In a worrying example, at the beginning of February 2018, members of the right-wing organization Oath Keepers (Zavetnici) gathered outside the Human Rights House Belgrade to protest against the nomination of human rights activist Nataša Kandić of the Humanitarian Law Centre for the Nobel Peace Prize, sticking posters that read “Nobel Prize for Treason against the Serbian People”. Kandić's work has involved documenting violations committed during the Yugoslav wars, and has campaigned for a comprehensive investigation into all people missing, killed or tortured during the conflict. 

The Humanitarian Law Centre's offices are not located in the Human Rights House, but despite the mistaken address, the action by Oath Keepers illustrates a wider public discourse discrediting human rights activists and journalists. Demanding that the city should stop supporting the NGO sector, the Oath Keepers said that if they won the elections, they would disband the "anti-Serb headquarters" and later marked the Human Rights House with posters threatening to close it after the elections.

Judicial reforms

Civil society rejected proposed amendments to the Constitution related to the judiciary, which they fear would increase political influence in the election of judges and consequently impair the judiciary's independence and threaten democracy. Constitutional reforms aimed at addressing challenges in the establishment and maintenance of constitutionalism and rule of law, have been underway in Serbia since mid-2017. Key proposals by civil society and experts have so far been rejected. More than 70 CSOs demanded that the Ministry of Justice withdraw the draft amendments to the Constitution arising from the failed current debate, include experts on constitutional law to prepare a new text, and create proper conditions for a high-quality public debate.

Peaceful assembly

International Women's Day rally

On 8th March, nine organisations, supported by more than 600 participants, staged a protest in Belgrade’s central Republic Square under the banner  "Death to fascism – Freedom to women" to mark International Women's day. The marchers protested against constant attacks on rights and freedoms by patriarchal and capitalist policies that oppress women. They demanded the protection of women's labor rights, reproductive rights and an end to gender-based violence.

Protests against MP convicted of war crimes

On 11th April 2018, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals at the Hague, Netherlands, convicted the Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj for war crimes in Serbia – but cleared him of wrongdoing in Bosnia and Croatia – sparking many protests. Regional CSO, The Youth Initiative for Human Rights asked the Serbian parliament to rule that Vojislav Seselj’s term as a member of parliament is over as a result of the conviction, in accordance with the law which terminates a member of parliament's term if they are sentenced to at least six months imprisonment. 

The group staged a protest in support of an opposition member of parliament who was abused and threatened in parliament for raising the issue of ending Seselj’s term as a member of parliament due to his war crimes conviction. The activists accused the police of deliberately restraining them after their action in front of the parliament. Seselj, however, insisted that "no one can take his mandate away”. Seselj’s ultra-nationalist party planned to hold a large rally in the village of Hrtkovci, where he made nationalist anti-Croat speeches in 1992 that eventually saw him convicted on 6th May 2018. However, the interior ministry banned any gatherings in this village on that day. Ahead of the rally, a strong police presence blocked the roads to Hrtkovci, rerouting all traffic around the village, preventing Seselj from holding the rally.

Active citizenship

A recent rise in grassroots initiatives has been noted in Serbia. For example, mass protests took place in Nish during April following the city’s decision to transfer the local airport to the state’s jurisdiction. The civic initiative “Ne damo nishki aerodrom” (We are not giving Nish Airport) organised several gatherings to show their dissatisfaction. One of the most significant results of the initiative was bringing together citizens of Nish, regardless of their political commitment or preference. Similar local civic movements have increased in other cities, such as in Požega and Smederevo, where citizens protested against corruption, nepotism and reckless management of community issues.