Despite smears, civil society remains defiant

Association

The last few months in 2018 witnessed several attacks against CSOs and human rights activists. A government campaign was initiated against a number of human rights organisations following an open letter to Federica Mogerini, the EU High Commissioner for Security and Foreign Affairs from civil society. The letter called for a stand against the considered change of borders between Serbia and Kosovo. Published in August 2018, the text called for caution over proposals to redefine the boundaries between Serbia and Kosovo along ethnic lines. Signed by over 35 civil society groups from both nations, the letter said: 

"Civil society organisations from Serbia and Kosovo are urging you to make an unambiguous statement against the division of Kosovo or the exchange of territories between Kosovo and Serbia on an ethnic principle. More frequent mentions of the possibility of redrawing the borders send a very dangerous message to the citizens of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as to the entire region, that there is a real possibility of legitimising a dangerous propaganda of ethnic ownership over the territory – a principle that has pushed the region on several occasions into bloody conflicts."

A backlash followed, targeting female leaders of signatory civil society groups. The pro-government tabloid Serbian Telegraph published a news article titled "These Grannies Are Evil!" along with photos of Natasa KandicSonja BiserkoVesna Pesic and Maja Stojanovic, who all hold senior positions in human rights organisations. The article went on to accuse the individuals of treasonous behaviour for their work. Similarly, the portal Telegraf using the text of Serbia Today, labelled Natasa Kandic and Sonja Biserko as "Siptar lobbyists". This a derogatory term, used as an ethnic slur to describe these activists' work as promoting the interests of ethnic Albanians. While it is not the first time these individuals have been targeted, the smears illustrate how divisive the environment has become in Serbia regarding border issues. In an outpouring of support, another letter was signed by over 50 former diplomats, activists and Balkan experts expressing solidarity with the CSOs and activists targeted through the campaign.  

In another case, the foundation “Podrži život", led by Sergej Trifunović, an influential actor, was smeared in a series of Serbian Telegraph articles. For days, the paper's front pages were filled with the actor's pictures following insults and allegations about the misuse of money intended for the treatment of sick children. The CSO provides medical care services for children in need of expensive medical interventions abroad. Trifunović, has long been an outspoken supporter of political opposition in Serbia and many claim that the allegations against him and his foundation were fabricated to discredit him. 

Expression

Since June 2018, journalists’ and media associations have collaborated with the Government to design the new Media strategy in a process facilitated by Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). While the drafting process has been considered satisfactory, it is only after the Media strategy is adopted that the process of amending the existing or creating new laws will begin. Thus, the process of legal amendment could take years. Moreover, according to the associations, changing the legislation alone will not remedy existing problems in the media market such as media freedom and media pluralism. As a result, a parallel process was initiated, in which CSOs worked jointly with the Government to fast-track solutions regarding a number of media-related problems in the existing legal framework. These hoped to usher in improved regulations for protecting freedom of expression. Although promising, this platform of collaboration has failed to deliver any tangible outputs in four months. In fact, onlookers claim that issues facing Serbian media have become more complex in that time.

Representatives of the authorities have publicly insulted and humiliated journalists. In this hostile environment, there have been serious concerns for the safety of independent media workers. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Serbia has a track record of intimidating, harassing and attacking journalists. On 5th October 2018, an official from the Security Information Agency (BIA) stated that the “greatest threat to Serbia is the foreign agents working in media, non-governmental agencies and opposition parties”. The statement was made during a controversial press briefing. Several high profile politicians, including Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić were in attendance and did not object to the BIA representative's statement. 

The events that followed saw other public officials using their position to slander critical journalists. On 10th October 2018, the President of Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV), Nedim Sejdinović was verbally attacked. During an interview, the head of the Parliamentary Group of the ruling Progressive Party (SNS), Aleksandar Martinović, described Sejdinović as an “enemy of the state". In particular, he highlighted Sejdinović's critical comments about the Serbian authorities relating to media freedom. Sejdinović has been repeatedly singled out for his work defending media freedom in Serbia. As a result, he has previously been attacked and assaulted as well as harassed and threatened. The situation worsened when another SNS MP also slandered Sejdinović in a speech at the National Assembly. After these comments, the journalist received a barrage of death threats which were reported to the police, but no perpetrators were brought to justice.

In this context, five journalists’ associations strongly condemned both remarks, describing them as “hate speech, calls for violence, slander and insults”. In a statement, they said: 

"Journalists and media associations will inform international institutions and organisations about this incident. We remind that in the NUNS base of attacks and pressures on journalists, 68 incidents have been recorded since the beginning of this year. Since 2016, the database has recorded 60 cases of invoking, insulting, disparaging and discriminating journalists, media, journalists and media associations by public officials."

On 19th October 2018, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić insulted a Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) journalist during a press conference. The president reacted after the journalist asked him about controversial comments made by another SNS MP. In response, he criticised the journalist as "unprofessional" and branded RTS a mouthpiece for political opposition in Serbia. The incident was condemned by media freedom groups. 

Of late, the government in Serbia has allocated large amounts from the budget to the media. But, questions have arisen over the how they have been been distributed. Some claim funds have been disbursed in a non-transparent, selective and discriminatory manner. Moreover, people close to the ruling SNS party have established media or journalistic associations to delegate representatives to the local committees deciding on co-financing media projects of public interest. In these competitions, the largest amounts were paid to unknown public productions, who were often registered immediately after the announcement of funding. 

Peaceful Assembly

Several grassroots initiatives, such as Defend the Stara Planina rivers, Source Keepers and Savski Ramp, have conducted online and offline campaigns to preserve Serbia's natural environment and healthy drinking water. These initiatives started working together to preserve the sources of drinking water and organise protests to attract the support of other informal groups and citizens. United under the initiative "Defend the Stara Planina rivers" in September 2018, the group protested against the building of 58 hydroelectric power plants to prevent environmental damage. The ongoing initiative has been supported by 33 CSOs, 3 eminent professors and around 10,000 citizens. 

A number of other protests have taken place recently in Serbia. Below are some examples:

  • On 25th September 2018, more than a thousand of mothers, pregnant women and their families gathered in Belgrade as part of the initiative "Mame su zakon" (Mothers rule). The women gathered to voice their dissatisfaction with the changes and discriminatory legal provisions in the new Law on Financial Support of Families with Children, which drastically reduced the support for maternity leave and childcare. The organisers also submitted amendment proposals to counter the negative effects of the Law and pointed out that despite the public consultations in several cities, the government institutions did not take their suggestions into consideration. While the Minister for Labor labeled the protests “politically biased”, the initiative representatives refuted the allegations, reminding that the protest is merely a fight for the rights of pregnant women and women on maternity leave. The initiative “Mame su zakon” later took to the streets also in other cities.
  • On 14th September 2018, the initiative “Let’s not drown Belgrade” protested in front of the Government the death of two workers at the controversial “Belgrade waterfront” construction site. The protest also decried a series of incidents on construction sites all around Serbia in the past months, under the slogan “How much does a life in Serbia cost?” The Initiative demanded the dismissal of the Minister of Labor and called on all citizens to fight together to improve construction worker's rights.
  • On 16th September 2018, Belgrade held its eighth Pride Parade, under the slogan Say Yes. It passed without incident and, according to media estimates, with fewer police officers guarding the event than previous years. Participants took to the streets to ask for passing of a law on same-sex unions and gender identity. Serbia currently does not have a law regulating family issues of the LGBT population, or protecting the rights of the transgender people. Despite the participation of some government officials at the parade, including Prime Minister Ana Brnabić – a member of the LGBTI community, anti-LGBTI attitudes remain deeply entrenched in Serbia.