Anti-government protests continue amid concerns critical voices are being suppressed

Expression

The EU-Serbia Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee (JCC), has expressed concern over the lack of progress being made on freedom of expression in Serbia. The JCC, which was set up within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Serbia, also urged the Serbian authorities to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders, anti-corruption organisations and independent journalists during a meeting in Belgrade on 23rd October 2018. The Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (NUNS) and the Independent Journalists Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) have also raised concerns that two big national broadcasters in Serbia have been bought by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The organisations fear that these two TV stations will become a tool for political propaganda, further reducing the space for critical voices.

An article published on 31st October by the state-owned newspaper Ilustrovana Politika, titled “The dogs have been unleashed”, labelled several independent media as foreign agents, provoking strong reactions from journalists associations in Serbia and international media organisations. The article, written by a newspaper which reportedly has a long track record of spreading hatred and intolerance including by proclaiming professional journalists and public figures to be traitors and foreign agents, was interpreted as a classic call for the lynching of independent journalists and the media.

Other critics of the government have also been targeted and censored. The independent daily newspaper Danas has become a target of smear campaigns after publishing a mocking comic of representatives of the government, depicting the president as Hitler. In addition, exhibitions of the cartoonists Coraxs’ and Petricićs’ caricatures which are critical of the government have been banned in public spaces in Lazarevac and Kraljevo. Despite the ban, Local Front activists walked through the Kraljevo city center carrying the caricatures.

Peaceful Assembly

Across Serbia, protests continue to be organised against the construction of mini hydro-electric power plants on the Stara Planina mountain. The informal organisation Save the Rivers of Stara Planina has received widespread public support and was able to mobilise both members of the public and journalists to their cause. In addition, in small cities such as Smederevo, local people are gathering to protest against air pollution caused by state-financed factories. Locals organised themselves through an informal association called Tvrđava (Fortress) in order to highlight local concerns about environmental issues.

On 8th December, thousands of citizens took to the streets in the capitol Belgrade to protest against the government after the opposition leader of the Serbian Left Party, Borko Stefanović, and two of his party activists were attacked and beaten by a group of men in the town of Kruševac. Though President Vucic announced shortly after the assault that the attackers had been arrested, Stefanović’s party representatives claimed that the attack was a consequence of a smear campaign by the President run against political opponents. This event triggered anti-government protests under the slogan “Stop the Bloody Shirts”. Pro-government media has been accused of discrediting the protest and using propaganda to downplay its extent and significance.

Association

Civil society raised concerns about the text of the draft Law on Social Entrepreneurship which was considered in a public hearing which lasted until 23rd November 2018. Activists worry that the draft exclusively limits the notion of social entrepreneurship to “labour integration”, neglecting other social functions of social enterprises, something which runs contrary to best practice of majority of the European countries. The proposed draft law does not recognise the associations, foundations and cooperatives currently employing almost 10,000 people as the bearers of socio-entrepreneurial activities and its adoption would lead to exclusion of the majority of existing social enterprises from future legal regulation. The Coalition for the Development of the Solidarity Economy and Citizens' Initiatives urged the government to improve the existing draft law.

Civic space is polarised in Serbia. This is highlighted by the fact that public space and support has reportedly been given by state representatives to war criminals, while human rights activists and CSOs criticising the government have recently faced a smear campaign and threats. On 29th October, the Misdemeanor Appeals Court confirmed a sentence of disturbing the peace and fined eight activists from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) for interrupting a speech by a convicted war criminal Veselin Sljivancanin, during an event organised by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party back in January 2017. The activists attempted to disrupt the event by blowing whistles and unfolding a banner stating “War criminals should be silent so that victims could be heard” in a protest. The Misdemeanor Appeals Court however, dismissed complaints by the YIHR activists that they were then beaten by the attendees and that their car was damaged.

Following the sentence, YIHR was joined by other rights groups at a protest in Belgrade against the convictions and alleged state support for war criminals. This “support” has been further demonstrated in recent times, for instance through the live TV appearance of Ratko Mladić - a war criminal sentenced to life imprisonment; the Ministry of Defence’s promotion of a book authored by two convicted war criminals; and the Deutsche Welle interview of Prime Minister Brnabić in which she denied the genocide in Srebrenica.