Weekly "1 of 5 million" protests continue across Serbia

Peaceful Assembly

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Serbia has witnessed a wave of weekly protests since December 2018. Sparked by an attack on the leader of the Serbian Left party in November 2018, repeated protests have spread across the country. By January 2019, people in more than 30 Serbian cities and towns joined in the weekly protests as the number of participants swelled in February and March 2019. The consecutive assemblies have drawn widespread societal support. Students, lawyers, judges, writers, actors, singers and other associations have publicly endorsed the mobilisations. The weekly protests have embraced a variety of issues from worker's rights, to corruption and political violence. 

Every Saturday evening, tens of thousands of people assemble near public institutions in Belgrade, protesting against what they term “political violence” in Serbia, blowing whistles and carrying banners reading:

“There’s something rotten in Serbia”, “Wake up and rise Serbia”, “There’s more of us”. 

The protests are formally organised by a group called “Protest Against Dictatorship” (Protest Protiv Diktature). The fluid and leaderless civic movement began organising protests after Aleksandar Vučić was elected President in April 2017. The mobilisations have drawn widespread support from across the political spectrum, particularly from opposition political parties. In fact, on 11th February 2019, opposition political parties in Serbia boycotted the Serbian Parliament in support of the protests. At least 45 of 250 lawmakers stopped Parliamentary procedures in solidarity with the protesters. In a statement, a spokesperson for the coalition of opposition MPs said: 

"We are not boycotting parliament because we are angry and because [the government is] downplaying us, we have a commitment to thousands and thousands of people who are demonstrating in winter and looking for a system and a normal Serbia."

Authorities in Serbia have largely ignored or attempted to downplay the scale of the protests. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the government has stifled reporting on the mobilisations in pro-government media. More worryingly, the government is also orchestrating a smear campaign against protesters. The video below, released by the ruling Serbia Progressive Party (SNS), entitled "don't let tycoons run your city" paints protesters and opposition groups as agents working against Serbia. These smear campaigns depict opponents of the government as paid by international organisations working against Serbian interests. The video can be seen below:  

Expression

In the context of the protests, there have also been several cases of harassment, threats and attacks on journalists. In one case, in late December 2018 a Južne vesti correspondent was interrogated by police. Stefan Markovic was questioned by police in Nis, after he wrote a series of articles about misuse of municipal power in Mediana. The journalist claimed that police pressured him to reveal the identities of his sources of information. Despite this pressure, the journalist refused to pass over the identity of his source. The line of questioning was widely condemned for being in contravention to Serbia's Public Information Law, which safeguards source confidentiality. 

Journalists have also been subjected to threats from non-state actors. In an article published on the Facebook page "Serbia Our Land", Nedim Sejdinovic, President of the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina, was labelled a "Vojvodina separatist" and "Islamic fanatic" that "despises Serbia and Serbs". The article was followed by dozens of comments containing death threats. The same Facebook page has also sent death threats and insults to the editor-in-chief of Beta Press Agency Dragan Janjić. Journalists have drawn attention to the slowness of Serbian authorities to investigate these instances of abuse. 

Physical attacks on journalists remain a key concern in Serbia. On 12th December 2018, unidentified individuals torched a house belonging to an investigative journalist working for Žig Info. Milan Jovanović's house was attacked early in the morning in the Belgrade suburb of Vrčin. The perpetrators threw molotov cocktails into the house and fired live ammunition at the front door to prevent the journalist and his family from escaping the burning building. Jovanović and his wife escaped the blaze by climbing out of a window at the back of the house. Their house along with all of their possessions were destroyed in the fire. Jovanović is well known for his investigative work on corruption in Serbia and it is widely believed he was targeted as a consequence of his work. In a statement after the attack, Jovanović highlighted that aggressive public statements against journalists from Serbia's ruling party had "put a target on every journalist's head".

Serbian authorities later arrested and prosecuted the perpetrators in late December 2018. The plot to intimidate the journalist was traced back to a ruling party official. The SNS Mayor of Grocka, Dragoljub Simonović was arrested shortly after the attack in December 2018 on suspicion of masterminding the attack. Despite his arrest and calls by prosecutors to keep him behind bars, on 7th March 2019 Simonović was released from custody. The decision to release the mayor has been met with condemnation. In a statement to the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (NUNS), Milan Jovanović said

"I do not feel safe at all, I become a target again. The court will be an accomplice of Dragoljub Simonović if something happens to me again. He must pass by my house every day, since he lives nearby. What can I expect? Will they burn my home again?"

The CIVICUS Monitor will continue to document the situation for independent journalists over the coming weeks.