State orchestrated civil society a threat to independent groups

Association

As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, concerns have been rising over a perceived increase in state affiliated civil society. Most worryingly, these groups have been shown to play a role in smearing and harassing independent civil society groups that are critical of the government.   

Most recently, Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, Director of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP) was involved in a smear campaign by a state affiliated group. The incident started after Gajic appeared on a television show where she drew attention to Serbia's Defence Minister's proposed hunger strike over violence by political opposition. During the interview, Gajic labelled the Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin's attempts to smear political opposition as an attempt to "divert the attention of citizens from the current issues and issues being discussed". 

In response, a state affiliated group called National Avant-garde later published a video criticising the work of the BCSP and attacking Gajic personally. The BCSP has recently been targeted as a result of their work and especially their reports which have labelled Serbia as a captured state. A captured state implies a state of widespread corruption, which enables public resources to be used for private purposes, while control mechanisms are neutralised, either by legal or illegal means. In light of the European Commission's (EC) recent independent expert report about the rule of law in Macedonia, the BCSP stated that if the EC sent experts to Serbia to produce a similar report, it would highlight issues faced by citizens. After making these claims, state affiliated CSOs and pro-government media ramped up their campaign against BCSP. The video released by National Avant-garde can be viewed below. 

On the other hand, other civil society groups close to the security sector have worked to promote nationalistic and right-wing sentiments. The Center for Security, Investigation and Defense (DBA) recently suggested that the establishment of civic patrols would help fight against juvenile delinquency and narcotics dealers who use children for drug trafficking. Others have drawn attention to the role of this association as attempting to strengthen a narrative of national security, under the veil of patriotism

In early May 2019, another pro-government group recently started an online petition calling for the introduction of a new law on NGOs in Serbia. Modelled on Russia's notoriously burdensome "Foreign Agents Law" the petition called for further controls on human rights groups who access foreign funds to complete their work. CIVICUS Monitor partner, Civic Initiatives publicly asked the online platform Change.org to remove the petition because it violates international law, domestic laws.

Expression

As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the issue of media freedom has been a recurrent issue in Serbia recently. In this context, The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia and the Independent Journalists Association of Vojvodina announced during Media Freedom Day that the authorities in Serbia are crushing critical reporting. In particular the CSOs noted that Serbian media's editorial independence is increasingly undermined by financial pressures. According to their allegations, the Serbian government is primarily responsible for this trend through their channeling of public money, intimidation, defamation and aggressive rhetoric towards journalists and the media. In response, State Secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Information Aleksandar Gajovic stated: 

"If you say that the media is not free, it means that the media is captured. Who captured the media? Who keeps them captive? Privatisation of the media in Serbia was completed on December 31, 2016. All media are completely free."

In a separate but related incident, on 15th April 2019, the owner and director of Novi Sad's TV Kanal 9 went on a hunger strike. Maja Pavlovic began her strike to draw attention to the numerous pressures that local television stations face in Serbia. Her protest drew attention to the decisions and financial pressures which independent media disproportionately face in comparison to their state-affiliated counterparts. In particular, Pavlovic's strike started in protest against state licensing fees which she claimed are killing regional news. In a statement, Pavlovic said

"In Serbia, 125 electronic media have been closed in silence, I cannot allow this to happen to K9 after twenty years."

Pavlovic's hunger strike ended after 23 days on 7th May 2019. On the 22nd day of her strike, Serbia's prime minister scheduled a meeting after Pavlovic's health was seriously endangered. After the verbal promise that the government will do everything in its power to help Pavlovic and Kanel 9, she halted her hunger strike.

Peaceful Assembly

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

  • The citizens of Zrenjanin protested because the drinking water has been unsafe for drinking for over 15 years. A few weeks ago, a newly built water purifier which remedied the problem in Zrenjanin stopped working. The investor stated that the tube was disconnected due to the impurities that appeared on the filters. Since then, the city has been unable to provide safe drinking water for residents, despite government pledges to improve their access to basic amenities. To decry the lack of basic resources, Zrenjanin citizens gathered at a protest under the slogan "Just Water!"
  • On 5th May 2019 a group of right-wing activists gathered in front of the "Roma" bakery in Borca, Belgrade, demanding its closure because a former bakery employee was photographed making the Albanian national symbol - the two-headed eagle with his hands. This event can also be observed from the perspective of freedom of expression, as it is not illegal to use the Albanian national symbol in Serbia. Therefore, the employee should be free to use any gesture that is not prohibited by law. Serbia’s Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said that police managed to keep the protest against the owner of the bakery peaceful. Human rights activists and most opposition parties in Serbia quickly condemned the assaults on the bakery in Belgrade, but one MP, Srdjan Nogo, not only attended the protest but defended it as legitimate. The human right activists, neighbours and opposition organised a gathering to support the bakery owner, which provoked further protest from right wing groups. The right wing groups walked through Borca singing nationalistic songs, and spreading harmful speech against the Albanian minority, two days after the gathering of support. The police did not intervene or disrupt these protests despite the divisive rhetoric.
  • After the last “1 of 5 million” protest, opposition leaders established a "Free Zone" in front of the Serbian Presidency building. Opposition leaders stated that the "Free Zone" was formed after the authorities continue to ignore the demands of the people who have been protesting for nearly five months. Their demands are: the formation of a joint commission of the authorities and the opposition for the definition of fair electoral conditions, the election of a new composition of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) and the selection of the technical and editorial team of Radio Television of Serbia and Radio Television of Vojvodina.