EU highlights Serbia's failure to improve civic space

Association

As we've previously documented on the CIVICUS Monitor, conditions for civil society in Serbia remain constrained. In an indication of this worsening situation for civil society, the European Commission (EC) recently highlighted Serbia's failure to improve civic space. In their 2019 enlargement report for Serbia released in May 2019, the EC stated: 

“No progress was made towards establishing an enabling environment for the development and financing of civil society. Further efforts are needed to ensure systematic cooperation between the government and civil society.” 

Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic responded to the report by stating that some sections were 'very entertaining' for her and that she doesn’t understand how there isn’t already cooperation with Serbian civil society. This sentiment was echoed by civil society groups aligned to the government. The Informer tabloid published the reactions of representatives of the state-aligned government organised NGO (GONGO), Transparency-Council for Monitoring, Human Rights and the Fight against Corruption on the European Commission report. This group claimed that the report was written by political opponents of Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian Progressive Party which questions the credibility of the EC. 

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, there has been a perceived increase in the number of state-aligned civic groups operating in Serbia. Often affiliated to the ruling Serbia Progressive Party, these groups have played a key role in delegitimising and smearing the work of independently critical civil society. In one example, National Avangard, continued with its activities and released a new video against critical civil society which can be seen below. 

There are worrying signs that Serbian authorities are ratcheting up smear campaigns against critical NGOs. In another example, CIVICUS Monitor partner, Civic Initiatives have been targeted in an onslaught of abuse regarding their finances. The incident began after an article entitled "how foreign money is used to brainwash our youth" was published on 16th June 2019 by Slobodan Antonic. The piece questioned the group's activities and slandered the group by claiming: 

"[Civic Initiatives] have spent a lot of money to brainwash the youth, but had not done anything concrete”. 

The article also published all of their financial reports from their website, claiming that Civic Initiative's funds were spent in vain and with no tangible results. The article also initiated a Twitter campaign against Civic Initiatives, where a large number of false accounts wrote derogatory and abusive comments about the employees of Civic Initiatives. Below is one example.

This is not the only attack that the organisation has endured. On 3rd July 2019, the online portal Istraga published an article directly attacking the director of Civic Initiatives, Maja Stojanovic. The article, entitled "these people are working to hide crimes against Serbs" accused Stojanovic and other activists of working against Serbian interests by misusing funds. Other implicated activists include the director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Ivan Djuric and the lawyer of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights - Yucom, Milena Vasic.

The attacks came after the above mentioned organisation's public involvement in "Miredita, dobar dan" festival which was held in late May 2019. The festival aims to bridge the gap between Serbian and Kosovo through art and culture. The event took place despite opposition from right-wing groups, who called upon Serbian authorities to ban the gathering. During the event, civil society organisations from Serbia and signatories of the Three Freedoms Platform, gathered to present the most drastic cases of narrowing the freedom of assembly, expression and association for organisations in Serbia.

Expression

In April 2019, online media portal Istraga published a list of journalists who have embarrassed Serbia after they made the film "Albanian women are our sisters". The film was aired during the festival "Mirëdita, dobar dan!" held in May 2019. The film highlights cases of rape of Albanian women in Kosovo by Serbian soldiers in the late 1990s. The article by Istraga slandering the journalists, was published anonymously. The article details information about journalists alongside their picture and the NGOs where they work. The text also draws attention to the amount of money they have received without specifying a source of information. The incident has been viewed as emblematic of a situation where those who raise politically sensitive issues face public vilification for their work. 

In this context, the European Commission's (EC) report on Serbia released in May 2019, also drew attention to the worsening situation for freedom of expression. In fact, the EC noted that Serbia is a country in which freedom of speech is narrowed while noting the lack of progress in this area. There are ongoing concerns regarding threats, intimidation and violence against journalists as well as the concentration of media ownership and financing. Below are some recent examples of attacks against journalists: 

  • An activist and a journalist from Aleksinac, Dusan Ostojic, announced that he was stopping activism and journalism after his car was burned at the end of May 2019. While the perpetrator was found and detained, it later transpired that Ostojic was attacked because of the texts that were published on an online portal he manages. 
  • In mid-June 2019, the Indjija Cafe journalist Verica Marincic, was attacked and intimidated. Although, Marincic claims she knew the identity of her attacker, local police have claimed that they lack evidence to initiate legal proceedings. The intimidation lasted for over two weeks, and the attackers also attempted to hack into the site of the online portal where Marincic works. Reporters Without Borders called on the authorities in Serbia, to ensure the journalist's safety.
  • In mid-June 2019, a young man was stabbed after wearing an anti-fascist t-shirt in Nis. A group of young men attacked him, asking him to take off his shirt, and when the young man refused, he was stabbed with a knife in his back. Controversially, the police classified this attack as fight, rather than a targeted attack. 
  • In early July 2019, authors and broadcasters working with the "Good, bad, evil" show at Sabac Television received death threats. While the journalists, Marko Vidojkovic and Nenad Kulacin did not report these threats to the police, the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (NUNS) contacted the authorities instead. The group highlighted that online threats to journalists on social networks have become so commonplace that they are rarely investigated.

In fact, the situation for independent journalists has prompted external intervention. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the use of Albanian symbolism by a baker in Belgrade prompted a backlash from right-wing Serbian nationalists. This led to the baker using the symbol to be exposed to attacks by right-wing organisations. In April 2019, Sofija Todorovic, a journalist working for Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) intervened and became embroiled in the event. Following her intervention, Todorovic became the victim of continued threats and attacks on social media. The onslaught of abuse led to her having her social media accounts suspended after hackers attempted to steal her identity online. To date, Serbian authorities have failed to conduct an adequate investigation into the abuse endured by Todorovic.

Given the state authorities' failure to respond to Todorovic's case, she was forced to seek recourse through the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). On 2nd July 2019, the ECHR ordered the government of Serbia to submit all documents relating to her case so that the ECHR can conduct an investigation. This will include documents from the police, security and prosecutor's office relating to the case, as well as decisions on complaints and requests made to the state authorities. This decision of the ECHR is of great importance to all human rights defenders in Serbia, who are frequently attacked by nationalist and "patriotic" groups which Serbian authorities have failed to sanction. It is important to emphasise that in 98% of the cases, the ECHR rejects such requests. Attacks on activists and journalists continue in all parts of Serbia without an adequate response from the authorities or the reactions of the highest state officials.

Peaceful Assembly

From 29th May to 1st June 2019, the festival Mirëdita, dobar dan! was held in Belgrade. The festival was organised by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights and Civic Initiatives from Belgrade and Integra from Prishtina. The aim of the festival was to enhance understanding between the Serbian and Kosovo's social and cultural communities while creating a tradition of cooperation, which will contribute to improved relations between Belgrade and Prishtina.

Yet, the festival has traditionally faced serious opposition from right-wing groups and the threat of violence against participants increases every year. 2019 saw an increase in police presence to avoid any confrontations. As a result, participants and guests struggled to enter the festival after a group of right-wing activists stood opposite to the venue where the festival was taking place. The right-wing protesters sang "patriotic" songs and insulted festival-goers. The situation escalated when a flaming torch was thrown into the venue where the events were taking place. For the rest of the festival, right-wingers gathered outside several times and were joined by other anti-rights activists. While some clashes with police were noted, Serbian authorities prevented them from entering premises. The video below documents these scenes. 

On 27th June 2019, a protest against fascism was held in Nis. The peaceful walk organised by local activists was met by a group of young men shouting fascist greetings. The protest was organised after a young man was stabbed days earlier for wearing a t-shirt with an anti-facist print. While the stabbing attracted considerable attention, the perpetrators are yet to be found. 

Similar case of right-wing brutality was recorded in Novi Sad. On 8th June 2019 two young men affiliated with the movement "Roof over head” were attacked and brutally beaten with metal bars. The activists had taken part in a protest against tree felling in a nearby park earlier that day. Their attackers were noticed hanging posters of the "Serbian Right" (an extreme right-wing nationalist organisation) in the surrounding area. A day later another young man was beaten in Novi Sad. This time it was a member of the Democratic Party's youth and one of the organizers of the protest "1 of 5 million". Both attacks happened in the University Campus. Commentators have highlighted that both attacks were perpetrated by thugs affiliated to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. 

Finally, an activist affiliated with "Don't let Belgrade d(r)own", was handed down a prison sentence. Radomir Lazovic was jailed for protests over the demolition of buildings in Hercegovacka street in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Savamala in 2016. His sentence highlights a pattern of 30 charges that have been or are being brought against activists since 2016. As we've previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the protests were organised in response to the demolition of areas in Belgrade.