Brazen threats against critics of the government signals a closing of spaces for dissent

Expression

Conditions for journalists in Serbia remain a serious concern for both domestic and international civil society. Over the past few months, there have been a litany of attacks and smears against journalists reporting on political issues, leading many to fear that spaces for dissent are rapidly decreasing in Serbia. In particular, the current trend of public officials using speeches in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia to intimidate journalists has caused serious alarm. In this update we detail several incidents of this nature.  

In one such example, Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Radical Party and a convicted war criminal, insulted a journalist working for Danas. The journalist, Snezana Congradin was targeted on 16th July 2019 after she wrote an article commemorating victims of the Srebrenica genocide which was published in Danas. The MP, Seselj responded by calling Congradin a barrage of derogatory names and stating that she should be sent to prison for twenty years for claiming that "Serbia committed genocide" in the Serbian Assembly. Seselj is a well-documented denier of the Srebrenica genocide and claims that there was no persecution of Croats from Hrtkovci in the 1990s.

The incident has become emblematic of a broader issue in Serbia, where it is acceptable to target and insult individuals and organisations with dissenting views. In response, civil society mounted a fightback. A number of journalists associations, civil society groups and opposition politicians quickly condemned the remarks from Seselj. In fact, the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, Brankica Jankovic also joined the growing chorus to protect Snezana Congradin. In a statement, Jankovic said: 

"...[it is] unacceptable and prohibited by law that discriminatory attitudes, insults and disparagement on the basis of appearance, health status or other personal property would be the dominant way of expressing different political views in the public space, especially when it comes to MPs or other holders of public office."

After Brankica Jankovic's comments, Vojislav Seselj took to social media to insult her and her mandate. Most shockingly of all, he is also alleged to have threatened to rape Brankica Jankovic on social media. Some excerpts of his comments can be seen in the tweet below. 

In a separate incident, another ruling SNS party official claimed that NGOs were using access to information laws to endanger Serbia's security. During a parliamentary debate on 11th July 2019, Aleksandar Martinovic claimed that journalists and NGOs were using the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance to ask: “tendentious questions aimed at bringing down the security system of the Republic of Serbia." Martinovic also accused former Commissioner of Information of Public Importance, Rodoljub Sabic of working for foreign security agencies and Serbia’s opposition. The inflammatory comments also singled out several civil society groups including organisations and journalists working to expose corruption in Serbia.  

This is not the first time that SNS officials have taken aim at critical journalists. The journalist and editor of kolubarske.rs portal, Darija Rankovic has been the victim of constant insults for a number of years. Rankovic's harassment started after she started writing about government procurement and the distribution of local funds to individuals linked to the ruling party in Valjevo. Her work has singled her out for harassment by groups affiliated to the government. In fact, in August 2019 the online portal Valjevske podvale began openly orchestrating a smear campaign against the journalist by sending her insults and publishing false information about her. While Rankovic later contacted police to determine who was behind the site, she is yet to receive a response. In a statement, Rankovic described her situation: 

"I am now up against the wall because of what we publish on our portal. They want me to write about them positively and I am under constant pressure. Since that has not passed, they are going to dissuade me from journalism, to say enough, and to abandon everything. I do not see that I have any protection."

Despite the increasing pressure, Rankovic has vowed to continue her work as a journalist. 

The issue of corruption is has been a flashpoint for tension in Serbia. In a separate incident, on 22nd July 2019, KRIK (the Crime and Corruption Investigation Network) published the story of a corruption scandal, involving the brother of Finance Minister Sinisa Mali, Predrag Mali. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Sinisa Mali has been implicated in a number of corruption scandals. In response to the story broken by KRIK, pro-government tabloids started a smear campaign against the network. In particular, a story was spread about an individual following the partner and child of Predrag Mali, who was alleged to be affiliated with KRIK. This link was firmly refuted by the organisation. 

There is also evidence to suggest that KRIK is being monitored by Serbian authorities. KRIK journalist, Dragana Peco recalled that President Aleksandar Vucic said a month ago that KRIK would be reporting about Finance Minister Sinisa's brother prior to the publication of KRIK's exposé. Peco commented on the situation by saying

“He [Vucic] also spoke about things we discussed in the office which raises suspicions that we are being followed.” 

In a separate incident, another Serbian journalist has continued her hunger strike. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Maja Pavlovic, the owner of TV Channel 9, recommenced a hunger strike for the third time in 15 months, after saying the promises from her meeting with Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic were not met.  On 12th August 2019, Pavlovic decided to go on hunger strike again to highlight the financial pressures faced by Novi Sad's TV Kanal 9. 

Association

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Serbia has seen a concerted campaigned against independent civil society groups. Over the past few months, pro-government organisations and activists have continued to attack vocal organisations and activists. 

On 22nd July 2019, daily newspaper ALO, published the article where The Association of Judges and Prosecutors an organisation well-known for its affiliation to the ruling party, voiced support for a new law governing the financing of NGOs. The group justified the need for a new law by arguing that NGO financing should be made more transparent. They said: 

“What is particularly symptomatic of the judicial system of the Republic of Serbia is that a circle of NGOs has been created, that is, a very small number of non-governmental organisations that have almost a monopoly on all projects implemented in the judiciary of the Republic of Serbia, and in many of these non-governmental they do not actually have individuals who are in any way more deeply involved in the work of the justice system, and the placement of some ideas coming from a part of the non-governmental sector, clearly indicate that they do not actually have any experience how the judiciary works.” 

The plans have been met with criticism by independent civil society groups. Many have viewed the calls as a plan make it harder for critical groups to access funding for their work. The Association of Judges and Prosecutors, was established in September 2018 and has a track record of attacking and smearing other independent groups. In particular, the group are known for their attempts to discredit another independent CSO, the Prosecutors' Association. Most worryingly, NGOs in Serbia report that The Association of Judges and Prosecutors is frequently being invited by members of the ruling party to support judicial reform. In doing this, Serbian authorities are able to claim that the public hearings were held in a transparent and consultative process with civil society. 

In a separate incident, an activist affiliated with the social movement “Do not let Belgrade d(r)own” has spoken out about the persistent smear campaign against him. Radomir Lazovic a prominent activist was targeted by MPs from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party after he made comments about recent political talks between the ruling party and opposition. The MPs, Vladimir Djukanovic and Marijan Risticevicshowed pictures of the activist in a live program and in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia. As a prominent critic of the government, Lazovic has also been targeted by pro-government media. In fact, activists from the “Do not let Belgrade d(r)own” movement have been featured over 40 times on the front cover of the Informer, a widely-circulated pro-government daily tabloid. The video below features Lazovic speaking about the use of smear campaigns to stifle and intimidate critics of the government. 

In another incident, 19th July 2019, CIVICUS Monitor partner, Civic Initiatives hosted a media conference, "Rakita - The Breakdown of the Rule of Law" as part of the Defend the Stara Planina Rivers movement which was interrupted. The aim of the conference was to draw attention to the breach of law and the destruction of natural resources through the construction of mini hydropower plants in Serbia. At the very beginning of the conference, a group of individuals in T-shirts emblazoned with "Civil Guard" entered the room. After the event, a pro-government tabloid published a text where they falsely claimed that the director of Civic Initiatives had physically assaulted a journalist. While the police attended the scene, they did not intervene. 

Peaceful Assembly

Over the past couple of months there has been a notable rise in activity by right-wing groups during protests. Below we document several instances that have taken place of late: 

  • To commemorate the Srebrenica Genocide, on 11th July 2019 the CSO, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) organised the event of the remembrance in front of Presidency building in Belgrade by lighting the candles. While the protest is reported to have taken place peacefully, a counter protest on the other side of the park was organised by right-wing groups who deny the Srebrenica genocide. Despite a hostile climate, there are no reports of violence between the two protests.  
  • On the same day, another performance organised by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights was also interrupted by the same group of activists. Around 20 people wearing shirts with nationalist symbols interrupted a performance named “Srebrenica. When we, the killed rise”. During the event, the right-wing activist began yelling that the genocide did not take place in Srebrenica and that Ratko Mladic, one of the masterminds of the 1995 genocide, was a hero. In the end, police intervened and escorted the group from the building. 
  • On 10th August 2019, during the last "1 in 5 Million” protest, there was an incident in front of the Serbian Presidency building. A confrontation took place, after a delegation of protesters tried to deliver a list of demands to the President. The protesters were quickly stopped by security guards who pushed them back and then prevented others from joining the mobilisation. One of the participants of the ‘1 in 5 million’ protest was injured. Srdjan Markovic, was taken to hospital, for injuries to the head and ribs sustained in the clashes. Speaking after the event, he claimed he did not break the law because the presidency is a public building, not a residence and added that the security detail did not have the right to use force. He also stated that the persons who attacked them were civilians without official badges. While an official statement later claimed that members of the Armed Forces only “protected the Presidency building” and used “minimum force”, others claim that there is credible evidence to suggest excessive force was used against protesters. Footage of the incident can be seen below.