Serbia's iron grip on media under the spotlight as new information emerges

Expression

On 29th August 2019, The Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) published a hidden report by the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM). The report had investigated the representation of political actors during the election campaign from 4th March to 21st April 2016, which mysteriously vanished after the elections. Although it was announced on REM's official website on 6th April 2016, the report was never published by Serbian authorities. Later that year, freedom of expression groups placed a freedom of information request to REM in a bid to pressure them into releasing the report. In response, the authority responded by claiming it did not possess a copy of the text. Upon publication by CINS it became clear why the report had been suppressed by authorities.  

The report points to the uneven representation of electoral actors with a drastic advantage in favour of the ruling party. This is attributed to the privatisation of the media which has led to a worrying imbalance in the media market. In practice, this meant that opposition parties struggled to get airtime on Serbian television. The report notes that in national television coverage (TV Prva, RTS1, RTV, Pink, B92, TV Happy), the Serbian Progressive Party, led by Aleksandar Vučić, got 32% of the time, while the opposition Democratic Party only got 14%. The findings underscore ongoing concerns that media outlets in Serbia are now effectively operating as mouthpieces for the government. In fact, on one station, Pink Television the ruling party received 15 times more coverage than the opposition Democratic Party. In a statement, the Bureau for Social Research (BIRODI) commented on the findings of the report. They said: 

"The reason why this report was hidden is because it shows the imbalance and favouring of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS)...In this country, media content depends on who pays, nothing else."

In a separate incident, on 8th September 2019, a whistleblower spoke to news portal Juzne vesti to expose the ruling SNS party's use of bots to influence public opinion. The aim of “botting” is to leave a large number of comments on online news content, with the aim of glorifying the ruling party or discrediting opposition representatives and civil society organisations or activists. Footage of the interview can be seen below. 

After the interview was published, the piece received over 22,500 comments. According to Juzne vesti the majority of these reactions came from the same IP address, which is part of a network called SNS, which is registered at the physical address of the SNS' party headquarters in Belgrade. The incident has shed light on the state's worrying use of online media outlets to control and influence public opinion.  

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the owner of the Novi Sad Kanal 9, Maja Pavlovic hit headlines after she staged a hunger strike to highlight the obstacles faced by her television station. In particular, Pavlovic drew attention to the pressures faced by local media outlets, as Serbian institutions selectively apply regulations governing the work of local media. Her protest shed light on the fact that independent media outlets face disproportionately high fees in comparison to their state-affiliated counterparts. In August 2019, Pavlovic recommenced her hunger strike, making it her third protest in fifteen months. The last one lasted 23 days and ended after Pavlovic was granted a meeting with Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, when she was promised that the relevant institutions would work on her case. 

During the strike, she received a promise from the Presidential Advisor that she would be allowed a meeting with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić, which happened on 30th August 2019. After the meeting Maja Pavlovic adjourned her strike because she received firm guarantees that Vučić would contact the relevant authorities within the next 10 days. The case has drawn sharp condemnation for the extreme measures taken by Pavlovic to engage the government in constructive dialogue. 

In a separate incident, on 28th August 2019 an N1 reporter was attacked during a football match in Belgrade. The attack happened after the reporter attempted to ask Red Star Belgrade fans about a tank placed in front of the Rajko Mitic Stadium before the match. The tank is alleged to have been seized from the Vukovar battlefield during the civil war in the 1990s. After starting a conversation with one fan, a group of hooligans began shouting at the reporters calling them "spies", "thieves" and "foreign mercenaries". The reporters responded by trying to leave the area but were followed by the gang who confronted them and tried to break their recording equipment. No serious injuries were reported in the confrontation. 

During the same football match on the 28th August 2019, the newspaper Danas was refused accreditation to cover the event. The outlet was told by authorities that their pass was not issued because a large number of media were already attending the match. The Independent Journalist's Association of Serbia (NUNs) condemned the denial of accreditation to Danas, and speculated that the outlet may have been targeted as a reprisal for its previous critical reporting of the club. 

Association

As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the trend of Serbian public officials smearing civil society organisations has been an ongoing and alarming issue. On 1st September 2019, the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić took aim at two CSOs involved in election monitoring and good governance. The two organisations, the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) and Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID) were highlighted by the Serbian premier as "liars" after he claimed that both organisations had failed to report on recommendations that were fulfilled by his government. The recommendations by the CSOs were aimed at improving the work of parliament and the conditions for elections. Vučić even went as far as calling the two CSOs "false organisations". 

During his interview with Pink television, Vučić extended his comments to target other CSOs in Serbia. In particular, he highlighted that some civil society groups work in collaboration with opposition political parties to purposefully smear Serbia's international image. Onlookers have noted that the Serbian president's comments are part of a wider strategy to force civil society to align with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) or face public smears.