Mysterious cancellations of TV programmes stokes concern over media freedom

Expression

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, threats against journalists have remained a worrying trend in Serbia. In this update, we record that this trend has continued unabated alongside state interference in the work of media outlets. On 11th September 2019, the journalist Darko Mitrovic spoke out about the threat he received on social media network Instagram in late August 2019. The message, from an unknown source, claimed they would "meet him in the dark", prompting the Mitrovic to report the incident to the police. However, no perpetrator has been found as yet. In a statement, he said:

"We have knowledge of who made the threats and we submitted this to the police, expecting that the police would react immediately, which did not happen."

The incident was also highlighted by international CSO, Reporters Without Borders, who issued a statement urging the Serbian authorities to conduct an investigation into the threats. 

The issue of politically motivated dismissals has reared its head again in Serbia. In early September, the journalist Suzana Trninić had her employment contract cancelled by TV Prva. Trninić was well known as the presenter of the television programme "Responses", which was well regarded for its frequent inclusion of guests from across the political spectrum. After her dismissal, Trninić said she was not surprised by what happened, as TV Prva's editorial policy had changed. The dramatic shift in editorial policy started after TV Prva was bought in December 2018 by Srdjan Milovanovic, who is the brother of a senior official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

This is not the first case of a programme being taken off by TV Prva, in fact a number of programmes by eminent Serbian journalists have been cancelled recently. Another programme, "Life of Stories", authored and hosted by Tatjana Vojtehovski was also cancelled on 3rd September 2019. Vojtehovski was well known for her vocal criticism of the government and had previously endured a spate of attacks and threats. In fact, one person was arrested in late 2018 for sending Vojtehovski and her daughter threats of murder and rape on Twitter. The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, stated that the show was conducting "the most brutal campaign against him", but stated that no one has ever "made a problem" because of those attacks.

Association

On 5th September 2019, the Commission for the Implementation of the Competition for the Financing of Public Interest Programmes in the Field of Consumer Protection for 2019, rejected the application from the CSO "People's Parliament" citing an improperly filed application. In particular, the state authority claimed that "the application pages were not linked" together using staples. The group had put together a proposal in response to a government call for funding to run the Consumer Advice Centre of South Eastern Serbia. During the period between 2016 - 2019, the People's Parliament had run the centre and affiliated programmes and is well-known for its expertise in consumer rights. In a statement, the organisation said: 

"Continuously, during 2016-2019, we have helped thousands of consumers from all over the country realise their individual consumer rights, and more importantly, we have exerted a previously unprecedented systemic impact on the rights of millions of consumers in Serbia."

The People's Parliament closed their statement by noting that it was clear that Serbian authorities did not approve of their approach. Furthermore, the group expressed their dissatisfaction regarding the state's use of flimsy excuses to prevent their funding. 

Peaceful Assembly

On 15th September 2019, Belgrade held its annual LGBTI Pride march. While the march took place peacefully, a counter protest took place to prevent the march from moving through downtown Belgrade. Comprised of nationalist groups gathering under the banner "I do not renounce", the group clashed with Serbian security forces as they attempted to make way for LGBTI Pride marchers. Four people were detained as the counter protest was dispersed. 

The Pride march itself took place without incident. In fact, Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic walked with marchers as they took to the streets to demand improved rights for LGBTI people in Serbia. Although police were viewed as facilitating the event in accordance with the law, the event organisers did receive complaints that police prevented some people from participating. Reports allege that even though the individuals assembled at the correct entry points to the march, they were told to move along by Serbian police. Similarly, there were also allegations of inappropriate remarks made by law enforcement agencies against the LGBTI community. 

In a separate incident, on 13th September 2019, students from the "1 in 5 Million" Association occupied a building at the University of Belgrade to demand that Serbia's Finance Minister, Sinisa Mali be stripped of his doctorate from the institution. A number of academics and university faculty members claim that Mali's thesis was plagiarised. While the activists occupied the building, a group of supporters from the ruling SNS party quickly gathered outside, hurling insults. The situation escalated after there were attempts to physically interrupt the gathering by entering the building. Unconfirmed reports claimed that the group of SNS party activists was organised by the party to protest outside the building. Despite high tensions, no violence was recorded at the event. 

Finally, on 5th September 2019, Dobrica Veselinovic, a prominent member of the "“Do not let Belgrade d(r)own” initiative, received a 20-day prison sentence following a verdict by a misdemeanour court for organising protests in 2016. The activist had organised protests against the demolition of Hercegovacka Street, in Savamala, Belgrade. Bizzarely, although Veselinovic had previously paid a fine related to this offence, he was later sentenced for the same incident. The case has come to epitomise a situation of intimidation and pressure on activists which takes for the form of numerous legal proceedings against prominent activists.