Media freedoms in sharp focus as 1 in 5 million protests continue

Peaceful Assembly & Expression

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Serbia has seen a wave of sustained protests since December 2018. For the past nine weeks, citizens and media rights activists have taken to the streets of Belgrade calling for reform. Among other things, one of the key issues highlighted by participants is rising restrictions on media freedoms. The repeated mobilisation has attracted tens of thousands of participants since 8th December 2018. The movement began in response to the attack of an opposition politician in November 2018. Borko Stefanović, leader of the small Serbian Left party was assaulted by hooded individuals in the southern town of Krusevac on 23rd November 2018. The politician and two other party members sustained minor injuries after being beaten with iron rods. Despite the arrest of two perpetrators, many have claimed that the hostile climate is a direct result of aggressive rhetoric against government critics by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

The incident sparked protests in Belgrade which spread to over 30 towns and cities in Serbia. Dubbed the “1 in 5 million” protests, the slogan was appropriated after Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić claimed that "even if five million people were on the streets, [he] wouldn't cede to their demands". In response, protesters coined the phrase to highlight the critical mass of support behind their demands. Key among these is the creeping influence of the ruling party in independent government institutions. As highlighted by Balkan Insight

"The key demands are measures to stop suspected abuse of the electoral roll and public resources in election campaigns, better control of the election process and campaigns – and criminal sanctions against those that abuse the campaigns."

The protests have also brought questions over the independence of Serbia's public broadcaster, RTS into sharp focus. Despite the widespread and sustained mobilisation, media coverage of the protests on the public broadcaster have been notably absent. Stranger still, is the fact that the weekly protests have taken place outside the RTS offices, arousing further suspicion over why the “1 in 5 million” protests have gained little media traction. According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), RTS' silence on the issue highlights how the public broadcaster has been coopted by the ruling party. In a statement, the group said:

"The protesters want RTS to stop being state television and take on more of a public service role where every social group, even if it criticises the government, can and should have its place. Vucic knows very well that the media are a very strong government tool and I think this is why so much has been done to control the media, why we don't have critical programmes and why most of the mainstream news is undercover propaganda and manipulation."

The CIVICUS Monitor will continue to the monitor this unfolding situation with its regional and local partners. 

The protests come at a time when Serbia has been recently downgraded in Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World Index. According to the CSO, Serbia has declined from being rated as "Free" to "Partly Free" over the course of 2018. Explaining the decision behind the downgrade, Freedom House cited concerns over the conduct of elections as well as consistent attempts to undermine independent journalists. The move reflects growing concern among international and domestic civil society over Serbian authorities' democratic backsliding since 2017. In response, Serbian authorities rejected the rating downgrade by questioning the report's objectivity.