Serbian authorities double down on harassment of critics

Association

In a public statement on 17th September 2019, lawyer and activist Blazo Nedic expressed his growing concern for freedom of association in Serbia. His statement came as a result of the Bar Association in Belgrade's decision to remove him from the directory of lawyers due to Nedic’s involvement in two non-profit organisations: National Association of Mediators in Serbia and Partners for Democratic Change Serbia. Nedic stated that although he acts as a member of the CSOs, his involvement is pro bono and does not interfere with his work as a lawyer. He emphasised that there is no legal basis for such a decision and that it is part of an orchestrated campaign against him and CSOs in general, which jeopardises freedom of association.

In a separate incident, on 2nd October 2019, the offices of The Pride Info Center in Belgrade were attacked. The homophobic attack on the organisation's premises took place before Red Star Belgrade's football match against Greek side Olympiakos. During the attack, Red Star fans marched down the street with lighted torches while throwing bottles and cans at the CSOs office. No one was injured in the attack. 

Peaceful Assembly

As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, students have organised anti-government protests at the University of Belgrade. The protesters demanded 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. The activists organising the protests that are part of the “1 in 5 Million” initiative, experienced an increasingly hostile environment created by public officials. In particular, comments by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić have been viewed as disrespectful of activists involved with the movement. 

After student activists locked the Rectorate building in protest in September 2019, statements by Government officials have coarsened the debate. During the fracas in September, students were assaulted as pro-government activists attempted to disrupt their gathering. Activists claim that recent statements by politicians have put them in further danger of physical violence. Education Minister Mladen Sarcevic and President Aleksandar Vučić accused the protest organisers of being political activists who were obstructing the university's activities. According to the students, the statements were made “in preparation of a media lynch of the students who are defending the decency and autonomy of the university”. In a statement, the activists said: 

“Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) officials and cabinet ministers have commented on the student demands which were not made to them and are encouraging their followers to repeat the events of Friday, September 13 at the Rectorate when students were assaulted.”

An agreement was later reached between the various parties to break the blockade. 

In a separate event, a group of students who painted a small part of the Republic Square during a ‘1 in 5 million’ protest in October 2019, were criminally charged. Some have questioned the grounds for such charges, as the last few months have seen numerous actions against anti-government protesters coupled with media campaigns to discredit them.

Commentators in Serbia have warned of continued pressure on activists who organise or have participated in protests. A prominent representative of the initiative "Don't let Belgrade d(r)own”, Radomir Lazovic, was initially sentenced to pay a 100,000 Dinar fine, a sentence which was later increased to 60 days in jail and the seizure and sale of his property. Another 30 cases have been brought against activists affiliated with "Don't let Belgrade d(r)own”. The authorities justify these actions by stating that the activists had broken the Law on Public Gatherings. Others however state that these cases display a selective implementation and interpretation of the law, which narrows the freedom of assembly by imposing unjustified and unreasonable sanctions against protesters. In a statement, Lazovic said: 

“These sentences and trials and the procedures against the organisers of the 1 in 5 Million protests, some media and journalists show clearly that the authorities are tackling everyone who dares criticise their activities in public, draw attention to violations of the law and the consequences to the population.” 

During the last two months, taxi drivers held several protests in Belgrade against the alleged illegal operations of the company CarGo. The protests included blocking the busiest streets in the city and were peaceful, with minor incidents between protestors and citizens. Members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs said the protests were duly reported. Despite this, there is an impression of unequal treatment of the police regarding different protests. Namely, these protests have been given more support by the police when compared to the spontaneous protests of taxi drivers that happened last year when activists were charged with misdemeanours, which did not happen during this more recent protest.

Other protests during October 2019 also witnessed some minor clashes. There was a physical confrontation between Topli Do residents who protested for months against the construction of a small hydropower plant and had clashed with a private security company hired to stop the protests. The police also got involved due to the intensity of the confrontation that left several people injured. Eventually, the protests were successful, as the investor announced he was abandoning the construction work.

Expression

The N1 TV and Al Jazeera crews were banned from reporting on the ceremony during the opening for the Abu Dhabi-made Citluk 1 wind farm in northern Serbia, attended by Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić. A statement by the President's press office later clarified that the decision for the ban was made by the company owner and supported by the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates in Serbia. The statement also claimed that Vučić had no part in the decision and did not know the reasons behind the ban. According to the Serbian Journalists’ Association (NUNS), with these actions there was a breach of the Law on Public Information, which explicitly prohibits the discrimination of journalists and the media on any grounds. This case is worrying since there is a growing trend of media that strive for objective reporting being increasingly barred from events, which hinders their ability to report on important issues in the public interest.

Two other incidents relating to N1 TV have occurred in the period, sending worrying signals that there are organised activities aimed at intimidating journalists and exerting pressure on their editorial policies. Namely, an sign inscription "You are leaving the Republic of Serbia, welcome to Luxembourg” was placed next to the N1 TV building and in front of the building housing the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM), while on another occasion two men wearing surgical masks threw hundreds of leaflets into the backyard of the N1 TV with the same inscription. The Director of N1 TV stated that these events happen systematically, and are directly related to the ruling party officials’ regular accusations that N1 TV is working against Serbian interests. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) also condemned the incidents and called on the authorities to do whatever is necessary to stop the intimidation of the station’s journalists. NUNS said:  

Despite declarative statements by key holders of top posts about guaranteed journalist and media freedom in Serbia, it has been obvious for a long time that the journalists and news desks whose policies are not to the liking of the authorities are subjected to various forms of intimidation and danger to their professional and physical safety.

The pattern of harassment against critics of the government continues to stoke concern. In another incident, criminal charges were filed against the well-known actor and civic activist Branislav Trifunovic on the accusation that he ripped apart the Serbian flag during a play and therefore violated Serbia’s reputation. Despite denying such accusations, the actor was attacked by a number of pro-government tabloids. The actor later claimed that these attacks and false accusations are due to his involvement in the ‘1 in 5 million’ protests as well as his brother's role as a leader of the opposition.

Slobodan Georgiev, the editor of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in Serbia, has been subjected to hundreds of insults and threats on Twitter. He was being called “Haradin’s Serb” and was sent messages such as “You need to be expelled” and “Move to Albania”. The attacks came after President Aleksandar Vučić made a statement where he blamed BIRN Serbia for filing an appeal to Kosovo’s election committee which stopped the election video “Srpski list” from being broadcast due to its incitement of hatred towards Kosovo. 

Georgiev states that he was falsely accused by the President, as he is the editor of BIRN Serbia, not BIRN Kosovo, which was the chapter of BIRN which actually made the appeal. He further says that he sees this action of the President as a direct threat towards him. This is not the first time that the President labelled journalists and media outlets that fail to toe the government line.

In a separate incident, an employee at the Krusnik Factory, who leaked information to the Arms Watch portal that Serbia’s Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic’s father was involved in the arms trade, was arrested on charges of disclosing business secrets. The whistleblower, Aleksandar Obradovic was initially sentenced to house arrest, but under alleged political pressure the judge later decided to order a 30 day stint in jail. While Serbia’s Special Prosecution for High-Tech Crime claimed that the investigation and proceedings against the Obradovic were in accordance with the law, former Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, Rodoljub Sabic, noted that the public remained deprived of key facts regarding the case. He also stated that referencing the disclosure of official secrets as a basis for arrest is outdated and the prosecution's actions have created an environment to purposefully silence whistleblowers. In addition to the incomplete and insufficiently clear regulatory framework on whistleblowing, this case could further discourage citizens from disclosing criminal activities in the future. A petition calling for Aleksandar Obradovic's release amassed over 30,000 signatures in December 2019.