Media outlets face pressure as state innovates to silence criticism

Expression

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, independent media in Serbia can face discrimination and threats from the government. A recent example is the "Kragujevacke" newspaper, the only printed media in Kragujevac, whose editor-in-chief recently spoke out about the two-fold discrimination the outlet faces. Firstly, high-ranking officials avoid providing statements to the publication's reporters, which hampers their ability to report on critical issues and, secondly, they are unable to access funding from the city budget, which threatens their financial sustainability. The issues outlined in Kragujevac have been compounded by allegations of unlawful surveillance across Serbia. In particular, suspicions have been raised about reports of wiretapping which has further intimidated independent media and investigative journalists.

Another media outlet that has been regularly targeted is N1 TV. The channel is recognised in Serbia and beyond for its objective and professional reporting, yet it has faced repeated smears by government officials. Due to a conflict between the TV’s rights holder and cable operators controlled by state-owned Telekom, citizens could not access N1 for the first few months of 2020. During this period the broadcaster lost its reach of around a million potential viewers. Restrictions on the plurality of media in Serbia in the run-up to planned elections in 2020, which were postponed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, are an alarming turn of events. In a statement, a spokesperson for N1 said:

“N1 insists it be treated on equal terms with less popular channels which have Government friendly editorial lines and owners close to the Serbian administration in terms of pricing...free carriage of N1 on all Telekom’s networks can without a doubt give more credibility to the coming elections but without contractual guarantees it can be switched off at any point thereafter." 

In response to the growing outrage, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic waded into the unfolding situation. Brnabic reacted by smearing N1, labelling the broadcaster as a political party, and accusing them of spreading fake news and arguing that N1 was banned due to censorship and violation of media freedom. The Secretary of State, Aleksandar Gajovic, also commented, stating that he was not exactly sure if N1 is operating within the law. The interference of senior government officials is emblematic of the continuous pressure and concerted campaign against N1 TV in the past twelve months. Dissatisfied citizens who pay for Telekom’s services protested the decision to cancel the broadcasting of N1 TV and emphasised that such a move suppresses media pluralism, calling on EU institutions to intervene. 

In another recent incident regarding N1, on 28th January 2020 the channel’s website was subject to several online attacks. One incident was a DDoS attack, meaning that several thousand computers coordinated to jam N1's web server, network or another part of the infrastructure and that makes a website unavailable to users. Cyber security experts have highlighted that these incidents do not happen by chance and usually form part of an organised attack on a website. 

The harassment for N1 has not ended there. On 7th March 2020, the Serbian Council of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) placed N1 and Nova S televisions under scrutiny for their coverage of Serbia's elections. While the council highlighted that it monitors all channels during the election campaign, some media watchdogs have highlighted that the intervention of REM is a new form of pressure and intimidation of independently critical media. In a statement, N1 said: 

"[we] welcome the monitoring but at the end of the monitoring process we could also see the results of all other TV stations."

According to the Curuvija Foundation, which promotes independent media and investigative journalism, the REM has been shown to take the side of the ruling party which has ultimately damaged the operation of independent media in Serbia. Similarly, these restrictions on certain media outlets also jeopardise the public’s right to be informed objectively.

In this period, labelling and attacks against journalists by state officials and political figures continued with several worrying cases, followed by a lack of response by authorities to sanction the violence. This has been particularly evident in regard to the behaviour of the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj who has been documented regularly using harmful speech against anyone opposing his views, including journalists. Recently, Seselj wrote a series of offensive tweets calling for the rape of MP Marinika Tepic, with a number of derogatory remarks aimed at the deceased journalist and editor-in-chief of the weekly "Vreme" Dragoljub Zarkovic. The authorities did not respond to these comments, but due to a violation of Twitter’s terms of use, Seselj’s account was terminated. Following the outburst, he attacked journalists of the daily "Blic" when, instead of answering their questions, he stated that if he came to Blic he would “leave bloody marks behind". Without an appropriate response by authorities, one would assume such actions have the tacit support of the ruling structures.

In the past two months, there have been many examples of attacks on journalists. Namely, members of the Independent Journalists' Association of Vojvodina, were named as being a "separatist organisation" and labelled as “enemies of the state”. Vesna Malisic, editor-in-chief and journalist of the weekly NIN, was accused of "anti-Serb activity and NATO lobbying" in a tabloid campaign backed by numerous social media accounts, after expressing her views on the political crisis in Montenegro following the adoption of a law on religious freedom. N1 journalist Slavisa Lekic was called a propagandist and "associate of the Albanian mafia", together with the interviewees who appeared in the documentary series "The Ruler", authored by Lekic, dealing with the political life of President Vucic. The last incident was followed by damaging a car displaying the logo of the TV station that aired the documentary, and again no serious steps were taken to resolve the case.

Association

Responding to a report by Civic Initiatives showcasing the shrinking of civic space in Serbia, The Office for Cooperation with Civil Society has further expressed concerns about the threats CSOs face. The Office called on authorities to secure the safety of CSO representatives and of all citizens in Serbia. The Office also noted the need for additional policies to create an enabling environment for the operations of CSOs and stressed the need to take additional measures to improve the cooperation between state institutions and civil society, while ensuring their participation in decision-making processes.

Yet, there are worrying signs that authorities in Serbia are taking steps to obstruct citizens’ rights to participation. In particular, after a petition to ban the construction of mini hydropower plants in the area of Prokuplje was submitted, local police began questioning citizens who allegedly signed the petition after suspicions were raised by the City Assembly of Prokuplje regarding the authenticity of signatories. The public prosecutor's office stated that the evaluation of signatures is only possible with a graphology expert, as some people whose names were on the petition came forward and stated that they had not signed such a petition. On the other hand, activists state that this is a measure to intimidate the citizens who, through democratic means, want to protect their right to a healthy environment. Citizens living in this area have been protesting the construction of mini hydroelectric power plants for years and they have previously faced various forms of pressure and, in some situations, physical attacks.

Independent associations have also reported the opaque distribution of state funding to CSOs, due to the co-optation of funding bodies by individuals affiliated to the ruling party. In an example, independent media associations, especially those at the local level, have reported that committees deciding on the allocation of state funding are comprised of organisations that frequently defend Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. According to the Association of Journalists of Serbia, in 38 of 67 funding committees, the largest number of members belong to pro-government associations. As a consequence, independent media associations may choose to self-censor in order to ensure that their financial sustainability is preserved. 

Peaceful Assembly

There have been several incidents related to peaceful assembly in Serbia over the past few months. These include the persecution of activists, attacks on protesters and the failure of authorities to facilitate assemblies. Below are some examples: 

  • In a continuing trend, civic activists have been prosecuted for organising and participating in peaceful protests, in what is considered an attempt to stifle civic activism and prevent the actions of individuals who oppose the government. One activist who has been repeatedly targeted is Dobrica Veselinovic from the Initiative "Don't let Belgrade d(R)own". In the last two months alone, he received a misdemeanor charge for organising an unreported "Justice for David" solidarity protest (as a reaction to police brutality during a citizens' gathering in Banja Luka, which would qualify the protest as a spontaneous one) and later was fined with 100,000 dinars for organising another protest after the deaths of two workers on a construction site in Belgrade. In addition, Veselinovic was summoned for a hearing for taking pictures of the Presidential building, before protesting against the construction of mini-hydro power plants, on suspicions of endangering the security of the President. Activists of the initiative "Don't let Belgrade d(R)own" have been subject to more than 30 criminal and extrajudicial proceedings for organising or participating in public gatherings.
  • A similar recent example is the case of Dejan Bagaric, a member of the Youth of the Democratic Party, who, along with several other students from the “1 in 5 million” initiative, was questioned in a pre-investigation procedure on suspicion of committing the crime of "destruction and damage to the property of someone else” for a performance (painting) he engaged in during a protest at the Republic Square in October 2019. Namely, the group painted parts of the Square in gold, alluding to the high cost and public money spent on the reconstruction of the area, to draw attention to the allegations of corruption and possible money laundering of public funds.
  • Another worrying trend is the lack of reaction from police and authorities to attacks to peaceful assemblies. In such an example, residents of the streets of Pozeska and Valjevska in Belgrade have been protesting for six months to “defend” their park from investors building on what they consider should be left a green space. During one of the last protests, the investor’s security broke into the park and demolished the fence put up by the citizens. The police did not intervene while the security members were insulting the assembled citizens and media crews.
  • In another incident, supporters of the Serbian Radical Party and the security of their president, Vojislav Seselj, attacked activists from the Humanitarian Law Center and kicked Natasa Kandic out of the hall while the group was protesting the promotion of Seselj’s books denying the Srebrenica genocide. The promotion took place in the building of the Stari Grad municipal hall, which again prompted demands by the Human Rights House that public resources are not used to support convicted war criminals like Seselj.
  • The false announcement of a LGBTI pride parade in Leskovac motivated several hundred young people to protest and demand a ban on the alleged rally. During the protest, a “Jugmedia” journalist, Dragan Marinkovic, was attacked, for which a 25-year-old man was arrested a few days later, initiating further proceedings. Hooligans at the protest targeted the police and shouted messages of violence and lynching LGBTI community members. Apart from one arrest, there was no other reaction from the authorities, which once again sent a message that homophobia and hate speech could go unpunished.