Activists, journalists face smear campaigns, harassment and censorship during COVID-19

Activists, journalists face smear campaigns, harassment and censorship during COVID-19
The media gather during a press conference by President Aleksandar Vucic (Photo by REUTERS/Marko Djurica, Gallo images)

Association

According to the latest “Nations in Transit” report by Freedom House, Serbia is no longer classified in the group "partially consolidated democracies". After analysing the situation, Freedom House ranked Serbia lower on its list, putting it in the group of "hybrid regimes". This term applies to states in which democratic institutions are weak and where there are significant challenges in defending political rights and civic freedoms. The report notes that human rights violations and narrowing of civic space exists, through the weakening of institutions, pressure on the media and the stifling of criticism, which civil society organisations (CSOs) in Serbia have warned about for years. The report emphasises the increasingly worrying situation in Serbia and concludes that Serbia is abandoning democratic principles.

Impact of COVID-19 on CSOs

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic no measures were undertaken by the responsible department, the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Issues, to protect the most vulnerable citizens. The A11 Initiative for Economic and Social Rights urged the Government of the Republic of Serbia to undertake such actions immediately. In a statement they said that COVID-19 measures must be based on the core values underlying economic and social rights, and with timely, clear, concrete and targeted measures to provide protection to the most vulnerable based on the principles of non-discrimination and the maximum use of available resources.

The Office for Cooperation with Civil Society (OCCS) informed CSOs that due to the introduction of the state of emergency, the procedure for awarding grants from the budget of the Republic of Serbia for 2020 is suspended. The OCCS based its decision on Article 101 of the Law on General Administrative Procedure and the legality of the decision is indisputable. However, the question remains whether such a decision is legitimate at this time as it threatens the financial sustainability of organisations and the people whose existence is dependent on the revenues generated from these sources. The OCCS also stated that following the end of the state of emergency, a new public competition for co-financing EU projects will be announced.

Restrictions on the movement of citizens have greatly hindered the normal functioning of CSOs engaged in activities of general interest, especially the ones which provide citizens with certain services that can help them during the COVID-19 crisis. Namely, the introduction of a curfew prohibits movement unless it concerns citizens who have been issued with permits to move between 5 pm and 5 am. Such a licence can only be given to persons employed in public companies and companies performing activities of general interest. However, non-profit associations are not eligible to apply to obtain this permit. For this reason, CSOs have launched an initiative to develop clear CSO licensing procedures, with a proposal that involves the active involvement of the Office for Cooperation with Civil Society, which, in cooperation with representatives of associations, will consider the validity of the submitted requests before sending it to the Ministry of Interior for a final decision. This solution is of great importance given that many CSOs carry out activities that involve activists in the field, such as those engaged in delivering humanitarian assistance, providing legal assistance or support to vulnerable groups (people with disabilities, Roma, children, the elderly and sick, migrants, the homeless, etc.). Civic Initiatives created a survey that sought to address the needs and activities of CSOs during the state of emergency. It also maps and references organisations that will assist citizens throughout the pandemic.

In a separate development, the Crisis Staff of the City of Bor has issued an unconstitutional order requiring all citizens’ associations and voluntary societies to make all their human resources available to assist the oldest citizens in order to supply food and medicine for them. Such an order is blatantly unconstitutional given that the Law on Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Management and declaring the emergency situation is cited as the legal basis. Furthermore, it is based on the15th March 2020 decision to declare a state of emergency, with the signature of the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and the President of the National Assembly. Due to the reaction of numerous CSOs, this decision was subsequently withdrawn.

Smear campaign against the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy

The Belgrade Center for Security Policy has been the target of an organised campaign and this time it stems from systemic intimidation that began with video announcements by the GONGO organisation National Avant-Garde, as a result of BCSP statements about the President's son, the ruling party and those connected to them, who are suspected to be part of criminal groups. The work of the National Avant-Garde is mainly aimed at discrediting the work of the BCSP through its many announcements, videos and public appearances in the past, which were directed against the centre. This time, they addressed the public with a statement calling on the BCSP to engage in politics openly. The statement focuses on BCSP's analysis of the "Security Sector in the State of Emergency", which it says is full of politicisation and political assessments of the state of emergency and written tendentiously. A few days after this statement, they released a video entitled "Does Sasa Djordjevic endanger the safety of the president's son with his statement?”, in which they target Sasa Djordjevic, a researcher at the centre. Djordjevic's made a guest appearance on N1 television, in which he commented on recent events related to the president's son. In addition, the portal Prismotra published a video, in which the BSCP is accused of being a NATO lobbyist and of "endangering the security of Serbia and calling for riots." This video also lists the biographies of the members of the Board of Directors of the centre. The contents were simultaneously published on some portals and local TV stations (TV Pancevo, TV Dunav from Novi Sad, TV Rubin from Kikinda, Radio Mitrovica North, portal Nacionalist, FB group Zdrava Srbija) which are owned by individuals close to the ruling party. This is concerning as it indicates that this attack was organised and planned. The centre said:

“This rhetoric directed against civil society organisations and independent journalists is increasingly present in the public. What is worrying is the fact that the highest state officials do not condemn such rhetoric, but it often comes from their side. It is imperative that the Government stops viewing civil society organisations as its political opponents. It is also worrying that the police and the Prosecutor's Office do not do their job in most of these cases.”

On this occasion, the National Convention on the EU, of which the BCSP is one of the founders, also reacted with a statement, in which they call on competent authorities to act urgently and in accordance with the law.

Peaceful Assembly

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state issued a ban on public gatherings - all gatherings with more than 100 people were initially banned and later gatherings were further restricted to no more than 50 people. On 15th March 2020, a decision on the declaration of a state of emergency throughout the territory of the Republic of Serbia came into effect, accompanied by measures which introduced a “curfew”. The curfew permitted temporarily restricting the freedom of movement of citizens, initially during the periods of 8pm and 5am, and later this ban was extended from 5pm to 5am, along with an absolute ban on persons over the age of 65 from leaving their homes.

Youth activists targeted by online harassment

On 3rd July 2020 students began to protest at two university dormitories after government announced that it would close student dormitories due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Education later revoked this measure stating that students who are busy with exam deadlines would be able to remain until 20th July 2020.

During the protest, right-wing groups appeared in the crowd and held flags with the inscription "No surrender" with pictures of Kosovo and Metohija. The flag with this inscription is tied to a group known for spreading anti-immigrant and nationalist policies One student activist who participated in the protest, Mina Milošević, appealed to the right-wing group to lower their flag as she did not want the protest to be politicised.

Later, a video of Milošević which recorded this interaction was edited and posted on social media to depict the activist as “anti-Serbian’. Milošević has received death and rape threats online. Her picture has also been shared. Online posts are also attacking feminist movements and minority groups.

During July 2020, protests also took place against governments re-introduction of a COVID-19 curfew. A full update of those protests can be found here.

Expression

Media call for access to COVID-19 info

The narrowing civic space in which the media continues to operate and the increased public interest in information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic has led to serious difficulties in gathering information, particularly for local media. As a result, representatives of ten newsrooms and correspondent offices in Kragujevac and the Citizens' Association “Res Publica" sent an open letter to the Ministry of Health, the Kragujevac Clinical Centre and the Kragujevac Health Council requesting that journalists who are reporting on the pandemic be able to do their jobs in that city. They state that they have been unable to communicate with relevant sources at the Kragujevac Clinical Centre for days and thus cannot adequately report to the public on COVID-19, which is an issue of national importance. The letter concludes that one of the biggest problems is the "centralisation of public information", which is why citizens of Kragujevac remain deprived of very important information. Journalists in Nish were faced with an identical problem and they were also unable to obtain information on the number of COVID-19 cases and the health status of those infected in that city. Journalists also sent an appeal to the President and the Prime Minister.

Censorship during the pandemic

The introduction of the state of emergency has raised concerns about the possibility of introducing censorship. A close associate of the current ruling party, Nebojsa Krstic, suggested “conducting public space pest control” with the immediate barring of social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube under the excuse of fighting fake news. Furthermore, the government of the Republic of Serbia has adopted a conclusion authorising only Crisis Staff to inform the public about the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, announcements to the public should only be made by the Prime Minister or by persons authorised by the Crisis Staff. The conclusion stipulates that notices on health measures and other information given out by unauthorised persons cannot be considered reliable and that any person spreading this information will be held accountable under “regulations covering accountability and legal consequences for spreading disinformation during the state of emergency”.

The Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina, the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, the Association of Journalists of Serbia and the National Coalition for Decentralisation have demanded the immediate abolition of this conclusion, warning that its implementation introduces censorship and denies the right to information to Serbian citizens. In the statement the associations said:

The public interest means complete, unbiased, objective information and primarily control of the authorities which this decree makes absolutely impossible.”

Furthermore, they stated that this decision was not in line with the appeals made by United Nations experts and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, which call on states to allow journalists to work smoothly during the pandemic in order to provide citizens with access to crucial information.

After this contested decision and under the pretext of protecting journalists from infection with COVID-19, the Government of the Republic of Serbia further adopted a measure that prevents journalists from attending Crisis Staff press conferences. Some state that this solution is another example of the continued suppression of media freedom and the abuse of the state of emergency by authorities for the purpose of censoring free media. Instead of the regular forms of participation, journalists were not allowed to participate during conferences via video link but were only allowed to submit written questions no later than 2pm every day.

On the other hand, the social network Twitter announced that it has deleted 8558 false accounts that served to promote the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and its leaders, the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic. In addition, these accounts have often been used to offend and target political opponents, independent journalists and anyone who provides critical opinion.

Harassment, violence against journalists

There have been several cases during the reporting period where journalists were harassed, detained for their reporting or subject to smear campaigns:

  • Journalists from the newspaper “Gazeta Blic" were attacked and one of them was injured by two unidentified persons as they filmed a report on the COVID-19 outbreak in northern Kosovska Mitrovica. In a joint statement, the Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Jan Bratu and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir condemned the attack and emphasised the importance of ensuring that journalists do their job without fear of violence.
  • Journalist of the portal “Info Vranjske", Slavomir Kostic, was called for an informative interview by the police after the portal reported that two people with COVID-19 symptoms were present at the municipality building in Trgoviste. During the interview, the journalist was told that he was being pre-investigated for disturbing the public and spreading panic.
  • The journalist of the portal Nova.rs, Ana Lalic, was detained after publishing a text about the poor condition of the Clinical Centre in Vojvodina. During the arrest, police searched her apartment and seized laptops and mobile phones. Lalic spent a night in detention and the charges against her were dropped on 27th April 2020. This event provoked reactions from several organisations and individuals, including Anna Pisonero, spokeswoman for EU Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, who raised concerns over the arrest of the journalist. OSCE representative for Media Freedom Harlem Desir stressed the need to ensure normal working conditions for journalists. Lalic recently told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):
The government of Serbia today is fighting on two fronts. One is against the virus, and the other is against the true and free press.”
Smear campaigns against journalists
  • The COVID-19 outbreak was used by some groups close to the ruling party to continue smear campaigns against journalists. Another example of the mistreatment of journalists in the country is the threat that Vojislav Seselj, the president of the Serbian Radical Party, made towards Snezana Congradin, who works for Danas, by calling on those responsible to arrest her. Moreover, while commenting on the arrest of the journalist, Ana Lalic, on the morning programme of TV Prva, he called on the state to "show strength and simply arrest them [journalists]”. This is just one example in a series of Seselj's attacks against journalist Congradin who appears to be one of the most frequent targets, as reported previously on the Monitor. Unfortunately, the authorities have never responded adequately and Seselj's attacks have so far remained unsanctioned. The Independent Journalists' Association (NUNS) of Serbia responded to these increasing and grave violations of the right to information and attacks by pro-government media on independent journalists. NUNS urged state officials to respect the law and concludes that the protection of professional journalists also protects the right of citizens to make informed choices.
  • The assistant editor-in-chief of the weekly "Vreme", Jovana Gligorijevic, was the target of an attack by a man who sent her a threat via Instagram "that the day of payment is near". On this occasion, the group “Journalists Against Violence” announced that they were requesting competent authorities to react urgently to these threats. A few days later, the police arrested a suspect believed to be responsible for the threat against the journalist.
  • The "Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own" Initiative reported an attack on their activist Radomir Lazovic, coming from a fake Facebook page, "COVID-19 Serbia", which had previously published messages which served to discredit journalists or opposition politicians. Facebook users in Serbia often come across posts from this page which serves to act in a coordinated manner for the purpose of targeting critics and activists.
  • The pro-government tabloid “Srpski telegraf” made death threats against popular TV show anchors, Zoran Kesic and Ivan Ivanovic, accusing them of urging the elderly to disobey COVID-19 restrictions. The Nova S television station, where Kesic and Ivanovic are employed, has asked the police and prosecution to respond urgently to these threats. The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia condemned the attack, stating that the campaign of accusing journalists and public figures during the COVID-19 outbreak should stop.
  • An unknown man confiscated the phone of KRIK journalist, Bojana Pavlović, after she photographed the son of President Danilo Vučić in the company of a member of the Partisan hooligan group "Janjičari", whom the police associate with a Montenegrin criminal clan. According to KRIK, after she took the photo Pavlović was stopped by three men who introduced themselves as police officials. Pavlović also introduced herself and showed her journalist ID, but they told her that she had to wait for the police patrol and that she would be detained. They demanded that she delete the photos from the phone and two other men joined the police. The journalist told them that she was on assignment and asked to call the editor, but one of the newcomers took her phone from her hand, to which the police did not react. After insisting that they tell her why her means of work were taken away, the man who took her phone said that he did not have to explain anything. They eventually returned her phone. The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia and the Association of Journalists of Serbia demanded that competent authorities urgently determine who intercepted the KRIK journalist and confiscated her equipment and called for her protection while on the job due to the suspicion that her safety is seriously endangered.

As an act of support, a group of civil society organisations has come forward and called on the state to focus its resources on the fight against the virus and not against media freedom. They further emphasised that the current treatment of journalists represents a violation of media freedom and that the intimidation of journalists deprives citizens being informed on relevant issues in society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has economic implications for journalists as well, which is why media and journalists' associations have submitted proposals to the government for taking measures to mitigate the negative consequences of the state of emergency on the economic survival of the media and protection of the labour rights of journalists and media workers.

According to the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index 2020 on the state of media freedom in the world, Serbia has been ranked 93rd, three places lower compared to the previous year. The report states that under the leadership of Aleksandar Vucic,

Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is becoming more visible and popular."

It also points to an increase in attacks and a sharpening of rhetoric against journalists, primarily by government officials.