President Aleksandar Vucic secures second term, amid growing pressure on civil society and journalists

President Aleksandar Vucic secures second term, amid growing pressure on civil society and journalists
President Aleksandar Vucic secures a second term amid violations on civic freedoms (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images).

Introduction

On 3rd April 2022, presidential elections took place in Serbia. President Aleksandar Vucic secured a second term, with his party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), securing the most votes in Parliament, 43.5 per cent. Its sister party, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), received 11.6 per cent. However, as documented below, the pre-election period was marred by violations against opposition parties, some of which were unable to hold pre-election events, and there were also cases of physical and verbal attacks. CRTA, an NGO observing the elections, found irregularities, including “parallel lists of voters in and around polling stations, breaches of secrecy of voting, pressures on voters and vote buying” as well as pressure on election observers.

Association

Serbian opposition parties refused access to places for pre-election conventions

The United Opposition in Vranje announced that the Bora Stankovic Theatre rejected its request to rent a hall for their pre-election convention. The Theatre stated that there were no free dates that it could offer for the event due to rehearsals for an upcoming play. The United Opposition responded that there was a political reason and called on the Theatre to reconsider its decision. As reported by the Danas news portal, the theatre director, Nenad Jović, would not comment on the situation.

Deputy President of the Democratic Party Dragana Rakić stated that the opposition could not hold a pre-election event in the town of Vršac, because the reserved hall in the local community building was found locked. Rakić stated that they had received a confirmation that the hall of the Parta local community building in the town of Vršac would be provided for their event. Similarly, on 7th March 2022, Marinika Tepić, the holder of the opposition list United for the Victory of Serbia, announced that the opposition faced a cancellation of a hall in Kikinda, where a pre-election rally was supposed to be held.

Movement for Change group announced that the City Administration of Subotica had rejected a request for permission to set up a promotional stand for the Marinika Tepić - United for the Victory of Serbia list as part of the election campaign. The request was rejected due to the on-going epidemiological regulations, which include a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people indoors and outdoors and a mandatory two-metre social distancing. The leader of the movement, Janko Veselinović, stated that the case is "tragicomic" considering that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party organised gatherings which disrespected the afore mentioned epidemiological measures, and especially after one of their gatherings in a closed space was attended by "hundreds and thousands of people".

On 17th March 2022, Vladeta Janković, a candidate with the coalition United for the Victory of Belgrade competing for the position of Belgrade mayor, announced that the hotel Zira in Belgrade canceled a reserved hall for a pre-election rally organised by the coalition. Janković stated that they received notification from the hotel management about the cancellation only 12 hours before the scheduled time of the meeting, with the explanation that the duration of another event taking place before the opposition event had been extended.

Attack on the premises of the League of Social Democrats

On 19th March 2022, a group of extreme right-wingers gathered at a rally in support of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the centre of Novi Sad, during which they tried to attack the premises of the opposition League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV). With derogatory language and after gathering on the Freedom Square in Novi Sad, the group then headed to the LSV headquarters but the police prevented them from accessing the building.

A member of the board of the People's Party from Leskovac attacked

On 26th March 2022, Nenad Krstić, a member of the city board of the People's Party in Leskovac, was attacked in the evening in Grdelica. According to the party’s statement, Krstić was physically attacked by a man who claimed to be an activist of the Serbian Progressive Party and who threatened him and members of his family. The People's Party stated that the attack was political in nature and that the incident had been reported to the police. Krstić was hospitalised as a result of the attack.

Accusations against CSO CRTA

On 31st March 2022, President of the Council of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) Olivera Zekić accused CSO CRTA of bias in its election observation, namely of using the “the last hours before the election silence in order to get another election vote in favour of its political mentors”. The statement refers to results of research conducted on election conditions during the campaign, which were presented by CRTA earlier in the day.

Opposition politician physically attacked

President of the Movement of Free Citizens Pavle Grbović was physically assaulted by Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) members on Election Day, resulted in bodily injuries.The Ministry of Internal Affairs also issued a statement, saying that the police “reacted as soon as they received information from the media”, and that they had “secured polling stations, not parties”.

Freedom and Justice Party activists attacked

On 27th March 2022, supporters of the Party of Freedom and Justice (SSP) were verbally and physically attacked by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) during the pre-election campaign in Boleč.The same was done by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić who spoke about "provocations by supporters of the leader of the Party of Freedom and Justice. Later that day, the SSP announced that the president of its municipal board in Grocka had been detained for an "alleged attack" on an SNS member. In addition, the opposition SSP reported on other attacks that took place that day. One of those attacks took place in the Belgrade municipality of Voždovac, when a cameraman who recorded a conversation between SNS and SSP activists was attacked. There were also reported attacks outside the promotional stands, including one attack which took place in Smederevska Palanka, when a member of the SNS attacked the mother of the president of the SSP executive board.

Pressure on workers of Health Centre in Kovacica

Dragana Rakić from the Democratic Party announced that the employees of the Health Centre in Kovacica are under pressure from the Serbian Progressive Party. She stated that upon arriving at their workplace, employees received a SNS gift package, with a request to collect votes, go to the party's rallies, and vote for the party in the elections. Rakić stated that she received information about this pressure from the employees of the Health Centre who wished to remain anonymous, the day after her guest appearance in the debate on the show Reč na reč on Radio Television of Serbia.

More attacks on political actors on Election Day

Several attacks on political actors took place during the election on 3rd April 2022. The Let’s Not Drown Belgrade movement announced that the election controller in front of the Moramo Coalition was physically attacked in Zemun, Belgrade, after he discovered and filmed SNS activists using a parallel electoral roll to call people to vote. The movement also stated that its candidate for the Belgrade City Assembly, Milos Vučkovič, was attacked after he approached several persons in front of a polling station whom he claimed were putting pressure on voters by using a parallel electoral roll to tell voters how to vote. Election observers from the Youth Student Action – OSA were physically attacked in Kać, during which their mobile phone was taken away and movement restricted. Activists of the right-wing Zavetnici were attacked in Arandjelovac, during a promotional material give-away, when two men approached them and slapped one of the activists.

Activist sued for statements made against the police at a protest

Dobrica Veselinović from the Let's Not Drown Belgrade Movement was sued by the head of the police department in Šabacfor statements made about him during an environmental protest in the city on 27th November 2021. The lawsuit alleged that the police officer suffered "non-material damage", that is “damage to his honor and reputation”, due to statements made by Veselinović at the protest, after the order was issued to withdraw the police from the protest site. The Movement stated that the lawsuit is an act of intimidation. The lawsuit came after legal actions were filed against the Movement by the Millenium Team company which is building the Belgrade Waterfront project.

CSOs repeatedly targeted by right-wing parties during pre-election campaign

On 2nd March 2022, presidential candidate of the Sovereigntists, Branka Stamenković, published a video targeting civil society organisations, stating that "Serbia's national interest was greatly endangered by non-governmental organisations financed by foreign governments and outrageously rich individuals like Soros and Rockefeller". Stamenkovic stated that the “money that entered" Serbia in the last 30 years was used for the "promotion of auto-chauvinism", and that it was necessary to find a way for “Serbia to fight with this subtle and dangerous indoctrination". It should be noted that Sasa Radulovic, the leader of the political party Enough is Enough, which is part of the Sovereigntists coalition, previously targeted CSOs, stating that they were financed by global corporations and foreign governments which "buy" and "enslave" Serbia.

The Serbian Radical Party announced a "ban on financing" those CSOs that deal with "anti-Serbian propaganda", if they were to win the elections on 3rd April 2022. According to the deputy president of the party, the budget of the Republic of Serbia finances "anti-Serbian non-governmental organisations that spread anti-Serbian propaganda" and that the propaganda refers to an "independent Kosovo, genocide about Srebrenica, which says Serbs are to blame that they were bombed, and it insults the Serbian national identity".

The president of the Serbian Right, Misa Vacić, who was the party's candidate in the April presidential elections, also targeted civil society organisations with the aim to discredit their work. He stated that "any interference of foreign ambassadors in the internal affairs of the country, financing of non-governmental organisations that are fighting against the Serbian Orthodox Church, Serbian patriotism and the state itself is unacceptable to him". He added that it is unacceptable to "tolerate the media that publish maps of Serbia without Kosovo and Metohija, accuse the Serbian people of genocide and insult the feelings of the majority of citizens". 

Developments regarding environmental activists and rights

  • The director of the Kreni-promeni activist campaign, Savo Manojlović, said that activists of this initiative were physically attacked on 15th March 2022, during the pre-election rally of the Serbian Progressive Party in Vranje. As reported, the Kreni-promeni activists, who entered the rally carrying banners, were attacked by unknown persons, with their phone having been broken by the attackers. 
  • Environmental activists from Suvoborska greda and the Kreni-promeni campaigns stated that the head of the Municipal Administration of Gornji Milanovac, Dejan Veljović, obstructed the process of verifying signatures in support for the people's initiative to ban the extraction of boron and lithium in Serbia. The Municipal Administration, which was requested to verify the signatures in two local communities in Pranjani and Vraćevšnica, stated that "it was not able to verify" because of the Law on Referendum and People's Initiative, which prescribes that the verification must be performed "in the city or municipal administration".The activists announced that it will continue with requests to obtain verified signatures, but that it will also initiate legal procedures to review the actions of the head of the Municipal Administration in this situation.
  • A group of activists from the Moramo Coalition were detained by an unnamed person from the Feitiansuye factory in Perlez, near Zrenjanin, after they visited unannounced. The activists stated that they visited the waste plastic processing factory to confirm claims that the workers did not have protective equipment for waste management and that the plant is full of toxic smoke that is released without filtration, thus endangering nearby areas. The activists were held until the arrival of the police, who demanded that the activists stop filming at the factory.

Student activists physically attacked in Novi Sad

On 13th April 2022, student activists Mladen Cvijetić and Srđan Đuric were physically attacked inside the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad on student parliament election day. The students were attacked by the vice president of the faculty election commission Aleksandar Gajić and another man,. The police arrived and assured the students that an investigation into the attack will take place. After the police left, Gajić repeated the attack, trying to take away the students’ phones. The students stated that the attack took place after they tried to put a sticker on the ballot box with the inscription: “Elections without elections” as a sign of protest, as the faculty election commission had annulled the election list of the group Student Reaction, which Cvijetić and Đurić belong to, thus, only one election list was available in the elections.

Activist filmed by a drone

Youth Student Action (OSA) activist Brajan Brković said that he was filmed by a police drone that flew two metres from his terrace during the address of the President of the Republic in Novi Sad at the train station near his apartment.He added that a day earlier, he was warned by members of the Ministry of the Interior that "OSA activists should not make incidents at the opening of the railway station, because it will end very badly for them". He also stated that on the morning of the mentioned gathering, several plainclothes police officers patrolled the entrance to his building.

Peaceful Assembly

Activist summoned for questioning for participating in protests

On 23rd February 2022, Nikola Krstić, an activist and member of Pokret Tvrđava (Fortress Movement), received a summons to report to the Misdemeanor Court in Smederevo. Krstić was charged with violating two articles of the Law on Public Gatherings, namely for holding a rally without reporting it to the competent authorities and for failing to maintain order at the rally. According to the Movement, they view the case as a continuation of the pressure against their members, especially after Krstić was arrested earlier for participating in a protest and a misdemeanor procedure was also initiated against him then.

Activists attacked after Novi Sad protest

On 26th February 2022, activists from the Youth Student Action (OSA) in Novi Sad were attacked after a protest took place over the construction of a bridge. According to OSA, which organised the protests, several people with metal batons got out of a car and threatened them. After the activists confronted them, the attackers withdrew, threatening that “they will shoot” the activists. OSA stated that their security was endangered but that they will not give up on their efforts. A day later, the media published information that there was another incident at the same protest, when the driver of a car, trapped in the protest blockade, attacked some of the demonstrators. On that occasion, a police officer was almost hit, while one activist who was sitting on the road was hit by a car.

Police prevent protesters from coming to Belgrade

Activists from the villages of Slatina and Krivelj were prevented from coming to Belgrade for a protest organised by the Ekološki ustanak and the Moramo Coalitions, scheduled for 19th March 2022.They were stopped by the police on the toll ramp in Paraćin upon entering the highway to Belgrade, after which they were unable to leave for three hours. Activist Miodrag Živković stated that they were stopped due to a routine control and vehicle check, according to police, but he states that this was an excuse to prevent them from attending the scheduled protest in Belgrade. The police sent the vehicle for an inspection and Živković stated that the activists had also been "monitored a few days ago". As reported by Istmedia.rs, they were previously followed by Bor police upon leaving the city of Bor.

Activists face prison sentences

Criminal charges were filed against three Youth for Student Action activists from Novi Sad for interrupting the session of a city commission which was held to discuss changes to the General Urban Plan of the city. On 7th March 2022, the activists interrupted the session by spreading a banner and lighting pyrotechnics. They now face up to five years in prison for violent action. Civil society expressed its concern over the charges, highlighting that the activists have been subjected to attacks and smear campaigns by pro-government tabloids which brand them as “Serb haters, traitors, and destroyers of the state”.

Journalists charged with unlawful assemblies

Three journalists from the Sombor SOinfo portal were charged with unlawfully organising a protest during environmental protests in December 2021. Journalists Sava Majstorov, Sara Mikić, and Danijel Mirkov came under suspicion of organising a protest on 4th December 2022, during which violations of public order and peace took place, The journalists had failed to report the planned assembly to the Ministry of the Interior. The journalists maintain that they did not have anything to do with the organisation of the protest and that they were there for work or private reasons.

Activist and journalist charged with several offenses related to environmental protests

Niš activist and journalist Srđan Nonić, who has already been questioned by the police because of a caricature he published earlier, was charged with several offenses related to his presence at environmental protests in 2021.This misdemeanor request was signed by police Major Marko Petrović, who also had summoned Nonić previously for questioning because the journalist had published Petrović’s caricature on his Facebook profile. Nonić is facing a fine of 150,000 dinars (1,303 USD). 

Expression

Incidents against journalists

  • Dragan Marinović, editor of the local news portal Rešetka, received death threats while sitting with his wife and colleague in a café. He stated that an unknown man approached him and started threatening him, which is why they had to leave the bar soon after. Marinović stated that he did not file a report to the police because he has lost trust in state institutions after several previous reports he made regarding threats were rejected. He does not feel safe and claims that high-ranking politicians in the local government in Leskovac often initiate smear campaigns against him and have instigated others to threaten him.
  • On 18th March 2022, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) announced that the Autonomija portal was legally sentenced to a fine of 100,000 dinars (869 USD) for broadcasting a statement of a political party. NDNV stated the Court of Appeals in Belgrade confirmed the verdict of the High Court in Belgrade, which ordered that the portal pay compensation to the plaintiff, Đorđe Iskrin of Novi Sad, for "damaging of his honour and reputation". The lawsuit came after the Democratic Party's statement entitled: DS: High School Principal Rejecting Cross-Border Project To Be Replaced was broadcast on the portal, which the court described as "editorial" because it was not broadcast with quotation marks, like some other parts of the text.
"We warn the public that such a verdict is unprecedented, because it suggests that the media cannot convey the views of political actors, i.e. that they can be prosecuted and punished if anyone sues them for conveying anyone's political views", NDNV said in a press release.
  • On 3rd April 2022, President Aleksandar Vučić made a number of accusations against TV N1 after he was asked whether he would respond to the invitation of TV N1 to take part in a debate with another presidential candidate Zdravko Ponoš from the United for Victory of Serbia list. He had rejected the invitation and reiterated that N1 "called his children criminals all the time, sometimes murderers", and that he could not betray his children because of everything that N1 did to them. N1 claimed that it only broadcasted the findings on the Škaljar and Kavač families.
  • Right-wing party Srpski pokret Dveri targeted TV N1 and Nova S after a new episode of a documentary about a bishop in the Serbian Orthodox Church - "Heroes of the Evil Age" - was shown. The party stated that N1 and Nova S "insult the feelings of Orthodox believers" and that they "tell untruths" when it comes to the Serbian Orthodox Church and that "for years, the pro-Western media in Serbia have a long-term agenda to undermine the authority of the most respected institution in the Serbian people with lies and fabrications". The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) strongly condemned this party statement, stating that it can have far-reaching consequences and called on politicians to "stop the dangerous labelling and targeting of professional journalists".
  • Verica Marinčić, a journalist at IN Medija portal in Inđija, received threats after she wrote about the case of a local priest who was removed from a store by the police for refusing to pay. She stated that she perceived the threats as serious because the man who threatened her would be able to find her address, as her business is registered on her home address. The Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS), to which Verica Maričić had reported the threats, filed a complaint with the Prosecutor's Office for high-tech crime.
  • Danas journalist Vesna Torović was not allowed to enter the Serbian Progressive Party Niš City Board premises on Election Day. Although she introduced herself as a journalist and arrived to gather information on the elections, she was told that “there was nobody from the management and that it was strictly forbidden to allow anyone who was not a party member inside”, after which they closed the door in front of her.
  • Journalist Vanja Đuric and cameraman Ivan Žugić from N1 TV were verbally attacked on 14th April 2022 in Belgrade during an interview. A statement from the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) declared that the N1 journalists were attacked in the vicinity of a bank, when the private security of the bank approached them with threats and insults. The journalists stated that they were on public property, where they had scheduled an interview. NUNS condemned this attack, stating that this type of verbal attack can lead to physical assaults.
  • On 18th April 2022, N1 TV and its employees received threats via e-mail. The president of the Independent Journalist’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) condemned the attacks and said they were the result of a long-running campaign by the government against the outlet and its journalists, making them legitimate targets for "many who are prone to violence". The attacks were also condemned by the SafeJournalists network, which called on the authorities in Serbia to react and ensure the safety of journalists.
  • The editorial board of Danas announced that it received threats after a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, "Truth, not God" was published in the print edition of the paper. Death threats were made via social media and e-mail after the quote was published on Good Friday, which, according to Danas, was interpreted as a "provocation" in certain religious circles.
  • Several unknown men attacked the premises of a Hungarian media house in Subotica on the night of 17th April 2022. Video footage available on the Magločistač portal show young men with hoods kicking the glass of the front door of the building.
  • Separately, on 21st April 2022, the Nova S news team was attacked in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Mirijevo, while they were trying to film buildings that are part of a disputed legalisation procedure. The team was attacked by a person who introduced himself as a security guard who threatened the journalists.