It’s been six months since Južne Vesti, the most popular news website in southern Serbia, was subject to severe and inexplicably long tax inspections. This was their fifth such investigation in five years. Their clients and advertisers have also been pressured, and their family members harassed and intimidated. These frequent, months-long visits are exhausting for employees, keeping them away from their regular day-to-day work. Inspectors have never established any irregularities nor has the website ever been penalised. Nonetheless, controls have intensified.
“It’s difficult for me to believe that the motives behind so many frequent and intense inspections are anything but political,” Predrag Blagojević, editor-in-chief of Južne Vesti told Mapping Media Freedom. But what was the trigger?
The first tax inspector knocked on Južne Vesti’s door in December 2013, right after the portal ran a story about Zoran Perišić, then mayor of the city of Niš, who hid his salary from anti-corruption investigators, Blagojević explained. Perišić asked the portal not to run the piece. “Why don’t you reveal incomes of Južne Vesti?” he asked. Blagojević let Perišić know that all the data was publicly available through the Business Registers Agency website. A few days later, after an anonymous tip, tax inspectors came looking for documents related to Južne Vesti’s incomes. Four months later, the website was told that “there were no irregularities found”. This was just the first in a series of inspections.
In an interview, Blagojević said state pressure on the media — like in the similar case of the weekly Vranjske which was forced to shut down — is dangerous and deceitful because the government can always justify it as “the rule of law”. There are few witnesses willing to publicly testify about the pressures they’re exposed to because people fear challenging the Tax Administration.
“They are chasing away our clients and by doing so, cutting our incomes, killing us financially in a way that even well-informed citizens can’t notice,” Blagojević said. “And if we give up in the end, our prime minister will say — just like in the case of Vranjske newspaper — that ‘they didn’t survive the market game’.”
After Južne Vesti informed the public about extensive audits followed by threats and intimidation of their clients and their family members, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) issued a strong condemnation, demanding prime minister Ana Brnabić end the campaign of government pressure on Južne Vesti. The same letter was sent to the European Commission, the European Federation of Journalists and other international organisations.
The OSCE representative on freedom of the media Harlem Désir, who visited Serbia to discuss media freedom issues with Serbia’s highest officials — president Vučić and prime minister Brnabić — and media representatives, was also told about the problems and pressures that Južne Vesti has been struggling with.
Following the meetings with Désir, Brnabić stated that she asked the director of tax administration to “stop the controls if they are not needed”. At the time, there was only one tax inspector working on the case. On the very next day, Južne Vesti counted at least 14 new inspectors visiting their advertisers and business partners.
The president of NUNS, Slaviša Lekić, told Mapping Media Freedom that their public appeal to the prime minister and her conversation with tax authorities happened to coincide with intensified and extended inspection of Južne Vesti. “I want to believe it was a coincidence.”
Blagojević thinks that the real message is that Brnabić’s statement on the inspections actually conveys that there is no rule of law in Serbia. “How can a prime minister ask for the dismissal of tax controls? It means that she can make similar demands for other companies or individuals,” the editor explained. Blagojević also said he wonders if the prime minister knows that the tax administration is conducting investigations where none are needed.
The Serbian state secretary for media, Aleksandar Gajović, invited Južne Vesti to contact him in writing regarding their case. But Blagojević believes if Gajović really wanted to help, he would have contacted the management of the website himself instead of publicly inviting them to write to him. “These kinds of statements stultify all currently existing legal forms, and state secretary’s engagement in the production of new documents, such as Serbia’s new media strategy, clearly suspend everything that was achieved so far.”
NUNS strongly opposed the draft of Serbia’s new media strategy, which has yet to be released to the public. The union demanded a new strategy document be drafted because the first has been, according to NUNS, based on the interests of government officials and not the public’s right to information. “It is completely unacceptable,” Lekić said. “If it gets passed, it means that the state is coming back to the media and position of journalists and media organisations will be far worse than today, although that seems unthinkable now.”
If renationalisation of the media is the goal of Serbia’s government, the strategy that would run counter to the country’s media reform and privatisation laws.
Other media organisations and associations have also criticised the draft document. Many resigned from the working group that had been established to prepare the draft strategy. Representatives of those groups said they believe that the new document will only worsen the already worrying condition of media freedom in Serbia.
In the wake of Désir’s visit to the country, Brnabić announced on 24 April that the government’s media strategy would be put on hold because the working group that created the first draft was “illegitimate” due to the absence of relevant media associations’ representatives. It is unclear what the next steps in the development of the strategy will be or who will devise it.
The latest Serbia Human Rights report issued by the US department of state said that “while independent media organisations generally were active and expressed a wide range of views, there were reports that the government pressured media by withholding advertising, abusing tax audits, and restricting access to public information”.
But Južne Vesti is not the only organisation to face financial losses due to pressure from tax authorities. One of the consequences of intensive inspections into the publication and its business partners is that they paid 600,000 dinars (€5,079) less taxes for the first quarter of 2018. “We simply couldn’t deliver some services because we have to deal with nonsense,” Blagojević said.
Despite the near-constant pressures, Južne Vesti gained support from colleagues, citizens and civic activists who got in touch, asking how to help, offering expert advice and legal aid. “There is not much we can do. We are sure that everything is clear on our side and we have no concerns about that,” Blagojević says.
Južne Vesti never asked inspectors to end their investigations, but rather demanded they do not overstep their legal authorisation, that they stop intimidating their clients, advertisers and suppliers. The editor-in-chief said he is worried that the tax administration is ceasing to be an institution that works in the public interest and becoming a weapon in the hands of authorities.
Lekić notes that the “virus of fear”, which was thought to have been eradicated or suppressed, has infected almost all of Serbia’s journalists. “And that is dangerous for our society, especially when common citizens mostly expect journalists to be what the citizens themselves are not: truthful, brave and to represent the public interest.”
“Media freedom is deeply related with media sustainability, which means the situation is catastrophic,” Blagojević said. For the last three years, Serbia’s IREX global Media Sustainability Index is lower than it was in 2000, the last year of Milošević’s dictatorship, when it had been considered to be the worst possible. “I think it illustrates best the condition of media freedom in Serbia.”