Serbian protesters voice their dissent against president’s authoritarian drift

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”106589″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Every Saturday, for the past five months, thousands of people have gathered on the streets of Serbian capital Belgrade to voice their dissent against President Aleksandar Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies and increasing control over the country’s media.

“Initially the protests were named ‘Stop the Bloody Shirts’,” Serbian journalist Lazara Marinkovic said. “And this was a reaction to an incident that happened in one city in Serbia, where Borko Stefanaović, an opposition leader, was physically beaten.”

Stefanaović, who was attacked last November in Kruševac, is the president of the political party Serbian Left and a founder of opposition coalition Alliance for Serbia. His assault, in which a masked group of assailants  armed with bats and steel bars beat him, led to a rally in Belgrade.

“These people were saying that the beating happened as a result of political violence that the opposition is exposed to,” continued Marinkovic. “After one or two weeks, our president vucic had a reaction to those protests. He said ‘even if five million people were on the streets, (he) wouldn’t concede to their demands.’

This sparked the formation of protests dubbed “one in five million” – a name lifted directly from Vučić’s comment. Though it remains uncertain whether the ongoing rallies will bring about change, Mitra Nazar, a Balkans correspondent for Dutch public broadcaster NOS, says it is “important” for protesters to demonstrate their unhappiness with Vučić.

“At this moment it’s about showing presence in the street more than actually having the feeling that they could change something,” said Nazar, who currently lives in Belgrade.

“I don’t think anybody in these protests believes that this could turn around now, but they do see this as part of a bigger movement that could eventually grow into something substantial, that could challenge the ruling party at elections.”

The demonstrations are the biggest since the fall of former President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 – though lack of coverage in mainstream Serbian media would suggest otherwise. With Vučić pushing for Serbia to join the European Union, his grip on the media has tightened in efforts to appear stable to Brussels.

“Vučić wants to be the person that brings Serbia into the EU,” continued Nazar, “and in Brussels Vučić is still seen as a leader who can guarantee stability in the Balkans, and someone who’s willing to negotiate about a solution for the frozen conflict in Kosovo.

“His critics say the EU does not pressure Vučić  enough on topics like media freedom, whilst they see his control over the media getting stronger.”

The country’s public broadcaster RTS has been targeted by demonstrators who are critical of the outlet’s coverage of the protests. The opposition says that, although reporting is completely neutral, it fails to ask why such a huge amount of people gather outside its headquarters in Belgrade every week.

“They are being biased,” added Marinkovic. “There was an incident when people who were demonstrating went inside the (RTS) building.

“They say that they didn’t go inside violently but some violence did happen because there was a lot of police who started kicking them out. Many people will agree that if these people do something violent, or vandalise something, it would be immediately used against them.

“They are trapped in a way they cannot really radicalise their protest. Nobody listens, nobody cares. It’s just like an echo chamber basically.”[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1556799282299-4d20cd01-70c2-7″ taxonomies=”7370, 113″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

“You have to be brave to be a journalist in Serbia”

Mapping Media Freedom

Investigative journalist Ivan Ninic knew something was wrong when he saw the two young men reach down. “I saw they were getting two metal bars,” said Ninic, who is the latest victim of violence against journalists in Serbia. Two young men, in tracksuits and baseball caps, assaulted him on a Thursday evening in late August, in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. “They attacked me and stuck me brutally,” he told UNS, a Serbian association for journalists. “I have a haematoma under my eye, bruises on the thigh bone and an injury to my shoulder.”

Just a week earlier, at a Jazz Festival in the southern city of Nis, local journalist Predrag Blagojevic was beaten by a police officer for — in the words of the officer — “acting smart”. “He grabbed me, bent my arm behind my back and repeated several times ‘Why are you acting smart?’ Then he hit me in the head with his hand. He hit me twice,” Blagojevic stated after the incident. Blagojevic had been approached by the officer and asked for his identity papers. Blagojevic had asked “why?” The police officer took him to his car and started beating him.

Media freedoms in Serbia are on the decline. The country has been cited in 93 verified violations against the media reported to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project. A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), painted a picture of journalists in several western Balkan countries, working in hostile environments whilst facing threats and intimidation.

“It’s certainly not going forward,” HRW researcher Lydia Gall said in an interview with Index on Censorship. “What in fact should be showing progress, is rather deteriorating.”

Gall interviewed over 80 journalists in Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The stories she heard were shocking.

“These are all countries that are transitioning,” she said. “They’re undergoing democratic development in, one would hope, a positive direction. But when you look at the documentation I’ve collected you’ll see a worrying picture unravel.”

The report contains examples of threats, beatings, and even the murder of several journalists. It also claims there is political interference, pressure and a lack of action by the authorities to investigate and prosecute those responsible for crimes against the media.

In Serbia alone Human Rights Watch reported 28 cases of physical attacks, threats, and other types of intimidation against journalists between January and August 2014.

NUNS (the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia) has documented a total of 365 physical and verbal assaults, and attacks, in the period from 2008 to 2014. This may be the tip of the iceberg since, according to NUNS, many media workers don’t report attacks.

Between May 2014 and June 2015, Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project has received 77 reports of violations against Serbian journalists and media workers.

Most of the targeted journalists investigate corruption and allegations of war crimes. Both Ivan Ninic and Predrag Blagojevic report on corruption on a regular basis. “These are not popular topics in the Balkans,” Lydia Gall said. “There are always people in power trying to get them not to write about them.”

Serbia has undergone incredible change over the past two decades. During the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia censorship was directly imposed by the state. Few forget the difficulties of reporting in Serbia during the darkest moments of the 1990s. Means and methods of pressure and censorship are very different nowadays.

“It’s not necessarily the state going after the journalist anymore,” Gall explained. “But it’s more the state neglecting to properly investigate crimes against journalists.”

“If it’s not physical interference or abuse, then it’s threats, or so-called friendly advice. In some cases journalists are being sued for civil libel and end up spending most of their time in courts instead of doing their work. It can be done in very subtle ways.”

This all contributes to a hostile environment for journalists to work in, the HRW report concludes. “You have to be a brave person to do this type of reporting in the Balkans,” said Gall.

Sometimes pressure on the media in Serbia is not even that subtle. Current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, has been accused of being overly hostile against the media. He has publicly labeled Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) foreign spies . The current government has also been accused by some journalists of involvement in several cyber attacks on critical online media portals, such as Pescanik.

“Improving media freedom is an important condition in Serbia’s negotiation process with the European Union for membership. But EU’s pressure on Serbia is too weak,” said Gall.

“They’re mainly looking at the legislative framework. On paper it looks great. The problem comes to light when you look on the ground. When you speak to journalists, who are living this reality every day.”

Meanwhile the Serbian journalist associations, NUNS and UNS, are trying to put pressure on the authorities to track down the attackers of Ivan Ninic.

Ninic is known for his investigations into corruption within high levels of government. He founded the Center for the Rule of Law, an NGO, and is planning to launch a website to publish investigative reports.

He believes the attack is a warning: “I expect the police will find and punish not only the attackers, but also the masterminds, so that I know who is sending me this message,” he said in a statement.


Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at

This article was published on 16 September 2015 at

Journalists covering MH17 threatened by separatists

Separatists in East Ukraine threatened journalists reporting on the Malaysia Airlines MH17 disaster. The plane was downed on Thursday 18 July killing 298 people, including 193 Dutch citizens.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Anna Nemtsova and two colleagues were detained at the morgue by separatists.

On Monday 21 July, Rudy Bouma, a reporter for the Dutch TV broadcaster Nieuwsuur, took photos of rebels carrying weapons at the train station in Donetsk. The separatists controlled the train that was carrying the bodies of the victims.

More reports from The Netherlands via

Journalist denied entrance to public court hearing

‘Rules for using drones by journalists too restricted’

Journalists’ cameras seized by police

Dutch magazine on trial for photographing princess

This article was posted on July 21, 2014 at

Egypt: Sentenced Dutch journalist “will not rest” until colleagues are free

Rena Netjes

Rena Netjes

Dutch journalist Rena Netjes was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison in Egypt. The Egyptian government’s case against her and other journalists generated media interest from around the world. With the help of her colleagues at the Dutch Union for Journalists she’s now raising the issue of human rights and press freedom violations in Egypt in The Netherlands and abroad.

When freelance correspondent Netjes arrived at Schiphol airport on the 4th of February this year, she had just slipped out of Egypt after finding out she was blacklisted by the Egyptian government and would have to stand trial for on charges of working for Al Jazeera, terrorism and endangering national security. At home in The Netherlands, she recounted her escape with the help of Dutch diplomats in Egypt to newspapers and television in what seemed like a media circus.

While Netjes managed to flee Egypt, her colleagues were not so fortunate. Three Al Jazeera journalists, the Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian Baher Mohamed and the Australian Peter Greste, have been sentenced to seven years, after being held in an Egyptian prison since December 2013.

In June, from the safety of her living room in The Netherlands, she learned that she has been sentenced to ten years in prison. She was convicted on the charges of spreading false information and promoting the banned Muslim Brotherhood. She was accused of working for Al Jazeera, which the Egyptian government claims promotes the views of the Muslim Brotherhood. Netjes says she only had coffee with the chief editor on one occasion. British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane have also been sentenced in absentia to ten years imprisonment.

For Netjes, who lived and worked in Egypt for many years, the verdict means she might never be able to set foot in the country again.

“It’s still an emotional roller coaster,” she told Index on Censorship. She’s relieved to be free but is concerned about her colleagues now. “It’s hard to imagine these guys are in prison, in the hands of sadists.”

Her career as a foreign correspondent in Egypt is over, for now at least. Netjes would run the risk of being arrested if she returned. She can’t even go to most countries in the Middle East because of extradition agreements. “Even Lebanon extradites ‘terrorists’ to Egypt”, she said.

With the spotlight on her in The Netherlands, Netjes said she sees an opportunity to generate attention for Egypt’s human rights violations, the lack of press freedom and specifically the plight of the other journalists, who weren’t able to escape prison sentences. “They now depend on international pressure, by politicians and diplomats behind the scenes, but also on awareness raised by colleagues around the world”.

Netjes speaks frequently to Dutch and international media and is invited to panel discussions and public human rights events. “I’m trying to turn this traumatic experience into something positive,” she said. “I have a more platform to explain what is going on Egypt, to raise the subject of the abuses in Egypt”.

The Dutch Union for Journalists (Nederlandse Vereniging voor Journalisten, NVJ) jumped in to support Netjes’ case and the campaign for free media in Egypt. On July 8, NVJ-President Marjan Enzlin paid a visit to the Egyptian embassy in The Netherlands to address the issue.

At the embassy Enzlin expressed her concern about the trial and her worries about the lack of freedom for media in Egypt. “We told him these verdicts are a strong violation of press freedom. We asked him to deliver this message to his president”, she told Index on Censorship. “He told us he is not in the position to intervene. And then he even lectured us on how western media is poorly informed and is deliberately spreading negative stories about Egypt. It was ridiculous”.

Enzlin acknowledges that without Netjes’ involvement, the case probably wouldn’t have generated so much attention in Dutch media and politics. “It is because of Rena that this case is so high on the Dutch agenda. But through Rena, we should now fight for the others. We as free journalists in a free country have to make noise about the case. We should be a thorn in one’s side”.

Being one of the highest ranked countries in terms of media freedom, Enzlin believes the Dutch media should stand up. “The resistance needs to come from here”, she said. “We are spoiled in The Netherlands. We see it as our duty to support and help our colleagues in countries like Egypt”.

Immediately after the verdict in Egypt, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans summoned the Egyptian ambassador. The Dutch government insists the trial wasn’t fair, and urged Egypt to improve human rights. The NVJ wants to make sure this kind of diplomatic pressure won’t wane over time. “This requires long term commitment, we have to keep the pressure up”, Enzlin says.

The NVJ has several actions and protests lined up. They will publish a photo gallery on their website of all journalists who have been convicted in Egypt. They have sent a letter to the Egyptian ambassador in The Netherlands asking for assurances that Netjes can travel to the country for her appeal without fear of detention. If Netjes can’t go to Egypt safely, the NVJ requested to go in her place.

After the Dutch parliament’s summer recess, the NVJ will ask for another meeting with the Egyptian ambassador. They plan to invite MPs to join them to add more political pressure. The union will also organise a protest at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, in front of the gate for flights to Egypt. “We will make banners saying ‘journalists are not terrorists’. Something Egypt will not be happy with.”

Netjes is still publishing stories on issues in Egypt. “I still have my sources in Egypt feeding me with information because they see that I am in the position to speak and write freely”. Meanwhile, spreading the word about the deplorable situation for journalists and activists in Egypt became a mission on its own.

“I am deprived of my freedom to travel, but that is nothing compared to what the guys who are imprisoned are going through”, she said. “I will not rest before they are free.”

This article was updated on July 21, 2014 to reflect that Marjan Enzlin is the President of NVJ, not Director as previously stated.

More reports from The Netherlands via

Journalist denied entrance to public court hearing

‘Rules for using drones by journalists too restricted’

Journalists’ cameras seized by police

Dutch magazine on trial for photographing princess

This article was posted on July 18, 2014 at