#IndexAwards2018: Novosti weekly stands up for journalism

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=”https://youtu.be/hKK5t6te-GE”][vc_column_text]Novosti weekly is a Serbian-language magazine in Croatia. It is run by journalists who are both Serbs and Croats, and are some of the most highly esteemed reporters in the country.

Although the weekly is fully funded as a Serb minority publication by the Serbian National Council, the paper deals with a whole range topics, not only those directly related to the minority status of Croatian Serbs, but also covering all the political, economic, social and cultural issues that are important for the Croatian society as a whole.  2018 Freedom of Expression Awards link

The paper’s journalists have come under intense pressure in the last year from Croatian nationalists with attacks and death threats that have been sanctioned by ultra-conservative forces in the country.

“As journalists we realise that our professional duty is to write truth, but because of the conditions in which we work, a significant part of our business has become the defence of the right to freedom of expression, without which truth is not possible,” said Novosti Weekly. 

This is against a backdrop of a nationalist coalition government led by the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which oversaw the sacking or demotion of 70 public broadcast  journalists in the months after it came to power in January 2016.

Novosti irritates nationalists by writing about the things Croatian society is often silent on, for instance, the war crimes committed by the Croatian side during the Balkans war in the 1990s and the role of Croatian forces in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It often uses satirical front covers to make its point.

The weekly also stands up for minorities, including LGBT groups, against the conservative forces of the Catholic Church and war veterans. One of their journalistic campaigns has been to challenge attempts by the far right to rehabilitate the Ustaše, the  fascists who were in power in Croatia during World War II.

Novosti prides itself also on classic investigative journalism, which uncovers political and corporate corruption; and they do not shy away from exposing the pressure on editors and journalists from both censorship and self-censorship.

2017 was a year which saw the further rise in Croatia of right-wing extremism and ultra-conservative tendencies.  Novosti weekly has been at the forefront of fighting the nationalist purges, becoming a forum for voices of resistance.

At the beginning of December 2016, Novosti broke a story about plans by the government, and veterans associations to install a memorial plaque with the World War II fascist slogan Za dom spremni (Ready for the Homeland) near the site of the former ustaše concentration camp at Jasenovac where more than 83,000 Serbs, Roma and Jews died.

Immediately after the release of the story in Novosti, the far-right political party A-HSP organised a protest under the windows of the magazine’s offices shouting, fascist slogans and anti-Serbian insults.

Some war veterans’ societies filed criminal charges against journalists, and others launched a series of private lawsuits against the publisher of the Novosti.

In August 2017, the extreme right piled on the pressure, accusing Croatian Serbs of setting the fires which burnt down forests in large parts of the Croatian coast during the summer.

They claimed Novosti Weekly had been encouraging the arsonists and Novosti received threats of violence – to shoot journalists and bomb the offices. The editorial team was told they would end up killed like  Charlie Hebdo journalists.

The culmination of the summer of threats happened when the A-HSP  organised another protest in front of Novosti’s offices and burnt copies of the magazine under the windows of the offices

“We would like to thank you for recognizing our work as well as for putting Novosti Weekly into the international spotlight after reaching the shortlist of the Freedom of Expression Awards,” said Novosti Weekly. “Your recognition means as much as the reactions of all relevant international journalistic organizations that stood in Weekly Novosti’s defense after facing pressure and threats for the work that we do. It’s a strong message of support that speaks volumes not only for all those who burnt out paper, but also to those who tried to ensure our destruction.”

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Russia’s anti-gay laws no laughing matter

The gay community is one of the most vulnerable minorities in Russia, and homophobia is one of the country’s most rampant prejudices. According to Levada centre research, around 74 per cent of Russian citizens consider members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) community to be “dissolute” and “mentally retarded”.

Mike Kireev - DemotixRussian lawmakers seem to agree with this prejudice and plan to pass a federal law “against the promotion of homosexuality”.

The law forbids exposing underage Russians to information about homosexuality and, moreover, about the fact that “traditional and non-traditional relationship(s) are socially equal” (sic). Anyone exposing children under 18 to “homosexual propaganda” should expect to pay the price: LGBT NGOs can be fined up to 500 thousand roubles (10, 782 GBP) and activists up to 50 thousand roubles (1007 GBP).

The law already exists in the cities of Ryazan, Archangelsk and Kostroma. In March it was passed in St Petersburg by United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov, prompting a furious response from human rights activists and the civil society. The European Parliament says the law “violates freedom of expression regarding sexual orientation”, and the US State Department has called for respect towards LGBT activists in the country.

But the only response they received from Russian authorities was announcing plans to pass the law nationwide; forbidding another gay pride in Moscow and triggering several bizarre examples of the law’s misuse. Here are just a few:

United Russia v Madonna

DemotixVitaly Milonov came after pop star Madonna, after she used a 9 August concert in the city to speak out against St Petersburg’s anti-gay law. During her performance, Madonna yelled out her message of support to the crowd:

“I am here to say that the gay community and gay people here and all around the world have the same rights — to be treated with dignity, with respect, with tolerance, with compassion, with love,”

The pop star was not only outspoken about gay rights during her trip, she also donned a balaclava and called for the release of Pussy Riot during a 7 August show in Moscow. Milonov’s Ultranationalist associates from the Narodny Sobor organisation filed a civil law suit against Madonna demanding 333 million roubles (about £6.5m ) to compensate for “moral damage” caused by “promoting homosexuality”, arguing that this would cause lower birthrates and subsequently destroy Russia through eroding its military. Milonov’s case was thrown out by Moscow’s district court in St Petersburg on 22 November.

Meanwhile, Milonov is keeping alive the fight against LGBT-friendly pop stars: He has made it clear that minors won’t be making it to Lady Gaga’s 9 December performance in St Petersburg, having warned concert organisers that no one under 18 should be allowed into the concert.

Homosexuality v Field Hockey

The first implementation of the law in St Petersburg happened in May 2012, when gay pride organiser and rights advocate Nikolay Alexeev staged a single picket holding a placard with a quote from iconic Russian actress Faina Ranevskaya:

“Homosexuality is not a perversion. A perversion is field hockey and ballet on ice”.

Alexeev, a professional lawyer, was fined five thousand roubles (approximately £100) for “promoting homosexuality”. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) slammed the ban on gay-prides in Moscow, but Russia’s courts have ignored the ECHR’s decision. ECHR is yet to rule its decision on the controversial law.

Nationalists v milk

Lead by Milonov’s assistant Anatoly Artyukh, the local chapter of Narodny Sobor filed a complaint against a dairy company with the prosecutor’s office in St Petersburg, alleging that its packaging began to feature a rainbow after the city passed the ban in March. The group claims that Vimm-Bill-Dann dairy company promotes homosexuality by producing dairy products with a rainbow — a symbol of the LGBT community — on the packaging. “That’s an open propaganda of vice,” — Artyukh told Interfax news agency, adding that he, together with his fellow activists, will be preventing St Petersburg citizens from buying the company’s products. However, the dairy company denies the allegations, saying that the rainbow is nothing more than a rainbow.

Braces v rallies

Pavel Samburov, one of Moscow’s leading LGBT activists and deputy head of Rainbow Association NGO told Index that it’s unlikely that St Petersburg’s anti-LGBT laws would be passed nation wide by the State Duma. Samburov claims the law aims to “to frighten and discriminate” against members of the LGBT community “rather than focusing on implementing them heavily. “St Petersburg authorities claim 73 people have been fined for promoting homosexuality” but Samburov doubts these statistics, adding “[the] gay community is very united in Russia and is likely to know at least something about each case, but none of us know about the [other] 72 cases, only Nikolai Alexeyev‘s prosecution”.

One of Samburov’s friends was threatened by St Petersburg police after participating in demonstrations for human rights in the city on 1 May — for wearing rainbow coloured braces. He was fined 500 roubles (£10) in the end, not for breaking the gay propaganda law, but for “breaking [the] rules of participating in rallies”. While the application of anti-gay laws has brought about some ridiculous cases, Samburov explained why the law is no laughing matter:

“The law might seem funny in its misuse with Madonna, dairies or others targets, but after it was passed LGBT people in St Petersburg faced more pressure, especially in schools and medical institutions — people were told day by day they were not welcome at work and finally had to quit  because they couldn’t deal with such psychological pressure. The other consequence has been that assaults against LGBT people in streets and near gay clubs became more frequent.”

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