Are Serbia’s tax inspections being used as a tool to curb the press?


Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić. Credit: Belgrade Security Forum/Flickr

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.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1525340385482-07b627f0-df12-5″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#IndexAwards2018: Novosti weekly stands up for journalism

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=””][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.”

See the full shortlist for Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards 2018 here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content” equal_height=”yes” el_class=”text_white” css=”.vc_custom_1490258749071{background-color: #cb3000 !important;}”][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_custom_heading text=”Support the Index Fellowship.” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:28|text_align:center” use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]

By donating to the Freedom of Expression Awards you help us support

individuals and groups at the forefront of tackling censorship.

Find out more

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″ css=”.vc_custom_1521479845471{background-image: url(×490-2_revised.jpg?id=90090) !important;background-position: center !important;background-repeat: no-repeat !important;background-size: cover !important;}”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523523750750-06e6cb2f-6ea9-6″ taxonomies=”10735″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Serbia: Minister sues KRIK over Paradise Paper leaks

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Mapping Media Freedom

Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project verifies threats, violations and limitations faced by the media throughout the European Union and neighbouring countries. Serious threats verified by the platform in January indicate that pressure has not let up in 2018. Here are five recent reports that give us cause for concern.

Serbia: Minister sues KRIK over Paradise Paper leaks

A Serbian minister announced on 12 January that he is suing the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), nominees for the 2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards, over the publications reporting on offshore companies and assets outlined in the Paradise Papers, a set of 13.4 million confidential documents relating to offshore investments leaked in November 2017. 

Nenad Popovic, a minister without portfolio, was the main Serbian official mentioned in the leaked documents that exposed the secret assets of politicians and celebrities around the world. Popovic was shown to have offshore assets and companies worth $100 million.

“Serbian and Cypriot authorities have already launched lawsuits against various media workers so we’re particularly concerned that investigative outlets like KRIK are being sued for uncovering corruption of government officials,” Hannah Machlin, project manager, Mapping Media Freedom said. “Journalists reporting on corruption were repeatedly harassed, and in some cases murdered, in 2017, so going into the new year, we need to ensure that their safety is prioritised in order to preserve vital investigative reporting.”

KRIK was one of the 96 media organisations from over 60 countries that analysed the papers.

Cyprus: Suspended government official sues daily newspaper over leaks

In December 2017 suspended senior state attorney Eleni Loizidou sued the daily newspaper Politis, seeking damages of between €500,000-2 million on the grounds that the media outlet breached her right to privacy and personal data protection. The newspaper had published a number of emails Loizidous had sent from her personal email account that implied Loizidou may have assisted the Russian government in the extradition cases of Russian nationals.

On 10 January the District Court of Nicosia approved a ban which forbids Politis from publishing emails from Loizidou’s account which she claims have been intercepted.

The ban will be in effect until the lawsuit against the paper is heard or another court order overrules it.

United Kingdom: Iran asks to censor Persian language media content in the UK

On 4 January, the Iranian embassy in London asked the United Kingdom Office of Communications to censor Persian language media based in the UK. The letter said the media’s coverage of the protests had been inciting people to “armed revolt”.

The letter primarily focused on BBC Persian and Manoto. BBC Persian has previously been criticised by Iranian intellectuals and activists for not distancing itself sufficiently from the Iranian government.

Latvia: Russian journalist declared a “threat to national security”

A journalist who works for the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) was branded a threat to national security on 4 January and ordered to leave the country within 24 hours after being detained.

Olga Kurlaeva went to Latvia planning to make a film about former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Kurlaeva had interviewed activists critical of Latvia’s policies towards ethnic Russians and was planning on interviewing other politicians critical of Latvian policies.

Two days earlier, her husband, Anatoly Kurlajev, a producer for Russian TV channel TVC, was detained by Latvian police and reportedly later deported to Russia. 

Azerbaijan: Editor claims alleged assault was fabricated to silence his newspaper

Elchin Mammad, the editor-in-chief of the online news platform Yukselis Namine, wrote in a public Facebook post on 4 January that he is being investigated for threatening and beating a newspaper employee.

Mammad wrote that the alleged victim, Aygun Amiraslanova, was never employed by Yukselis Namine and potentially does not exist. Mammad believes this is another attempt to silence his newspaper and staff.

Mammad was previously questioned by Sumgayit police in November about his work at the newspaper. The police told him that he was preventing the development of the country and national economic growth. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1516702060574-c4ac0556-7cf7-1″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Serbian journalists campaign for free media

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”97095″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]After more than twenty years of investigative reporting, one of the most popular and trusted local weeklies in Serbia, Vranjske Novine, was forced to shut down. It’s founder and editor-in-chief, Vukasin Obradovic, went in hunger strike a day later. He stressed that the fight for media freedom in Serbia was becoming meaningless, and that his move was one of a desperate journalist. The shut down of Vranjske is not a story of print media struggling in the new digital landscape. Something much more sinister appeared to be afoot.

Vranjske Novine was a local newspaper in the southern town of Vranje, but it was considered a paper of national importance.

“Vransjke wasn’t shut down because they didn’t have readers,” Andjela Milivojevic from the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) told Index on Censorship. “They were shut down because the state did everything in their power to shut them down.”

Vranjske didn’t have it easy for years. It was facing threats, political pressure, financial difficulties and its journalists were often labelled as foreign mercenaries by pro-government media. In recent months Vranjske was subjected to investigations by the country’s tax authority and Obradovic received threats saying that they would continue to find something that would discredit the paper. It left him with no other choice than to stop his life’s work.

Three months earlier the paper had published an interview with a former director of the local tax inspection agency, a whistle blower, who revealed corruption. “We think this was the trigger,” said Milivojevic. Obradovic had to stop his hunger strike a few days later because of health problems. He planned to keep the Vranjske website open, but in early December he was forced to close that down as well due to a lack of financing.

Vranjske struggled for years. Their applications for government funds, specially allocated for journalistic productions of public interest, were consistently denied. Instead, subsidies went to pro-government media, Milivojevic explained. “For example, the money would go to a TV station owned by the son of a local politician”.

To Milivojevic and other independent journalists, the Vranjske case stands for everything that is wrong in the Serbian media landscape. And the moment Vukasin Obradovic announced his hunger strike was crucial.

“That was the trigger that moved all of us, because we just couldn’t accept that a journalist who had survived Milosevic, is forced to go in hunger strike in 2017,” she said.

Obradovic is a prominent journalist in Serbia and the former president of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (NUNS). As founder and chief-editor of Vranjske his career dates back to the 1990’s when Slobodan Milosevic ruled the country, then Yugoslavia. “They did stories that were important for the whole country, from war crimes during the 1990s to issues we have today,” said Milivojevic. “Stories that were awarded, stories that we all talked about.”

That same night about a hundred journalists and activists gathered in front of the parliament building in Belgrade, to show their support to Obradovic and his Vranjske. They carried banners reading ‘I stand with Vranjske’. It was the birth of the Group For Media Freedom, aimed to address the lack of media freedom in Serbia.

“We need to do something that will wake up citizens,” Milivojevic, who is one of the initiators, explained. She emphasised that it is not just an issue for journalists, but for all the Serbian citizens. “This is a fight for freedom of speech, and at the end of the day this concerns every single citizen,” she said. “We are fighting for a free democratic society in which we all can do our jobs normally.”

According to Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index media freedom in Serbia has suffered “ever since Alexandar Vucic, Slobodan Milosevic’s former information minister, became Prime Minister in May 2014.” Serbia was ranked 66th, seven places down compared to 2015.

Vucic was elected president of Serbia in April 2017. During a protest outside the presidential building in Belgrade, several journalists faced violence by government security guards, but to date no one has been held responsible. “The public prosecutor said that there was no violence,” says Milivojevic. “But we have pictures showing a big man holding journalists, pushing them, holding them by the throat. We could see it with our own eyes.”

The Group for Media Freedom has compiled a list of demands that they’ve sent to government officials including the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic.

The group has so far organised panels and debates. There was a 24 hour media blackout during which several independent media organisations and NGOs blacked out their websites to show what it would look like if there was no free media at all. But most importantly, they are going around the country, to smaller cities, to reach ordinary citizens. Handing out flyers and talking to people about what free media means for them, Milivojevic explained.

“People will never hear about these problems in mainstream media because they are all controlled by the ruling party,” Milivojevic said. “So we have to go on foot to the citizens and tell them what is happening. If they would know how much money is spent on corruption, how many people are employed without public competition or that the mayor of Belgrade has problematic assets, they would never vote for the ruling party.”[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=””][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Mapping Media Freedom” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-times-circle” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Index on Censorship monitors press freedom in 42 European countries.

Since 24 May 2014, Mapping Media Freedom’s team of correspondents and partners have recorded and verified more than 3,700 violations against journalists and media outlets.

Index campaigns to protect journalists and media freedom. You can help us by submitting reports to Mapping Media Freedom.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook) and we’ll send you our weekly newsletter about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share your personal information with anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row]