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]

Doing their masters’ bidding: Media smear campaigns in central and eastern Europe

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”104453″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Additional reporting by Ada Borowicz, Ilcho Cvetanoski, Lazara Marinković and Zoltán Sipos

Unpatriotic behaviour. Sedition. Being in the pay of shadowy external forces. Faking a neo-Nazi event. These are just a few of the charges that have recently been levelled against independent journalists by pro-government media outlets in several central and eastern European countries.

The opening volley in a sustained campaign of vilification directed at Serbia‘s independent media was fired by the state-owned weekly Ilustrovana Politika at the end of October, with an article that accused journalists who are critical of the government of being “traitors and collaborators with the enemies of Serbia”.

Two weeks later, Ilustrovana Politika followed up with another piece that accused the veteran journalist Ljiljana Smajlović – who has long been critical of the nationalistic legacy bequeathed on the country by its former leader Slobodan Milosević and co-founded the Commission Investigating the Murders of Journalists in Serbia – of complicity in the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade.

In mid-December, Ilustrovana Politika’s campaign of character assassination against Smajlović ratcheted up another level with a garish front page depicting her as a Madonna figure with two naked infants bearing the features of Veran Matić, the chairman of the commission, and US Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott.

Smajlović has no doubt over what lies behind this tidal wave of denigration, of which she has become the prime target.

History repeating itself?

Editor Slavko Ćuruvija was murdered in 1999.

Editor Slavko Ćuruvija was murdered in 1999.

The long-running trial of four ex-members of the Serbian intelligence service accused of the murder of Dnevni Telegraf editor Slavko Ćuruvija – shot dead in April 1999 a few days after the pro-government Politika Ekspres accused him of welcoming the NATO bombardment – is now in its final stages, and Smajlović is convinced that the current campaign against her is designed to influence the judges in the case.

“The attacks come from the same Milosevic-era editors who also targeted my colleague Ćuruvija as a traitor prior to his assassination,” she told Mapping Media Freedom. “What is also sinister is that they are published and printed by the same state-owned media company that targeted Slavko nearly twenty years ago.”

“The clear implication is that I am the same kind of traitor as he was. How will that affect the judges? Will they fear this is not a good time to hold state security chiefs to account?” she added.

While Smajlović admits that Ilustrovana Politika’s denunciation has made her feel insecure, she insists she is less concerned for her own safety than worried about the consequences for the outcome of the Ćuruvija trial. Quoting Marx’s dictum that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce”, Smajlović said. “I hope this is the farce part.”

Laying the blame

In Serbia and other central and eastern European countries, the assignment of responsibility for historic causes of resentment and the potential of these to further divide a polarised public often form the background to attacks on independent journalists by their state-approved colleagues.

The thorny topic of Poland’s relations with Germany during the last century recently gave pro-government media in Poland a chance to accuse independent media of being insufficiently patriotic and even of falsifying facts.

Journalist Bartosz Wieliński was targeted by the head of TVP Info's news site.

Journalist Bartosz Wieliński was targeted by the head of TVP Info’s news site.

In November, after Bartosz Wieliński, a journalist with the independent daily Gazeta Wyborcza, gave a critical account of a speech made by the Polish ambassador to Berlin at a conference devoted to the centenary of Poland’s independence, the head of the state broadcaster’s news website, TVP Info, accused him of lying and of putting the interests of Germany before those of his own country.

Only a few days before this attack, two media outlets that support Poland’s ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party accused the independent US-owned channel TVN of fabricating the evidence on which a report about the resurgence of neo-Nazism in Poland was based.

Since it came to power in 2015, PiS – which has been accused by its critics of tolerating organisations that espouse far-right ideologies – has put pressure on independent media outlets, many of which are foreign-owned, as part of its campaign to “re-polonise” the media, and now appears to be using the public broadcaster and other tame outlets as accessories in this drive.

Willing accomplices

In Hungary, where the government led by Viktor Orbán has succeeded in imposing tight control on all but a few determinedly independent media outlets, a number of loyal publications are available for the purposes of vilification.

2015 Freedom of Expression Journalism Award winner Tamás Bodoky, founder of

2015 Freedom of Expression Journalism Award winner Tamás Bodoky, founder of

In September, a whole raft of pro-government media outlets vied with each other to depict Tamás Bodoky, the editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism platform Átlátszó and winner of the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Journalism, as a “Soros hireling”. Bodoky became the target of a co-ordinated smear campaign after he posted on Facebook a picture of himself taken in Brussels with Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, whose report on the Fidesz government’s infringement of core EU values had formed the basis for the European parliament’s censure motion against Hungary a few weeks earlier.

Another Hungarian journalist, András Dezső, who works for the independent news website, also recently came under attack from pro-government media outlets after a Budapest court let him off with a reprimand over a case in which he was alleged to have made unauthorised use of personal information. In an article published before April’s general election, Dezső had cast doubt on the account of a woman who declared on Hungarian TV that she felt safer in Budapest than in Stockholm because of the lower level of immigration in Hungary. The airing of the interview by the public broadcaster was seen as providing support for Fidesz’s anti-immigration stance and aiding its election victory.

A criminal charge was issued against Dezső for “misuse of personal data”, and after he received what was described in the Hungarian media as “the mildest possible punishment”, two pro-government news websites, and, accused him of deliberately propagating fake news and seeking to mislead his readers.

Why do they do it?

What motivates those journalists who smear their colleagues who seek to hold power to account?

There does not appear to be a simple answer to this question. While some may vilify fellow journalists to order purely for financial gain (or because of a desire for job security, government-sponsored media outlets generally being on a more secure financial footing than their independent counterparts), some appear to approach the task with at least a measure of conviction.

Ilcho Cvetanoski, who reports on Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro for Mapping Media Freedom and has observed many smear campaigns over the years, believes that financial and ideological motivating factors are often inextricably intertwined. He points out that two decades on from the armed conflicts in the region, Balkans societies are still deeply divided along ideological and ethnic lines, and many people still find it extremely difficult to accept the right of others to see things differently. Cvetanoski notes that there are many “true believers” who are genuinely convinced that they have a duty to defend their country from the “other” – a group in which they tend to lump critical journalists along with mercenaries, spies and traitors.

Lazara Marinković, who covers Serbia for Mapping Media Freedom, believes that the main motivation there is a need to be on the winning side and to please those in power. “Often they actually enjoy doing it, either for ideological reasons or because they feel more powerful when they are on the side of the ruling party,” she told Mapping Media Freedom. Marinković noted that the majority of Serbian tabloids and TV stations that conduct smear campaigns against independent journalists are owned by businessmen who have close links to President Aleksandar Vučić’s national conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Vučić began his political career during the Milosević era, when he served as Minister of Information.

In Poland, the divisions in society and the consequent lack of tolerance in political culture have been blamed for the increasing polarisation of the media. Michal Głowacki, a professor of media studies at Warsaw University, told Mapping Media Freedom that journalists take their cue from politicians in failing to show respect for fellow journalists associated with the “other side”. “They even use the same language as politicians,” Głowacki notes.

This is a view echoed by Hungarian journalist Anita Kőműves, a colleague of Bodoky’s at Átlátszó. Kőműves, however, insists that while journalists who work for independent media outlets strive to uphold the principles of journalistic ethics, the same cannot be said of those employed by pro-government outlets. “Some of those serving the government at propaganda outlets think that the two ‘sides’ of the Hungarian media are equally biased and that they are not acting any differently from their counterparts in the independent media sphere. However, this is not true: pro-government propaganda outlets do not adhere to even the basic rules of journalism,” she told Mapping Media Freedom.[/vc_column_text][vc_raw_html]JTNDaWZyYW1lJTIwd2lkdGglM0QlMjI3MDAlMjIlMjBoZWlnaHQlM0QlMjI0MDAlMjIlMjBzcmMlM0QlMjJodHRwcyUzQSUyRiUyRm1hcHBpbmdtZWRpYWZyZWVkb20udXNoYWhpZGkuaW8lMkZ2aWV3cyUyRm1hcCUyMiUyMGZyYW1lYm9yZGVyJTNEJTIyMCUyMiUyMGFsbG93ZnVsbHNjcmVlbiUzRSUzQyUyRmlmcmFtZSUzRQ==[/vc_raw_html][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1545385969139-cb42990e-b3e2-3″ taxonomies=”9044″][/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]

Serbia: Media freedom worsening as Serbs take to the streets

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”89875″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]A few days before the 2 April 2017 Serbian presidential elections, a picture was posted on Twitter that caused an unexpected storm.

The picture, taken three days before the vote, which was widely expected to be won by the current prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, showed a copy of each daily newspaper from that day laid out on a table. Yet every paper looked the same. Each was wrapped in a blue, red and white election campaign poster of Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

“It was a shock,” said Slavica Lekic, the newly appointed president of the Independent Journalist Association of Serbia (NUNS), from his office in Belgrade. “With this, Aleksandar Vucic clearly demonstrated that he can control over everything in this country.”

The mass advertising on the front page of the nation’s newspapers was for many a step too far; proof of how powerful Vucic and his party had become, and of the financial control they exert over Serbia’s media. Vucic won the election by a landslide, but the picture’s effect lingered. It was an important reason why, on the day after Vucic’ huge victory, tens of thousands of young Serbs took to the streets across the country to protest.

The protesters, at first mainly students, organised themselves on social media using the hashtag #protivdiktature, which means “against dictatorship”. Thousands have been protesting on a daily basis ever since. They’re worried about the state of democracy and media freedom in the country where the president-elect is consolidating his power over all institutions, leaving little room for critical voices.

Media freedom has declined since SNS came to power in 2012, and deteriorated further after Vucic became Prime Minister in 2014, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Journalists increasingly face economic and editorial pressure as well as threats and intimidation when they are critical of the government. Independent media are often the subject of smear campaigns by pro-government media outlets and TV stations, targeting them as foreign mercenaries and enemies of the state.

Lekic points out that most of Serbia’s mainstream media, including private media, are indirectly controlled by the government. There are strong ties between the government and the business community, giving both a huge leverage over advertising budgets, he explains. “When Vucic came to power he arrested the richest businessman in Serbia, Miroslav Miskovic,” says Lekic.“That act frightened all the other businesses, which are now doing whatever they can to please him.”

Even before the vote, there were opposition complaints about the uneven nature of the media’s coverage of the campaign. According to a report by the Bureau for Social Research, who monitored the campaign, Vucic appeared on television more than all the other candidates combined, and was usually portrayed in a positive light.

“He directly controls the most popular TV station, TV Pink, and the most read newspaper, Informer,” says Lekic. “The other media are subject to self-censorship due to the pressure of advertisers connected to the government.” Lekic is convinced that Vucic’s move from prime minister to president will lead to even more difficulties for Serbia’s independent media. “This is definitely the end of freedom in journalism in Serbia,” he says.

Aside from a few online voices, the only critical newspaper is the daily Danas, which means “Today” in Serbian. The paper was founded in 1997 during the repressive regime of strongman Slobodan Milosevic but grew to become a free voice in Serbia. But today Danas is struggling to stay alive. Like many across the world, business has been tough over the past few years. But it became a lot tougher when nearly every single advertiser pulled out, all within a few months.  

“The problem is that nobody dares to advertise in a paper that reports critically on the government and the prime minister,” Lekic explained. “Vucic and his people have targeted Danas as a hostile newspaper.”

Protesters have been holding Danas papers in the air, using it as a symbol of the lack of media freedom. They’ve urged Serbs to buy Danas and stop them from going out of business. Danas is being sold during the protests, and people are queuing to get a copy from street sellers.

“The campaign to save our paper is working,” says Milos Mitrovic, a journalist at Danas. “Sales are actually going up. People are taking selfies with Danas and sending them to us. It’s incredible.”

There have even been reports of companies donating to the paper, but urging them not to print any adverts as they would rather stay anonymous.

Every evening the protesters march through the city, passing the building of the state broadcaster RTS, blaming the station for not covering the protests on TV. “At first they were not showing it at all,” said one protester in Belgrade. “Now they are downplaying the numbers or saying that we are paid by foreign powers.”

But even recognising the protests is progress. “There is more coverage of the protests in international press than in Serbian media,” says Stevan Dojcinovic, editor-in-chief for the investigative journalism network KRIK, nominees for the 2017 Freedom of Expression Award for journalism. His collective has investigated many cases of corruption and misuse of power by the Vucic government. Dojcinovic points out that their investigations are also widely ignored by Serbia’s mainstream media. “RTS didn’t publish anything on the interview we did with the wife of Belgrade’s mayor, Sinisa Mali,” he said. In that interview, Mali revealed examples of corruption in which her ex-husband was directly involved.

Meanwhile, Vucic, who enjoys support from both the European Union and Russia, has calmly addressed the protesters during a press conference. “We are a democratic country and everybody has the right to be pleased or displeased with the election outcome,” he said. “Those who have time to protest can protest as long as they keep it peaceful.”

Lekic has only recently been appointed as president of NUNS but is clear on what the big issues facing independent media in Serbia are. “We don’t have institutionalised censorship in the classical sense but we do have frightened and underpaid journalists who think they have to be obedient to be able to keep their jobs,” he says. “This is how self-censorship kicks in and we have to change that.”

In fact, Lekic has already had his fair share of threats and intimidation. He was the subject of smear campaigns by TV Pink and Informer. He’s been labelled a foreign spy more times than he can remember. “I’ve been a journalist for 37 years but only in the last decade I’ve got used to being a target,” he says. His biggest worry is the effect it has on his family. “My daughter of twelve once called me from school, she was crying because a boy in her class had told her that her dad is a criminal,” he says. “He’d heard so on TV.” [/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:1493107922412-e3b33cbb-00e3-9″ taxonomies=”113″][/vc_column][/vc_row]