Wednesday

29th Jan 2020

Opinion

How media freedom in Serbia is under attack

  • Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic was Slobodan Milosevic's minister of information from 1998-2000. Now a coalition of five Serbian media organisations warn of the threats to media freedoms under him. (Photo: Council of the EU)

The European Commission has been very clear in its latest report, denouncing the threats, intimidation and violence against journalists in Serbia.

That statement is corroborated by data, sourced from different databases and research, showing evidence of an increase in attacks on journalists and media representatives between 2014 and 2018.

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The situation has worsened so much that, on 22nd October 2018, a coalition of five Serbian media associations published a letter directed at the international community, wishing to express their concern at the systematic violation of the public interest.

According to many of those media professionals involved, this surge in pressure and violence is directly related to a stricter control of power by president Aleksandar Vucic, who was also the former minister of information during the Slobodan Milosevic regime.

During his administration, despite the formal rule transfer provided by the EU, the media network has increasingly become the subject of a disruptive state monopoly - thereby compromising any possible opening towards a healthier publishing environment.

Physical assaults against journalists are just the tip of the iceberg: the alarming violation of the basic principles of media freedom is particularly evident in the growing cases of verbal threats, increasing instances of surveillance, administrative harassment, attacks against property as well as pressures exerted through judicial proceedings and violation of the Journalists' Code of Ethics.

Milosevic-era lives on?

Therefore, despite the major transformation process initiated after the fall of Milosevic, it appears that Serbia has, in reality, not distanced itself enough from the age of state media.

What is lacking is a concrete breakthrough that could free the country from the ghosts of its past.

One of the main problems is that a failed privatisation process allowed the consolidation of a party media system controlled by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

This system includes various forms of illicit influence by state officials, politicians and other people in power.

As reported by the independent associations, in addition to the murky and arbitrary redistribution of public funds in favour of government media, unknown candidates with no connection to the press are often elected to command the most influential commissions. And some of the most influential publishers are still illegally financed at a state level.

Such is the case of the national news agency, Tanjug, which is still actively working even though a legal decision to close it down was made on October 31, 2015.

As reported in the protest letter from the media coalition, this agency is now "a propaganda tool owned by the state, although the state decided to pull out from owning any media, pursuant to the laws of 2014."

Secondly, administrative pressures continue to suppress media independence and survival, mostly at the local level, and "draconian penalties after biased inspections determine their economic destruction."

This, as demonstrated by the cases of the closure of the weekly Vranjske and by pressures imposed on Kikindske and Juzne Vesti journals, frequently happens to media organisations that are known to be critical of the government.

Another reason to be concerned is the questionable independence of the official body elected as a guarantor of the freedom of expression, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM).

The REM, which has been systematically accused of bias, not only avoids using its legal means to punish violations of the law, but has also refrained from publishing official documents that should ensure transparency in the monitoring process provided under those same laws.

Its initial abstention from monitoring the election campaign for the 2017 presidential elections caused an uproar.

Again, no solution has been found to the long-outstanding cases of the murdered journalists Slavko Curuvija, Dada Vujasinovic and Milan Pantic.

In the case of Curuvija, an indictment was issued, as noted by the former editor of Vranjske, Vukasin Obradovic, but "there is obvious obstruction in the trial and insufficient determination to end this process".

Consequently - in the context of the EU integration process affecting Serbia's accession - one of the most significant discrepancies is between rhetoric and action when it comes to media freedom.

Serbia's EU accession

In fact, the implementation of the media reform under Vucic's rule has collapsed on itself since the start, although the first 'media strategy' of 2011 and the related 2014 laws were in line with European standards and regulations.

"The paradox", says Slavisa Lekic, president of the Independent Journalists' Association of SerbiaI (IJAS), "was soon revealed - that is, the state, the institution that had promoted them on paper, began to violate them first".

These, according to Lekic, "are not just rumours, because in his ascent to the European Union or, to be more precise, in his ascent to absolute power, the first thing Vucic did was to subjugate the media".

Matteo Trevisan is a freelance journalist in Bologna specialising in human rights and ethnic conflicts in the post-socialist enlargement of the EU

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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