The European Commission has published its annual Progress Report on Serbia today. As expected, the newest report has praised the countries’ efforts on the implementation of the agreement on normalization of relations with Kosovo, and the overall advancement in European integrations manifested in the official opening of the accession negotiations. The ruling parties in Serbia immediately did their best to capitalize political points on the good news coming from Brussels. However, there are also substantive remarks made by the European Commission today addressing the worrisome regression of the state of democracy in Serbia during the past year. Most notably – the backsliding of media freedom.
Normatively, freedom of the media is protected under Serbia’s constitution and legal system. However, blurred legislation in the media sphere, state control/ownership of public media, shady ownership structure and strong economic dependence of independent media, and soft pressure coming both from political and non-political elites, led to the creation of a creeping ‘self-censorship’ in Serbian media. Furthermore, there are journalists that continue to face physical and verbal attacks, while some of them live under 24-hour police protection as they face threats due to the results of their investigative work.
In its 2013 Progress Report, the European Commission stated that threats and violence against journalists continue to be a significant factor affecting the existence of ‘self-censorship’, which must be addressed during Serbia’s accession talks. In the meantime the situation has changed to the worse. Today’s Progress Report reads that media reporting was insufficiently analytical and was influenced by the political parties in power, including through public funding, which led to widespread media self-censorship.
What has led to this regression? Apparently, the situation began to deteriorate drastically during the devastating floods that hit Serbia in May 2014. As the floods started to take a toll in human lives, the Serbian government instated a state of emergency in order to be able to deploy all available resources to mitigate the consequences of the flooding. Nonetheless, the state of emergency also gave authorities the power to detain three individuals for ‘inciting panic during a state of emergency’ via social media. Additionally 20 more people have been invited by the police for interviews for allegedly spreading panic on their social media accounts with respect to the number of floods victims in Obrenovac. Moreover, entire websites, such as the blog Druga strana (Other side), and portals Peščanik, Vaseljenska, BKTV News and Teleprompter were removed from the Internet, while blogs, such as Dragan Todorović’s blog post on Blic, were censored.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, commented on the events in Serbia saying that arresting individuals because of their blogs, comments, or other forms of writing is not acceptable; it has a chilling effect on the general press freedom situation in the country and can lead to self-censorship. I urge the Serbian authorities to put an end to this, and stop interfering with the work of online media outlets. After Mijatović’s allegations of media censorship, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said he believed the OSCE official was deceivedand added he hoped he would see either an apology from the OSCE, or evidence for the alleged violations of human rights in Serbia. Despite the Prime Minister’s promise to personally tackle issues related to media censorship, guilty parties for the attacks on critical on-line media were never found.
After the state of emergency was revoked, media freedoms did not improve, they just got worse. It was furthermore peculiar to see an identical repetition of such sophisticated ‘distributed denial-of-service (DdoS)’ attacks against the Peščanik web portal and the website of the daily newspaper Kurir only a month later in June. These two media outlets had broken the story of the allegedly plagiarized PhD thesis of the Serbian Minister of Internal Affairs, Nebojša Stefanović, coming from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and the allegedly non-existent London PhD of the former rector of Megatrend, a private university in Serbia. Despite the initial rumors that the attacks came from the Megatrend University computers, these allegations were dismissed by the government and that seems to be the of any serious endeavor by the police to further investigate this issue.
At the same time, the situation also is deteriorating at TV and radio networks where long lasting and popular political shows including ‘Sarapin problem’, of Predrag Sarapa and ‘U centru’, by Djordje Mićić on Studio B Television, ‘Mentalno razgibavanje’ by Darko Mitrović and Marko Stepanović at radio B92, etc., are taken off the air. The most recent case concerns the taking off the air of ‘Utisak nedelje’, a 23 years-long lasting political show that had been aired on B92 TV for the last 12 years. It is noteworthy that ‘Evronet’, the TV show about the state of affairs in European Integration, produced by an independent production house ‘Mreža’ that also produces ‘Utisak nedelje’, has also lost its place on the national TV broadcaster – RTS.
The fact that media outlets and journalists are facing partisan and government pressure over editorial policies was also recognized by the Serbian Ombudsperson, Saša Janković, who issued a statement observing that certain information and criticism is more frequently being removed from publicly available media and information space. He added that journalists are increasingly claiming that they were being advised to avoid criticizing the government.
At a joint press conference, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić held with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin this year in June, he was caught by surprise by a question if the affairs related to media censorship in Serbia stand in the country’s way to the EU integration processes asked by a Serbian journalist who lives and works in Germany. A proper response was not provided by the Prime Minister at that time. After today’s Progress Report in which the Commission declared it’s expectation to identify and prosecute suspects of violations of internet freedoms, there should be no doubt that if he is sincere in his declared intention to continue the approximation of Serbia towards the European Union, Prime Minister Vučić, who was also responsible for the oppressive Information Law in the late 1990s as the Minister of Information under Slobodan Milošević, will need to answer questions about media freedom in Serbia to the European Commission in the years to come.