Media freedom in Serbia is under threat, EU Commission must act

  
Smiljana Vukojičić Obradović, EurActiv Serbia
Smiljana Vukojičić Obradović [EurActiv Serbia]

The repression of journalists and media organisations in Serbia has worsened in recent months, as journalists are summoned and websites are blocked. The EU Commission drew attention to the issue before; now it is time to push for regulation, writes Smiljana Vukojičić Obradović.

Smiljana Vukojičić Obradović is editor-in-chief of EurActiv Serbia.

Although the authorities in Serbia advocate the freedom of the media and free expression, a number of incidents and problems in the media sphere have been registered since the formation of the government at the end of April, particularly during the recent catastrophic floods, when a debate was opened about whether censorship exists in the country.

The authorities are denying claims that freedom of expression is undermined and are calling for evidence to be put forward. However, this evidence is hard to provide, especially considering that in the majority of cases the final word would be that of a court, which takes too long in Serbia. Such a situation is very dangerous, because the media have been exposed to the financial crisis, and economic and financial influences for too long, and the legal framework has still not been formulated.

In this situation, and in view of the country’s orientation towards EU integration, it would be useful for the media and the entire society if Brussels were to launch more decisive initiatives for solving the problems of the Serbian media. It is also one of the priorities which the European Commission had listed in the strategy of enlargement for the entire region.

The relationship between the Serbian government and the media has been turbulent for a few weeks now. Tensions rose even on the day of the forming of the government of Aleksandar Vucic (27 April).

The problem arose when the state protocol initially envisaged that only the cameramen of a few media organisations could attend the swearing in of the government. Since that moment, the line of conflict has continued all the way to the recent dispute regarding the removal of texts critical of the state’s reaction to the floods.

Whenever it reacted to such conflicts, the government denied the intention to restrict media freedom. The scandal on the removal of the flood-related content from the Internet provoked condemnations coming from journalists’ associations in Serbia, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the OSCE. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic demanded proof that the state had performed censorship.

The problem lies in the fact that proof of undermining media freedom is hard to provide, at least in reasonable time. Some of these cases call for a serious investigation and a response from the judiciary, which is insufficiently organized in Serbia, buried under a multitude of unsolved cases and known for long trials, which drag on for years.

In early June, the European Commission stated that it is closely monitoring the media situation in Serbia, and that it is in contact with the authorities, the ombudsman and civil society representatives.

It would be very useful for the media in Serbia if the EU took its gloves off on this issue, and more decisively demanded an explanation of such events. The introduction of all standards which would reduce the possibility for exerting pressure on the media.

Many aspects of the media market in Serbia are not regulated. State-owned media still exist. The status and ways of financing of public media services is not regulated and it is also not clear what will be the status of the state news agency Tanjug, which receives some €2 million annually from the state. This undermines competition and jeopardizes the position of privately-owned news agencies FoNET and BETA.

The mechanisms for controlling the spending of the state’s money on the media have not been introduced, either, so large amounts of money are being spent through various forms of subsidies and even through contracts with state institutions and companies for their advertising. This is how the state can control the media indirectly.

Considering that the media are at the very focus of the enlargement strategy which the European Commission announced; that the authorities in Serbia are dedicated to European integration; and that the negotiations provide room for a more intensive cooperation between the EU and Serbia, Brussels’ permanent support in this sense could help in implementing standards and in regulating the media relations properly.

This could be useful, all the more so because a package of media laws is being prepared and parts of their texts will go to the EU for expertise.

Problems in the media – accidental or not

In the meantime, here is a reminder on several events in the media sphere which have caused concern amongst media associations, and in the professional public.

According to the initial plan, the mentioned swearing in of the government was to be covered only by cameramen of the British agency Reuters, of the privately owned TV Pink (better known for its entertainment than its information programs) of the private media service Infobiro, of the state agency Tanjug, and of the parliamentary and government services. The decision was quickly revoked because the publishing of this – apparently – protocol information resulted in pressure on the government from the political sphere.

A statement of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party was also published on the same day, in which the public information service Serbian Broadcasting Corporation (RTS) was attacked because of its alleged intention to “belittle the new government and the reputation of Aleksandar Vucic”, but without concrete details about which broadcast or presenters this referred to.

The situation only deteriorated during the catastrophic floods in Serbia. Among the drastic examples are the shutting down or blocking of certain web portals, the removal of critical texts from the web portal of the high-circulation daily Blic, and the bringing in for questioning of several people for spreading panic via their personal Facebook profiles.

Brussels drew attention to such issues before. It now seems that the trend of people in power suing the media and journalists is continuing and represents a significant form of pressure against the media.

The latest example is that of Radio Television Mladenovac journalist Dragan Nikolic, who was summoned to the police for questioning because of comments he made on Facebook. The incident was allegedly reported by a deputy of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. Nikolic claims that he was summoned because he shared a text that criticized a high official, in Belgrade.

Recently, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic was criticized for his attitude towards the media, when he accused the high-circulation daily Blic of slander, while his media bureau said in a statement that the abuse of the independence of news agencies and of the media should be stopped.

Prime Minister Vucic also constantly accuses media of engaging in campaigns against him. Recently, he also accused OSCE representatives in Serbia of being behind attacks against him.

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This opinion was first published on EurActiv Serbia's pages. 

The European Federation of Journalists released a reaction to the detention of one Serbian journalist, saying: "The EFJ considers that the arbitrary detention and interrogation of a professional journalist shows the deteriorating media freedom in the country and the increasing political pressure facing journalists." Read the full statement here.

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