Serbia rewards president’s controversial media aide with top culture post

Suzana Vasiljevic and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. []

Serbia’s appointment last week of Suzana Vasiljević, media aide to President Aleksandar Vučić, to the management of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, despite her lacking any connection to classical music, has raised many eyebrows in the country.

Vasiljević’s latest appointment comes after she was also appointed to the management or supervisory boards of Air Serbia, Politika A.D. and the Basketball Association of Serbia.

Vasiljević was picked as Vučić’s aide in June 2018, despite opposition from a number of experts, and joined the Coordination Body for Cooperation with the Media.

She has said that Vučić and she became friends after years of working together and that Vučić often referred to her as “a representative of the civil sector in my office.”

Vasiljević has been performing various jobs related to the media in the state administration for the past 17 years. She has been close to Vučić since he came to power in 2012 and regularly accompanies him on trips and to meetings. She enjoys his huge trust and is known as one of his closest associates.

Vasiljević is known for her sharp-tongued criticism of the media and journalists. In November 2019, Vasiljević used an appearance on Pink TV to launch an attack on the N1 TV station, remarking on journalist Miodrag Sovilj’s supposed lack of manners.

That same day, Sovilj had asked Vučić about the Krusik scandal, an affair revolving around the alleged discount sale of weapons by the state-owned company to a private company connected to the father of Serbia’s then interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic.

Vasiljević blasted the station for being “anti-Vučić” and claimed that it did not extend coverage to anyone but supporters of the Alliance for Serbia opposition coalition.

In January, she remarked on the amount of media coverage that the pro-boycott opposition was receiving, saying that it was not a strong media blockade that was responsible for the lack of coverage of the opposition but the fact that the opposition had chosen to boycott the June 2020 elections.

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She also denied that Vučić had ever been aggressive in dealing with journalists, although she did admit that it was possible that his rhetoric was “a tad strong.”

As for claims that Vučić frequently loses his temper when talking with journalists, Vasiljević replied that the president “has never personally insulted a journalist.” She once said that Vučić, his office and press service “have never divided the media into pro-regime and tycoon outlets and anti- and pro-government outlets.”

Vasiljević did concede at the time that the media situation in Serbia “is not great,” but added that this was the case everywhere in the world. She admitted that whenever she had important information that needed to be shared with the public she contacted the Prva and Pink television stations.

The majority of journalists’ associations, however, do not see it that way. On the contrary, an increasing number of voices are saying media freedoms in Serbia are in bad shape, blaming the authorities. International organisations have also strongly criticised the situation.

Vasiljević became embroiled in a dispute with the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS) in January 2018. The president’s adviser believed that the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) needed to address media freedoms in Serbia with the president, not just the prime minister and relevant ministers. The IJAS disagreed, pointing to the president’s constitutional prerogatives.

A meeting between Vučić and the EFJ was subsequently arranged, though the dispute with the domestic journalists association continued.

Vasiljević eventually resigned as a member of Politika A.D.’s supervisory board following the publication of an article titled “The Dogs Have Been Unleashed” on the front page of weekly Ilustrovana Politika. Media organisations strongly condemned the piece as inciting violence against independent journalists and media outlets.

Resigning, she said that she did not agree with the state media outlet’s editorial policy and did not want her position on the supervisory board “to be a reason for unfounded attacks on the president.”

Vasiljević also made waves by stating that journalists in Serbia “are functioning completely normally and completely freely” and that there was an abundance of free media outlets months after the European Commission said Serbia was still lacking in terms of freedom of expression.

The Commission’s 2019 report called for the country to create an environment for free speech, boost respect for media legislation, adopt a new media strategy and secure adequate funding of public services and make media ownership more transparent.

In March, Vasiljević claimed that Serbia “is truly a democratic country”. According to the latest Freedom House report published in the same month, Serbia is said to have regressed in civil and political freedoms by two points, placing it in the category of partially free countries.

Last July, the presdient’s media aide gained attention on social media for her sarcastic response to the news that Serbian students in Paris had greeted Vučić in front of the Serbian embassy with a sign reading “You are Serbia’s Covid.”

“They greeted him maybe, yeah right! You need to wait a little longer kids. He is currently listening to Claude Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ with Macron,” Vasiljević tweeted.

Vasiljević has also faced criticism for saying that no one could stop Vučić from completing a building project for a gondola lift at Belgrade’s Kalemegdan fortress. Attorney Rodoljub Sabic said that this statement amounted to an attempt to apply direct pressure on the judicial authorities, and that her sharp tone revealed that Vučić himself was behind it.

In April 2018, Vasiljević was slated to join a working group for composing a media strategy for Serbia, but a month later this was denied. Instead, she was given the job of organising and securing funding for the working group and holding public debates.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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