One of the things which has particularly marked the rule of the Serbian Progressive Party is the ever deteriorating position of journalists and decreasing media freedom. This is something which journalists and journalists’ associations themselves have consistently highlighted, yet without the ability to change this situation for the better, having met with a refusal on the part of the government to accept the problem as well as suppression of all criticism.
Several reports by international organizations published this year show that journalists are, unfortunately, in the right.
Thus, according to the latest report of Reporters Without Borders, Serbia fell 14 places on the World Press Freedom Index and is now in 90th place out of 180 countries. This is not surprising, as according to the same index, Serbia has been in constant decline over the last couple of years.
The lack of media freedom is one of the reasons why Freedom House placed Serbia among the ranks of partly-free countries, while suppression of freedom of speech is at the centre of the new report of the European Commission on Serbia’s progress in EU accession.
One key event mentioned in all three reports is the attack on local journalist Milan Jovanovic, whose house was set on fire in December last year. Jovanovic was inside the house with his wife at the time, surviving thanks to sheer luck. Immediately after the attack, he stated that it was his belief that he was attacked because of the years he had spent reporting on corruption in the Belgrade municipality of Grocka. These suspicions were given further credence not long thereafter when the president of the municipality of Grocka was arrested, on suspicion of having ordered the attack.
However, the attack on Jovanovic is not the only one which has occurred over the last few years. Although it represents one of the more extreme cases, according to the data of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) in 2018 there were seven physical attacks, while a further 102 cases of pressure and/or attacks were also noted.
According to the statement of NUNS at the beginning of the year, lack of accountability is a particular problem as only three cases, out of a total of 31, involving attacks and threats were concluded with sentencing or punishment.
One of the cases which perfectly illustrates this impunity with which attacks are carried out dates from 2017, when unknown perpetrators broke into the apartment of Dragana Peco, a journalist with the investigative website KRIK, yet did not take anything of value, clearly demonstrating that their goal was not theft. This case has still not been resolved.
Pressure on journalists manifested itself in the form of financial pressure above all else, such as denial of state funds or wearing down media with financial and other inspectors, as in the case of Vranjske Novine, which shut down following such pressure, or the website Juzne Vesti. Suits against journalists also remain a form of pressure – Minister Without Portfolio Nenad Popovic pressed four suits against KRIK, but then failed to appear at the trials. The suits are still under way.
At the same time, the government seeks to highlight any cases of media pressure involving opposition leaders, the latest example being when one of those leaders, Bosko Obradovic, broke into the building of public broadcaster RTS, demanding that media space be given to the leaders of the protests which were underway in Belgrade at the time. The situation was resolved by the police, which expelled demonstrators from the RTS building, while the government used the incident to claim that the perpetrators of violence were actually in the ranks of the opposition.