Closing in on Serbia’s Voices of Opposition

Dragana Pećo of Belgrade’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) at the Belgrade Security Forum
Dragana Pećo of Belgrade’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) at the Belgrade Security Forum

A look back at three years of media repression in Serbia.


There is a great irony in the way dissent is handled in the Balkans. What makes this irony even greater is that the handlers of dissent don’t even see it.

Eleven months ago, the incumbent Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) organized a censorship exhibition in Belgrade that Radio Free Europe’s Gordana Knezević pointed out was to show “there is no censorship in Serbia!”

It did the opposite.

The Shakespearean irony here is that, by hosting and attending the “Uncensored Lies” exhibition – as a plainclothes visitor, no less – Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić showed he woefully misunderstands the role of journalists and the media as watchdogs of accountable government rather than individuals with a vindictive agenda against him.

What’s of greater concern is that this exhibition serves as a subtle and public threat to any continuing probes into his government or those close to him, as it showcases that he not only keeps a public catalog of tweets and statements “against” him, but that he is also willing, in true Machiavellian fashion, to make it appear as though he welcomes differences of opinion.

The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) pointed out that the current establishment does not understand that media isn’t also merely a “propaganda and politicians’ marketing tool.”

Finally, the government does critical journalism a service by reacting to it. As Dragana Pećo of Belgrade’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) points out, one of its major investigative stories about Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar and his alleged connections to a number of organized crime groups, was very much under the radar (specifically, only on its website) until it started circulating. Lončar then criticized both the article and KRIK, dismissing the story as baseless and the organization as being funded from Sarajevo and avoiding paying Serbian taxes. At this point, the story exploded across the region.

But while reactions like Lončar’s are frequently beneficial to certain stories, this again provides an insight into the altogether different and more dangerous environment for journalists under Vučić.

“When I started out in investigative journalism five or six years ago, the incumbent government was still the Democratic Party,” Pećo tells me. “You could publish any story on them, how they were running things, and they’d completely ignore everything.”

The previous government wasn’t as obsessed with media as is the current prime minister. Many journalists, such as Slobodan Georgiev of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), agree that slandering journalists was less frequent and media was “less polarized.”

‘Take a vacation to the coast’

Vučić’s preoccupation with media in the country is so total and complex that it doesn’t just stop at the exhibition.

His rationale, while unsound, is calculated: “The freedom of media in [this country] is incomparably larger than a few years ago…because almost all dailies and weeklies write against me,” Vučić said.

Seldom does a week pass during which the prime minister doesn’t make a statement about the media, ranging from accusing journalists of being liars to ecstatically praising optimistic European Commission reports on the status of media in the country.

What’s complicated and perhaps a little disheartening for the journalists who so fervently campaign for greater media freedom and point to the increasing pressures on this freedom is that the aforementioned assessment is, on paper at least, quite true. Out of 180 countries assessed, Serbia ranks 59th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Which isn’t so bad, comparatively, taking into account neighboring countries. But the problem here is that Vučić keeps check on the media by proxy – meaning many if not most editors at mainstream outlets, tabloids and portals are in some way in his pocket and monitored by his government – so that it again appears that he doesn’t control anything directly.

There are, however, more obvious instances of repression.

Olja Bečković, the former host of the weekly B92 show Utisak nedelje (Impression of the Week), says Vučić “threatens and controls the media.” Before her show was canceled, after what she describes as having been forewarned by Vučić, she had received several personal phone calls from the prime minister in which he openly expressed dissatisfaction with her show.

Bečković had scheduled Economy Minister Saša Radulović to appear on the show in late January 2014, where it was expected he would tender his resignation following open disagreements with Serbia’s economic policies and then-Deputy Prime Minister Vučić, who was then deputy prime minister. In what she claims was blatant meddling in editorial affairs, B92 management had asked her to cancel Radulović’s appearance and instead book Vučić onto the show.

In what became an infamous episode, Bečković asked Vučić questions he was clearly unprepared for and made him visibly distressed.

By summertime, Bečković was told she should “take a vacation to the coast.”

‘If you’re paralyzed with fear, are you alive?’

Meanwhile, in typical Informer fashion, KRIK and its staff have continually been labeled terrorists, foreign agents and criminals. Freedom House confirms that Vučić’s administration has “escalated a drive to portray investigative and critical media organizations as foreign-backed propagandists seeking to damage his government and destabilize the country.”

Dragana Pećo says that in the aftermath of an extensive investigation into the apparent clear and present dangers from individuals following them and photographing them from a distance, they had to move offices to a different location in Belgrade. They still don’t feel safe.

To show their disapproval, Pećo and a handful of media colleagues walked out of the South East Europe Media Forum in Belgrade on November 21 of last year, just as Vučić took the stage. The journalists probably wouldn’t have liked what he had to say. Rather than celebrating media freedom and independence, the prime minister passive-aggressively criticized journalists and said he would only get along with those who are “nice.”

While there haven’t been any assassinations as dramatic and as blatantly calculated as that of Slavko Ćuruvija’s in 1999, there are sustained threats and verbal abuses against journalists in the country. In an interview with Balkan Insight, Georgiev points out that, particularly in this climate, there are different ways of being killed. “If you can’t make ends meet – you’ve been killed, if you don’t feel safe, you’ve been killed. If you’re paralyzed with fear, are you alive? No.”

And although there are fears that Serbia may enact the same anti-NGO law as in Russia (should it opt for a path eastward), Pećo maintains that a significant number of people recognize and support their work and the work of other independent journalists, be it through social media or donations.

What is worth mentioning, however, is that one form of public discourse continually stumps politicians from the very top – right down to the municipal levels. Satire, some would argue, is a Yugoslav tradition, and it has played an important historical and societal role, from public commentary to helping people overcome the trauma of war.

Serbia’s foremost satirical outlet, Njuz.net has double the likes of the country’s premier daily, Politika. This speaks volumes about the wider social frustrations with the current political climate, as Njuz exercises a no-holds-barred, purely parodical take on the political, social and economic themes of Serbia and the Balkans.

Co-founder Marko Dražić, explaining how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly why Njuz resonates so well with people, nevertheless points out that some of their stories have been mistaken as real journalism speaks to the state of the relationship people have with media in the country.

The editor of Njuz.net’s Croatian counterpart News Bar, Borna Sor, attributes this to a general incredulity at how life unfolds under a complicated government. “We have the most ridiculous government ever. Every day they do something new that you cannot accept,” he says. “Nothing makes sense anymore.”

There can’t be any strong predictions as to what Serbia’s journalism will look like in the face of such demagogical machinations. But it is painfully clear that Vučić will continue to demonize NGOs, independent media and journalists who step outside of that proverbial pocket of spin for the foreseeable future.

Or perhaps we overanalyze. Perhaps the reason for Vučić’s control of the media is much simpler, and closer to home – perhaps his disdain for journalists stems from his divorce from one. Bruised Balkan machismo has fueled wars before. It can almost certainly cause pain to freedom of expression.

 

Cover photo: Dragana Pećo of Belgrade’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) at the Belgrade Security Forum

Nedim heads communication for the South East Europe Coalition on Whistleblower Protection.

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