Media freedom in Serbia: How serious the situation really is?

Media; Photo: European Union

BRUSSELS – Last Friday, EUobserver published a piece by Italian journalist Matteo Trevisan, which focused on the problems media face in Serbia. Today, a reaction by President Aleksandar Vučić was also released.

In his article, Trevisan, a freelance journalist in Bologna specialising in human rights and ethnic conflicts in the post-socialist enlargement of the EU, highlighted several key challenges for Serbian media: state influence, non-transparent financing, work of independent institutions and attacks on the journalists.

These issues, he reminded, have been emphasised in the latest annual report by European Commission, letter of five Serbian media associations and various databases and research.

“In addition to the murky and arbitrary redistribution of public funds in favour of government media, unknown candidates with no connection to the press are often elected to command the most influential commissions. And some of the most influential publishers are still illegally financed at a state level”, Trevisan wrote.

He gave the example of the national news agency Tanjug, which still operates even though it was officially closed down in October 2015. According to him, it has become a “propaganda tool owned by the state”.

Furthermore, he mentioned administrative pressures faced by the local media, such as Južne vesti, Kikindske and Vranjske that had to shut down, as well as “questionable independence” of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM).

“The REM, which has been systematically accused of bias, not only avoids using its legal means to punish violations of the law, but has also refrained from publishing official documents that should ensure transparency in the monitoring process provided under those same laws”, Trevisan stressed.

Also worrying, according to him, are the physical assaults against journalists and verbal threats directed at them. He reminded of the cases of three murdered journalists that are still without legal conclusion, which contributes to the unsafe environment.

Vučić: EU countries have more attacks on journalists than Serbia

In his reaction to the piece, President Vučić asked to author to provide him with concrete data on the number of assaults in EU countries, claiming that they occur much more often than in Serbia.

“Which is the country in the EU that has fewer assaults against journalists than Serbia, not counting brutal assaults of the representatives of the opposition against female journalists of the TV Pink?”, wrote Vučić.

He reminded that, recently, journalists have been killed in Slovakia, Bulgaria and Malta, and seriously wounded in Montenegro, while in Serbia no such thing took place.

Reflecting on the case of Tanjug, Vučić emphasised that the agency is working independently. “You mention the Tanjug case, the very same agency for which those same independent journalists published an obituary in their newspapers, on the day it was closed regarding the termination of operation of that state agency. Today, when the respective agency operates, speaking the truth, without state support, it’s once again our fault – of the state, government, and mine, as the president”, he wrote.

He denied any pressure on local media, especially on Vranjske Novine, and remarked that 90 percent of the procedures against journalists upon the request of opposition leaders.

“Personally, despite numerous insults, threats and slanders in the past six years, I have never filed a complaint against media and journalists. I believe that, in this way, I demonstrated how we should refer to and what the way for cherishing the differences is”, Vučić stressed, adding that the trials for the journalist assassination are almost finalised.

He concluded with the reminder about the renewed efforts of Serbian government to formulate a new media strategy in cooperation with media representatives and with the help of OSCE.