Media; Photo: European Union

Serbia welcomed World Press Freedom Day by falling again on the recently published media freedom ranking list by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF). After falling three places on the list, Serbia ranks 93rd – 34 places worse than in 2016, the last time when improvement in the level of media freedom was recorded.

“After six years under the leadership of Aleksandar Vučić, first as Prime Minister and then a President, Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate,” RSF stated.

They added that collusion between politicians and media, widespread government-tolerated fake news, and mistreatment of a whistleblower, Aleksandar Obradović, also remain a great source of concern.

However, experts European Western Balkans talked to asses that there are more reasons to be concerned. Journalist Tamara Skrozza, often the target of intimidation and attacks of the tabloid press, said that the reasons for the steady decline on the RSF list have been present for years – violation of the right of citizens to freedom of speech and information, intimidation and targeting anyone who dares to speak or write any criticism aimed at the current government and continued campaigns against non-governmental media journalists.

“No international organization, including Reporters Without Borders, has been able to fundamentally ‘deconstruct’ the system of media oppression in Serbia – namely, that system resists academic analysis,” the journalist said.

Professionally inadmissible public broadcaster’s reporting, constant violation of the Serbian Code of Journalists and professional standards by all media close to the authorities, misuse of national frequencies for political purposes, violation of the Law on Public Information and Media and the Law on Electronic Media, as well as the economic unsustainability of the media and the catastrophic social status of journalists – are just some of the many reasons which Skrozza points out.

The President of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) Norbert Šinković, believes that the observed decline is a continuous process that confirms every year what “we as journalists feel daily, in our work”.

“This is really just a ‘statistical statement’ of what we have on the field. I believe that what specifically led to the fall was primarily the labeling of journalists, the presentation of professional journalists and journalism as traitorous or oppositionist. That brings with it a kind of campaign in quazi-newspapers, which is a hate campaign. We now have a serious situation of normalizing intolerance or hate speech in public discourse, thus generating a wave of verbal, physical violence and intolerance against journalists,” Šinković points out, explaining that this is a very complex phenomenon that causes many to give up on journalism.

The NDNV president adds that this also results in citizens becoming immune to journalists’ labeling and threats in a certain way, as they have lost the trust.

“When you ask me what led to the decline, I think we have to look at all these segments together and it is difficult to single out one moment as the main reason. I think it is also the unwillingness of the institutions to acknowledge that there is a problem and to deal with it,” Šinković said.

Journalism in times of corona

Reporters Without Borders state that there is a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a country’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index.

“The public health crisis provides authoritarian governments with an opportunity to implement the notorious ‘shock doctrine’ – to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire.

However, given that the decline of media freedoms has been a trend that has been going on for years, it is not just the events during the epidemic and the state of emergency which should take credit for Serbia’s rank this year.

Certainly, the most striking media-related event during the state of emergency, introduced on March 15, was the Government’s attempt to implement a Decree on centralized provision of information, according to which all information on the coronavirus epidemic could only come from the Republic Crisis Staff. However, after a big reaction from the domestic and foreign public, the Decree was withdrawn two days later.

That was enough time to bring Nova.rs journalist Ana Lalić in after Clinical Centre of Vojvodina (KCV) pressed charges, which were later dropped, for causing panic and disorder by publishing an article where she pointed out to the lack of protective equipment for medical workers in that institution. Freedom House, the European Federation of Journalists and the European Union, soon reacted to the news of the arrest.

Still, Skrozza explains that the pandemic has only negatively affected the already poor state of media freedom.

“It is not just the famous Decree on centralized provision of information, the arrest of my colleague Ana Lalić, the behavior of the president, the prime minister, and occasionally even doctors from the Crisis Staff towards journalists. The fact is that the media, which are critically oriented towards the authorities, are condemned to financial crash, discriminated against and prevented from speaking to persons with whom they would like (which no longer applies only to politicians, as before), that journalists are intimidated, that they are not only attacked by colleagues from pro-government media in their reports, but also personally, at press conferences,” says Skrozza, referring to the latest labeling, in other words, sexist attack on independent TV station N1 reporter Žaklina Tatalović by the editor of the pro-government tabloid Informer Dragan Vučićević on Twitter who inappropriately posted a photograph of the reporter while performing her work assignment.

Labeling journalist is a phenomenon that members of this profession struggle with on a daily basis, and the editor of Informer has not given up his position even after the condemnation of the public, media associations and the Commissioner for the Protection  of Equality of Serbia.

Šinkovic explains that we are facing a new wave of media freedoms collapse in Serbia embodied in the attitude of professional institutions towards journalists.

“We see that in two track. One is about unavailability of institution – a fact that you, as a journalist, find it difficult to obtain official information, a person responsible for something, official statements and gain opportunities to verify information. Also, journalists from small towns have to send their questions to Belgrade [the capital of Serbia], which is a bad sign for local governments and provincial authorities. Often, information about local journalists’ positions and conditions are not shared, they pass under the radar of international organizations, as well as of certain domestic ones,” said the NDNV president.

He adds that the second track is a certain attack by professional institutions on journalists.

“The best example of this is KCV, which filed a complaint against journalist Ana Lalić, where we see that these institutions are not only closed and unavailable today, but have the role of labeling journalists and accusing them of spreading panic and lies. I think that is one fascinating thing about today’s media situation in Serbia,” Šinković said.

As the biggest problems during the pandemic, the president of the NDNV highlights the financial vulnerability of journalists, the unavailable and closed institutions and endangered personal security of journalists.

“The pandemic has greatly affected the freedom of the media, but not the pandemic as such but the state of emergency and the attempt to centralize information on the infection. On the one hand, due to job cuts, many journalists are left without income, most often freelance journalists. On the other hand, centralizing information implies that journalists cannot adequately cover topics because they receive an answer in every situation that a state of emergency is in force,” says Šinković, adding that forcing journalists to attend the pseudo-events of the president during a pandemic is a disaster in these conditions, it sends a bad message and encourages the presence of fear and a sense of insecurity about the personal safety of journalists.

Attacks on journalists continue

A recently published Annual Report by the partner organisations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists states that attacks on the media, death threats to members of the profession, as well as inflammatory rhetoric that often comes from officials are present in Serbia.

They point out the attacks on N1 television, including a letter from February threatening to kill N1 journalists and their families, and blow up the office. Report also highlights specific attacks against N1 journalists, such as attacks on Zana Cimilji and Miodrag Sovilj. In addition, the report recalls the unsolved murder of journalist Dada Vujasinović in 1994 and notes that the verdict for the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija, which happened in 1999, was finally pronounced.

Attacks on journalists are also the topic of a reaction by the Independent Journalist Association of Serbia (NUNS) over the publication of the Reporters Without Borders list, stating that the fall on the list is not surprising because an even worse result could have been expected. They recall an increase in physical assaults, verbal threats to life, and that cases of crimes to the detriment of journalists rarely end up in court – which they add to the list of reasons for the fall on the RFS ranking list.

In addition, NUNS cites the case of when journalist Milan Jovanović’s house was burned down in Grocka, the inflammatory rhetoric of politicians and government officials targeting journalists who report in the public interest, the campaign of harassment of independent journalists and newsrooms, the trend of closing state institutions and their refusal to provide information of public importance, but also the socio-economic working conditions of journalists, which remain a significant problem.

They see a progress compared to the previous year in the fact that the Media Strategy has been completed, though it took three years, and that the Permanent Working Group for the Security of Journalists has continued its work in 2019.

Media freedoms in shadow of election campaign

Problems with media freedoms have been identified and mapped, and now the question of political will to work on them remains. When asked what kind of result on the RSF list we might expect next year, the NDNV president states that he cannot be optimistic because Serbia is now in an election year.

“We saw how public discourse looked like before the state of emergency was introduced. We have seen what measures have been taken during the state of emergency. I absolutely do not expect any side, position or opposition, to give up on the same treatment of journalists as it was the case before the state of emergency. I believe that we cannot expect a significant positive change, first of all, because we have an election campaign ahead of us and then the formation of government. It’s a process that leaves big marks in the media space,” says Šinković.

Skrozza also does not have an optimistic attitude, stating that next year we can only regress on the list, as well as outside the list, adding that the degree of freedom of the media depends only on the degree of freedom which journalists and editors gave themselves, i.e. on the degree of sacrifice they are prepared for, aware in advance that they will pay dearly for their self-conquered freedom.

“There is no chance of making any progress in such a political environment – in a situation where independent journalists are targeted, called out from the very top of the state, impoverished, tired and discouraged. If the attitude of the state leadership changes, if the institutions start working and the atmosphere in which we work change, the most we can achieve is to survive,” Skrozza concludes, adding that otherwise, “there will not be us and I am afraid that the Reporters will no longer have anything to measure. “