Although it has made progress in many areas, Serbia needs to accelerate reforms when it comes to judicial independence, the fight against corruption, media freedom, tackling war crimes and the fight against organized crime, the European Commission concluded in its latest six-month working document on chapters 23 and 24, the so-called non-paper, published on June 11.
The European Commission has recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional challenges in this area, while contributing to certain objective delays in Serbia’s work on its rule of law agenda. However, similar “objections” could be read in previous non-papers.
Jovana Spremo, Coordinator of the Working Group of National Convention on the EU for the Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental rights) and Advisor for EU Integration at the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights YUCOM, points out that this report, like the previous one, drew attention to the very important delays in the reforms that are being carried out within the negotiating Chapter 23 and to the existing worrying trends of pressure on everything that has the characteristic of independence.
“It is important that inappropriate political influence and media campaigns against representatives of the judiciary, impunity of attacks on journalists, pressures on lawyers who are advocates in civil society organisations and ongoing allowing of genocide denial and hate speech in the Serbian Parliament stand out,” says Spremo commenting on the non-paper.
She adds that much milder and in a way encouraging tone of the report itself is worrying.
“Thus, progress is being brought to the front in certain areas, instead of serious delays and standing still when it comes to much more significant reforms,” Spremo points out.
Regardless of the delays, Minister of European Integration of Serbia Jadranka Joksimović said Serbia expects to get approval by the end of June to open at least one of the five chapters it is ready for, according to the Ministry of European Integration, which has not posted a document on its website even three weeks after it was published.
“It is important that EU member states recognize the progress made in the chapters related to the rule of law – 23 and 24, which is presented in the non-paper report on Serbia’s progress in the field of rule of law, which recognizes progress and some delays in a fairly balanced way,” stated Joksimović.
Despite the words said, the European Council confirmed later that Serbia will not open any new chapters in accession negotiations with the European Union in June.
In 2018 and 2019, Serbia opened new Chapters every June and December and this is the first time that more than six months will pass since the previous Chapter(s) was opened.
Spremo points out that according to the existing framework, it is clear that if there is a stalemate in Chapters 23 and 24, one of the consequences is the impossibility of opening other chapters.
“The stalemate and lack of political will for real improvement of the rule of law is more than obvious, so despite the fact that some chapters are fully ready for opening, a clear political message should be given that without improving the rule of law there is no talk of progress in the accession process,” says Spremo.
Authorities’ pressure on the judiciary remains
The problem that the European Commission is noting again is the pressure on the judiciary.
“Government officials, some of them at the highest level, as well as MPs, continue to regularly comment on ongoing investigations or trials, as well as individual judges and prosecutors. Articles in tabloid newspapers target and tend to discredit judges and prosecutors,” the non-paper states.
However, the process of constitutional reform is especially noteworthy, which is still “pending” and it is added that this delay “leaves consequences on future changes and the adoption of accompanying laws and regulations.” For this reason, the EC demands that the process be resumed as soon as possible, transparently and comprehensively, and that the parliamentary elections (held on 21 June) be awaited in order to continue.
Judge Miodrag Majić believes that the process of changing the constitution will be resolved immediately after the constitution of the new assembly.
“I think that two things are on the agenda of our current, that is, future government, they are the Kosovo issue, and on the internal level, the judiciary. Unlike the European Commission, I am not happy with the change of the constitution because I think that what we have seen so far in the constitutional debate does not encourage us at all that the changes will lead to the improvement of the existing situation,” Majić points out.
He adds that there are serious reasons to worry about how the further procedure of amending the constitution will take place, when it comes to the judiciary.
“I do not expect anything good when it comes to the judiciary, especially not what seems to be coming from several EC reports, and that is that the judiciary is partly not good because the reform process has not been implemented. I think it would be even worse if they did it the way they started, and the way I am afraid we will have the opportunity to see very soon what that will actually mean,” Majić told the European Western Balkans.
Spremo points out that the document also states that the competent committee of the National Assembly should rely on the proposal of the Ministry of Justice to amend the Constitution in the part that refers to the judiciary, whose flaws and legality were discussed earlier.
“Such an approach is absolutely unacceptable for the profession and it is necessary for the new proposal to be the result of a transparent and inclusive discussion and as such sent again to the Venice Commission for approval,” says Spremo.
“The judiciary is politically colored”
Judge Majić explains that if the new constitutional framework is introduced as it is in its current form (the last text of the Draft amendment), it will provide “full opportunities to, we assume, a completely monolithic government to reform the judiciary in the way we see it does in the second part of the report – under political influence and pressure”.
“I am completely sure that it will further downgrade the judiciary, and that if nothing serious changes in the text, where we have recognized the inserted political influences, the situation will be worse. When it comes to the judiciary, the report notes what the problems are, but the key problem and the source of all problems is a complete political coloration of the judiciary and political influence. Everything else stems from that – corruption in the judiciary, by which I do not mean only financial moments, but corrupt behavior, from the election of people, the appointment of people, to the non-functioning of the prosecutor’s office,” Majić points out.
He explains that if you go back two steps, that it is all a consequence of the complete political domination over the judiciary by the executive, in the first place, which the report sees. He adds that the second question is whether there is sufficient insistence on finding those responsible or on the inadmissibility of such a situation.
“We are regressing the situation in the field of justice, which has never been great here. I am afraid, unlike the EC, that after these constitutional changes we will see even more drastic negative changes and that the judiciary, which still more or less, although completely insufficient, succeeds in being not as monolithic as in our society where everything is reduced to practical one institution. I think that it will be formalized and put on the same side,” says Majić.
He concludes that regardless of the fact that the judiciary is formally placed in the focus of the EC, that is not the case in practice, and he notes that he is afraid that it will be a victim of bigger political issues.
The state of media freedom does not cease to be a concern
In its document, the European Commission especially emphasizes the continuation of threats, intimidation and violence against journalists. It is added that it is necessary to strengthen the overall atmosphere so that freedom of expression can be implemented without interference, but also to see the results of it in practice.
“As a step in that direction, the Ombudsman signed an agreement with representatives of seven media associations and all three journalists ‘unions, which created a platform for registering pressure and endangering the safety of journalists and other media workers, and he can contribute to protecting journalists’ rights and safety,” it is stated in the document.
Despite the signing of the agreement in May, the reasons for concern remain the same, especially at the local level.
In addition, a non-paper published just before the parliamentary, provincial and local elections in Serbia, held on June 21, states that during the first half of 2020, “an unbalanced representation of pluralism of political views on public media services was observed” – which has also been a topic in previous documents.
The political and economic impact on the media was assessed as worrying, and the transparency of media ownership is said to “need to be further improved, especially at the local level”.
An attempt by the Serbian government to centralize information during the COVID-19 pandemic was also noted.
“Physical access to daily press conferences related to the pandemic was banned at one point, then allowed again. a journalist was arrested, and her equipment was confiscated, after writing an article claiming that there was a lack of protective equipment in the hospital,” the document reads. However, it is added that although the accusations of causing panic have been rejected, the journalist has since been the subject of threats, smear campaigns and verbal attacks, including by high-ranking officials.
The document also states that the independence of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) must be strengthened in order to effectively preserve media pluralism. It was noticed that the membership of the REM Council was supplemented and partially changed, that regular reports on media coverage during the election campaign began to be published, as well as that the Supervisory Board of the National Assembly was established.
In line with that, the European Commission reminded that the Government adopted a media strategy in January 2020, and that the process of its writing was inclusive and transparent.
Numerous laws are awaiting adoption
The document estimates that the situation in sectors that are particularly vulnerable to corruption (public procurement, infrastructure projects, health, education, spatial planning and public enterprises) remains largely unchanged.
When it comes to the fight against corruption, it is stated that there was a delay in the adoption of the amended Law on Financing Political Activities in order to be in line with the recommendations of the ODIHR and the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance. On the other hand, it is noted that a new Law on the Origin of Property has been adopted, which must be applied without discrimination and corruption.
In addition, the importance of amendments to the Law on Prevention of Corruption, which should enter into force in September, is especially mentioned. It is added that they will be accompanied by strengthening the resources and capacities of the Anti-Corruption Agency. However, the law has not yet received the green light from the Council of Europe and GRECO.
“The introduction of special anti-corruption departments in the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Offices is beginning to yield results and the number of first-instance verdicts passed on the basis of the work of these departments is increasing. However, there are still no tangible results when it comes to high-level corruption,” the European Commission document reads.
However, it is pointed out that certain results have been achieved when it comes to criminal prosecution of corruption cases, but that the number of convicts for cases of high corruption has decreased in 2019.
On the other hand, the number of convictions in organized crime cases has “slightly increased”. Also, it was noted that Serbia is no longer on the “gray list” of countries with a high risk of money laundering and terrorist financing of the FATF, from June 2019.
In addition, the document points out that Serbia is seriously late with the adoption of the Law on the Ombudsman, anti-discrimination laws, the Law on Gender Equality or juvenile delinquency.