12 Oct Freedom of Expression in Serbia in the European Commission’s Report

Belgrade, October 12, 2020-

According to this year’s Progress Report, which was recently presented in Brussels, the overall environment for media and freedom of expression in Serbia remains unfavorable. The main problems highlighted in the Report are attacks on journalists, especially those working in local media, unbalanced coverage in favor of the ruling party during the election campaign, but also the economic insecurity of journalists and media, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Report mentions that Serbia has achieved a certain level of preparation regarding freedom of expression, and in that sense, the adoption of a media strategy in January of this year was mentioned as a positive step. However, it was stated that the strategy has yet to be implemented, and that no progress has been made on the ground in terms of the overall environment for exercising freedom of expression. With the exception of the adoption of the aforementioned media strategy, none of the recommendations from last year’s report have been implemented. The previous report stated that there had been no progress in this area during the reporting period, and that this was a cause for “serious concern.”

A further cause for concern for the Commission, as outlined in the Report, is the large number of cases of attacks, pressure and intimidation of journalists. According to statistics compiled by the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, which were referenced in the Progress Report, the number of attacks on journalists increased in the reporting period – from 30 attacks in 2018, to 67 in 2019. Data from the Republic Public Prosecutor’s Office (RPPO), cited in the report, shows that, in 2019, 59 cases of attacks on journalists were reported to the prosecutor’s offices, of which 47 were taken into consideration, while 12 were dismissed. Five of those cases ended with a conviction, while in 42 cases proceedings are still ongoing.

In addition to violence and verbal threats against journalists, the European Commission’s report also makes note of other types of pressure on the media. Thus, the Report especially highlighted a case from July of this year, when a list of 57 organizations and individuals from the media and civil society, who had been subject to a risk assessment by the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML), was leaked to the public. The Commission warned that it is necessary to establish the legal basis for this assessment, and whether the actions of the APML in this case are in compliance with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). This case, as well as the need to review the actions of the APML, have been repeatedly pointed out in the Report, both in relation to Chapter 24 – Justice, Freedom and Security, and in the part concerning Chapter 4 – Free Movement of Capital.

Furthermore, the Report pays special attention to the government’s actions during the state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as regards the attitude of the authorities towards the media and freedom of expression. For instance, one negative example that was cited was the arrest of journalist Ana Lalić, following the publication of her article on the lack of protective equipment in hospitals. Although the criminal charges against her for causing panic were withdrawn a month later, the aforementioned journalist was since the target of a vicious tabloid smear campaign, as well as verbal abuse and threats, including by high-ranking officials. In addition to this, the Report also mentions the controversial decree to centralise all information on the pandemic exclusively through the government crisis team, as well as the ten-day restriction on journalists’ access to daily press conferences on the epidemiological situation.

In the part related to the state of freedom of expression in the period preceding the election, it was noted that public broadcasters failed to give equal space to different political views in their programming. According to a report by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), whose mission observed the June elections, even though public broadcasters respected their legal obligation to give all lists equal time in their election programming, the government still had the upper hand, so to speak, as their activities were reported on extensively in other editorial programmes.

The report also notes that political and economic influence on the media, insufficient transparency regarding ownership structures and a lack of fairness in financing from state resources remain a concern. Attention was also drawn to the fact that journalists in Serbia have little to no job security, and that the overall economic situation in the media has further deteriorated due to a decline in advertising revenues caused by the pandemic.

The recommendations issued to Serbia by the European Commission remained the same as last year. It was once again underlined that it is necessary to ensure full implementation of media laws, the independence of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media, transparent and equitable co-funding for media content serving the public interest, as well as increased transparency in media ownership and advertising. It was also emphasized that it is essential for the unhindered enjoyment of freedom of expression that threats, physical assaults, violence, and cases of invasion of privacy against journalists and bloggers are properly and swiftly followed up by law enforcement and judicial authorities, as well as publicly condemned by government officials.