Serbia faces accusations of media censorship

16/06/2014

The Serbian government is facing criticism over the lack of media freedom in the country.

By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 16/06/14

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Journalists in Serbia say they are being "advised" to avoid criticism, Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic said. [AFP]

Serbia is facing criticism from international organisations amid accusations that officials are censoring media outlets that were critical of the government's response to last month's historic flooding.

Following several incidents of alleged censorship, OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic wrote a letter to Serbia Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic voicing her concerns.

"I am deeply worried by claims that websites and online content have been blocked. That is a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression," Mijatovic said.

The incidents included the shutdown of the Teleprompter website after it posted criticism of the government for its reaction to the floods that swept the country in May.

Journalist Dragan Todorovic's blog, which contained suggestions that Vucic should resign over the government's alleged lack of reaction during the floods, was removed from the Blic website without explanation.

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Several websites were blocked after postings that criticised the government. [AFP]

Srdjan Skoro, a former editor at the daily Vecernje Novosti, was dismissed from his post in May after speaking critically about the composition of the government on a show broadcast on Radio Television Serbia.

And on June 1st, the Pescanik website was hacked after it posted an article accusing Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic of plagiarising the doctoral dissertation he defended at Megatrend University.

"Pescanik.net was brought down by a distributed denial-of-service attack, which is carried out through a large number of simultaneous requests to the website," editor Svetlana Lukic told SETimes. "The unusually massive visit to the website began when we posted the article."

Vucic dismissed the allegations.

"The fierceness and strength of a campaign of untruths, no matter how many times it is repeated, cannot change one thing, and that is that Serbia is a free and democratic country," the prime minister said.

Minister of Labour Aleksandar Vulin told state TV RTS said that the criticism of the government was a political issue by "major forces."

"The major forces do not want a Serbian prime minister who enjoys the support of 50 percent of voters," Vulin said.

Vucic accused some from the international community of putting pressure on the media in Serbia to campaign against him and his family.

"I will not let anyone attack Serbia, and let it go unanswered. I'm strong enough and have enough strength to stand up to all those who are attacking my family. We are small and they are big, but that does not mean that we should not defend the freedom-loving traditions of our people. What does my political office mean to me? So what if I am left without it?" Vucic said on June 9th.

But Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic issued a statement observing that "certain information and criticism is more frequently being removed from publicly available media and information space."

He added that journalists are increasingly claiming that they were being "advised" to avoid criticising the government, and that some citizens had been called in for questioning by the police for spreading panic, which "no one has noticed, determined or recorded the consequences of."

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Jelka Jovanovic, former vice president of the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia, said there is unofficial control of the media in Serbia, in which the most important lever is economic coercion.

"A large number of media, shrinking advertising, the opening of alternative media: Those are the three facts that make traditional media, primarily the press, directly dependent on the economic lobby, and because of the nature of Serbian society, on the political establishment as well," she told SETimes.

Peter Stano, spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, told reporters in Brussels that the European Commission was "carefully monitoring the media situation in Serbia," and has constant communication with the government, the ombudsman and civil society representatives.

What measures can be taken to ensure media freedom in Serbia? Tell us your thoughts below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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