Media freedom questioned in Serbia

24/02/2014

Several incidents in Serbia have raised questions about whether media freedom in the country is in jeopardy.

By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 24/02/14

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Regulatory bodies should take more decisive steps against the media that violate journalistic codes, experts said. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]

Media organisations in Serbia are lodging complaints about several recent incidents of alleged government influence that they say is hurting freedom of the press in the weeks prior to the March 16th snap parliamentary elections.

The organisations point to a video parody of Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic that was blocked for several days on YouTube, and a news conference during which a politician tore up a copy of the tabloid Kurir as a political statement.

"The media serve to criminalise not only the opposition, but all critics of the government. The Serbian president himself said that tabloids base their work on blackmail and extortion," Nedim Sejdinovic of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, told SETimes.

The Share Foundation, a non-profit organisation that "fights to protect civil liberties in the digital age," announced it would press charges against those responsible for the blocking a YouTube parody of Vucic, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party and a leading candidate for prime minister.

The video mocked news footage from February 1st of Vucic helping to rescue citizens snowed in near the small town of Feketic in northern Serbia.

Footage showing Vucic carrying a child through the snow was turned into parodies that hit the internet. A clip titled Superman was posted on YouTube, in which the authors added their own subtitles to the original state TV footage, making fun of Vucic. The video was blocked for several days, leading many from Serbia's internet community to accuse Vucic and his party of censorship.

Vucic responded to the criticism on his Facebook page and denied responsibility for blocking the clip. He wrote that the accusations against him were "utter nonsense," and that he was glad the parody had "made Serbia laugh."

A parody video was blocked for several days in Serbia. [vimeo.com/Ivan Dokic]

The incident was followed by opposition politician Zoran Zivkovic tearing up a copy of the tabloid Kurir at a news conference on February 5th. Zivkovic said the paper is leading a campaign against the Progressive Party's political opponents.

The Journalists' Association of Serbia said Zivkovic's action was unjustified.

"The Journalists' Association of Serbia believes that publicly tearing up of newspapers, even if caused by justified dissatisfaction, is not an act befitting the leader of a party that considers itself democratic," association representatives told SETimes.

Serbia has climbed nine places on the Press Freedom Index this year. According to the February 12th report released by Reporters Without Borders, Serbia was 54th out of the 180 countries that were ranked. The index "reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom," according to the organisation's website.

However, Ivan Cvejic, editor-in-chief of Beta News Agency, said the media is endangered, not only by pressure from politicians, but also by irregular market conditions. The problem, he said, is that the state continues to finance certain media.

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"By using public finances in an unlawful manner, contrary to domestic regulations and the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, the government continues to severely disrupt the regularity of the media market in the country, keeping the position of major financier and thereby influencing the editorial policy of the media it owns and funds," Cvejic told SETimes.

Both Sejdinovic and Cvejic said the adoption of new legislation and the implementation of media regulations recommended by the EU could help neutralise the situation. They also said journalists' associations and regulatory bodies should take more decisive steps against media that violates journalistic codes.

While Culture and Information Minister Ivan Tasovac refused to comment on the latest developments in the media scene, a statement from the ministry to SETimes said officials were concerned about a "new wave of pollution of public space" and "urge the political parties, the media and other participants in the electoral process not to contribute to the continuation of this very dangerous trend."

How should politicians make sure they are protecting the freedom of the media during political campaigns? Tell us your thoughts below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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