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In Serbia, independent journalists branded traitors and Bulgarians

The attacks against Serbian journalist Slobodan Georgiev peaked when he uncovered links between President Aleksander Vučić’s brother Andrej Vučić and a notorious businessman from Kosovo in 2019.

A video was promptly released on social media describing Georgiev as a ‘foreign mercenary’ and a ‘traitor’ with a soundtrack of the sirens heard across Serbia during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. The accusations have rolled on since. For the last couple of months he’s been accused of being a Bulgarian spy because his surname is allegedly Bulgarian.

“When you say in Serbia that someone is a Bulgarian, it’s a very bad thing. Now they call me ‘Bulgarian Guy’ in public, people from the ruling party. Whenever I publish something on Twitter, these squads of bots come like flies and bomb my account with comments, ‘Hey Bulgarian, how’s Bulgaria?’,” Georgiev said.

“That’s a new thing. Before that I was just a spy.”

Georgiev has worked as a journalist in Serbia for more than 20 years, including a 13-year stint as an editor and reporter for the award-winning investigative network BIRN. He now edits the evening news program on independent cable channel Nova S and writes for the weekly news magazine Vreme.

Aleksander Vucić has been on the political scene in Serbia for more than 30, having served as prime minister, deputy prime minister and minister of defence. In April, he won a second term as president. Georgiev fears the health of the country’s media has little chance of improving over the next five years.

“Aleksander Vucic is not Vladimir Putin. Vucic doesn’t have the power to arrest or to kill us. Those are the only two things we didn’t have in the last ten years,” he said.

When Vučić was minister of information under Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, during the Yugoslav wars, he introduced official censorship in Serbia under which critics of the war became enemies of the state.

“We had this very nationalistic machinery a part of which was dedicated to anti-war initiatives, labelling them as foreign mercenaries and domestic traitors. When you say domestic traitors and foreign mercenaries now, that’s a link with the war,” said Vukosava Crnjanski, director of Serbian democracy watchdog CRTA.

“This language actually is coming back heavily in the last several years under Vučić. They started silencing every free voice in Serbia.”

Vučić came to power as leader of the Serbian Progressive Party [SNS] in the 2017 election with an extraordinary majority, winning 98% of parliamentary seats, largely as a result of an opposition boycott protesting harassment and intimidation by pro-government politicians.

In the absence of a political opposition, civil society and media were unwillingly thrust into the role leading to an escalation in the harassment and intimidation of independent journalists.

“MPs are talking about opposition who are not in parliament because they constantly need to have an enemy to blame for failures or mistakes and so on,’ Crnjanski said.

In 2021, the World Press Freedom Index rated media in Serbia ‘partly free’, noting an increase in attacks against journalists and arbitrary arrests.

In 2020, Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), an organisation that monitors violations of media freedom in EU member states and candidate countries, registered 37 cases of threats, harassment, or physical violence against journalists in Serbia. In the same year, local media organisations reported 72 incidents.

“A prevalent culture of framing independent media as a hostile force and failing to accept the role of journalists as public watchdogs derives from the 1990s but has continued since the transition to democracy as Serbia still grapples with this element from its recent past,” the MFRR mission report concluded in April 2021.

KRIK, an investigative journalism portal focused on crime and corruption, has been a particular target for government hostility. Since its launch in 2015, it has exposed multiple links between government ministers and criminal groups, even publishing photographs of Vučić’s son with a young member of a notorious criminal network on four separate occasions.

The 15-strong team – made up mostly of women, and all under 40 – is routinely attacked on the front pages of pro-government tabloids. Jelena Vasić, one of KRIK’s founders, says public harassment inevitably follows.

“When tabloids and progovernment television present us as media terrorists, as people who are against the president, when they present us as foreign mercenaries, as people paid by CIA to destroy this country, after that our phone rings all day. Often, it’s older citizens who believe the story, who believe the narrative calling to yell at us to swear. It’s unpleasant to be in our skin after the smear campaigns,” Vasić said.

Three of KRIK’s reporters, all of them women, have had their homes broken into and ransacked.

“Those were not robberies because nothing was stolen. Someone just entered their apartments, turned everything upside down, and left. So it was intimidation, a message: we can enter your home, we know where you live,” said Vasić.

“We know that is intimidation because none of those cases is solved so far.”

Only one in ten cases of threats or attacks against journalists has resulted in a court verdict, but convictions do happen. In 2021, a former mayor of Grocka and was convicted along with two accomplices of an arson attack on the home of journalist Milan Jovanović who had been reporting on local corruption.

Brankica Stanković, perhaps Serbia’s most well-known and well-respected investigative journalist, has lived for more than a decade with 24-hour police protection because the threat to her life was considered so grave.

“It’s a sensitive issue right now so I don’t want to get into it but I have still some protection,” she said.

She believes the protection that has been afforded to her, and notably not offered to other independent journalists, is in part the result of her fame.

“If something happened to me, that would be a great shame to the state. There were theories that the state by giving me 24 hour protection, they actually wanted to make me stop because I never gave up on the story. But if this was the intention they didn’t manage,” Stanković said.

The European Commission and more recently the Biden administration have chastised the Serbian government over declining media freedom in the country. Vucić responded defensively to allegations of media repression in 2018 in an article for the EUObserver, in which he cast himself as the victim of persecution.

“I am aware that I am an easy target for anyone who wants to attack Serbia because of the media situation, primarily because of my short participation in Milosevic’s government 20 years ago, but I urge everyone to use facts, not a mantra created as the only way to attack Serbia, which is progressing economically, whose reputation is growing worldwide and is trying to solve important regional problems,” Vučić wrote.

The president’s office did not respond to requests for comment from Euronews on the state of media freedom in Serbia.

While critical journalists may be terrorists at home, on the international stage, Vučić is keen to pursue EU membership and embrace Western democratic values. In December 2020, the Serbian government set up two new working groups, one to develop a Media Strategy Action Plan, the other focused on the protection of journalists: a requisite for accession to the EU is a free and independent media.

Brankica Stanković has been allowed to fill that role. Last year, she launched Insajder TV, a cable news channel she co-owns with her long-term producer Miša Čvorović. Uniquely in Serbia, Insajder is an independent cable channel broadcast on state provider Telekom and the private network SBB.

“It was long and difficult but all arguments were on our side because they all knew what they’re getting and it would be a shame for all of them to refuse us,” Stankovic said.

Does that mean they have been granted the same level of access from the ruling party as pro-government media?

“No, no, no. But we never give up,” she said.

According to data gathered by CRTA during this year’s election campaign, government representatives appeared on independent cable channels Insajder, N1 and Nova S only a handful of times. Meanwhile, on Serbia’s pro-government mainstream media, opposition voices barely got a look in. Vučić secured 84% of primetime media time between February 15 and March 4; from January 1 to February 14, he had 90%.

“For us, the main problem is not the smearing campaigns in tabloids or TV stations controlled by people connected to the government. The biggest problem is that they side-line us and we are forced to appear biased,’ said Slobodan Georgiev, explaining that government ministries and institutions simply refuse to give interviews, briefings or even information to journalists they believe to be critical.

“They won’t talk to me because they say: ‘You are not a journalist; you work for somebody who wants to destroy me politically’. So you ask yourself, is it actually possible to have an independent media within a society that doesn’t recognise it?

“Free media goes together with democracy. If you don’t have democracy, if you don’t have Rule of Law, you will look like an outlaw.”

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