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Serbia: MFRR partners demand Belgrade court set Belarusian journalist…

Serbia: MFRR partners demand Belgrade court set Belarusian journalist free

Andrey Gniot at risk of deportation under politically motivated charges

The undersigned partner organizations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) demand the immediate release of Andrey Gniot, a Belarusian journalist and pro-democracy activist who is being held in custody by Serbian authorities on politically motivated charges formulated by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Since October, Serbian courts have been deliberating upon a request to deport Gniot to Belarus.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an independent trade union in exile, Gniot was arrested immediately upon his arrival to Serbia on October 30. He was detained based on an international arrest warrant issued by Interpol upon request by authorities in Belarus on alleged tax evasion charges. After a first appeal, the High Court of Belgrade is currently deliberating on whether the conditions for Gniot’s extradition to Belarus have been met. 

 

The journalist first left his home country in 2021 after receiving “signals” that authorities were aware of his activism, which he had not made public out of fear of reprisal, according to reports by independent Belarusian media. After first moving to Thailand, the journalist flew for work to Serbia, a country which remains a major hub for exiled Belarusians and Russians, as it is one of the few in Europe which they can enter without a visa. He was unaware that an international arrest warrant had been issued against him.

 

Activism and journalistic activity in Belarus

Gniot is mainly known for his activities as a director of music and TV commercials, as well as a journalist and political activist. He is one of the founders of SOS BY, an independent union of Belarusian sportspeople, which reportedly contributed to the canceling of the 2021 Hockey World Cup in Belarus. The decision was made months before the event and was motivated in part by ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated by authorities in the wake of the 2020-21 mass protest movement against Lukashenko. SOS BY was later designated as an “extremist formation” by the Belarusian KGB, which made it possible to sentence its members to lengthy prison terms.  In addition, Gniot’s decision to leave Belarus was due in part to his contributions for Prague-based broadcaster RFE/RL, as he was concerned about the risk of arbitrary detention in retaliation for his journalistic work.

 

While Gniot is formally accused of tax evasion, he claims that he was never notified of these charges throughout the years during which he would have violated Belarusian tax laws. Tax evasion, as well as other charges, were also earlier used to incriminate Maryna Zolatava and Lyudmila Chekina, respectively the editor-in-chief and director general of Tut.by. The website used to be Belarus’ most popular independent online outlet before its forced closure by authorities in 2021.

 

In addition, Gniot’s lawyers reported that authorities in Minsk accused him based on a law adopted in 2019, while the charges are related to Gniot’s activities between 2012 and 2018.

 

Risk of political persecution in Belarus

Belarus remains Europe’s biggest jailer of journalists, with 36 media workers currently behind bars according to BAJ. The country of nine million also has the highest rate of imprisoned journalists per capita in the world.

 

Independent media are in practice fully banned at the national level, and independent journalists have been forced to go into exile, as staying in Belarus exposed them to inevitable repression due to current and past activities.

 

Since 2020, authorities have labelled thousands of media outlets, website pages, social media accounts and other online content as various forms of “extremism”: as a result, journalists and readers alike face fines and prison terms for any interactions, current or past, with independent outlets designated as such. Security forces are known for regular detentions of Belarusian journalists and independent media consumers for past activities, with the first group receiving prison or other sentences restricting their liberty, while the second are typically forced to record videos “confessing” their “extremism” before serving short-term prison terms (typically up to 15 days).

 

Given the likelihood of politically motivated repression in Belarus, we urge the High Court of Belgrade, which is currently handling Gniot’s case, to pronounce a decision in favour of his immediate release, as well as for competent authorities in Serbia to not appeal such a decision. 

 

Serbian authorities should take into account the unimaginable scale of repression of independent media in Belarus, and the fact that Belarusian authorities have weaponized tax evasion charges to take revenge on a journalist for his past successful activism against human rights abuses. Gniot’s deportation to Belarus would expose him to arbitrary detention and imprisonment, as well as inhumane treatment and torture while in custody.

 

Andrey must be set free and allowed to continue his professional activities in the country of his choice.

Signed by:

  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Article 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Urgent action needed to protect journalists Ana Lalić Hegediš…

Urgent action needed to protect journalists Ana Lalić Hegediš and Dinko Gruhonjić

To: 

 

Mr Vucic, President of Serbia

 

Mr Stamenkovic, Public Prosecutor in General Public Prosecution and member of the Standing working group

 

Ms Brnabic, Prime Minister and President of National Parliament 

 

Mr Gasic, Minister of Interior

 

Mr Jovanovic, Minister of Information and Telecommunication

 

We would like to bring to your attention the urgent situation concerning the safety of journalists Ana Lalić Hegediš and Dinko Gruhonjić, leaders of the Vojvodina Association of Independent Journalists (NDNV). Over the past fifteen days, both journalists have been subjected to an onslaught of online death threats following their participation in the Rebedu Festival in Dubrovnik. The situation escalated on 21 March when graffiti was discovered at Gruhonjić’s residence. The journalists are facing imminent threats to their lives, prompting urgent action from law enforcement.

 

Since 8 March, Lalić Hegediš has endured terrifying online death threats, some of a sexual nature, alongside grave insults targeting both her and the NDNV she leads. Similarly, since 14 March, Gruhonjić, program director of NDNV who is also a journalist and lecturer at Novi Sad University, has been subjected to a public campaign of intimidation, including threats of physical violence. This campaign stemmed from a manipulated video montage from Gruhonjić’s participation to the Rebedu Festival last year, giving the impression that Dinko was expressing his satisfaction at sharing a name with the Ustasha criminal Dinko Šakić, who was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Second World war. 

 

On 21 March, an unknown individual went to Gruhonjić’ private residence to paint a threatening graffiti on the wall of the entrance of his building saying that Dinko will soon have “forever home”. The individual signed “Serbian Vojvodina”. The graffiti demonstrates the ease with which perpetrators can locate him and his family, underscoring the seriousness of the threats both journalists are facing. 

 

Despite the NDNV reporting the alarming threats to the high-tech crime prosecutor’s office and providing details of some of identified perpetrators, including those who signed threats with their names, no decisive action has been taken to conduct thorough investigation, arrest the perpetrators nor to provide the journalists with adequate protection. 

 

We urge authorities to launch immediate investigations and implement measures to ensure the safety and protection of Lalić Hegediš and Gruhonjić.

 

Politicians and officials must also be held accountable for their role in perpetuating hatred against journalists. Public statements from individuals such as Aleksandar Vulin, former director of the Security Information Agency and founder of the Socialist Movement party and Milenko Jovanov, MP at the Parliament last 18 March, only serve to escalate hatred and endanger lives. There are also serious concerns that members of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party are behind the lynching campaign against Lalić Hegediš and Gruhonjić. The person who filed a criminal complaint against them for allegedly inciting racial, religious and national hatred and intolerance during their participation in the forum is closely associated with party figures such as Aleksa Grubešić, member of the Serbian Progressive Party.

 

It is the responsibility of the State to protect journalists and provide them with the necessary protection to enable them to carry out their work. The policy of impunity in the face of threats to the independence of the press in Serbia must end. 

 

Thank you for your attention to these matters. We remain available for any further information.

Respectfully,

Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)  

Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) 

Luisa Chiodi, Director of the Balkans and Caucasus Transeuropa Observatory (OBCT)  

Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19

Oliver Money-Kyrle, Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes at International Press Institute (IPI)

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

SafeJournalists Network 

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Serbia: escalating threats and attacks against journalists in Novi…

Serbia: escalating threats and attacks against journalists in Novi Sad

The escalation of threats and violence suffered by journalists in Novi Sad, northern Serbia, has reached an unprecedented level in the past fortnight. The undersigned organisations urge the Serbian authorities to conduct immediate and thorough investigation into the persistent attacks on journalists and ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted accordingly. 

In just ten days, no fewer than seven journalists have faced threats and assaults in the city of Novi Sad alone. Whether it is physical assaults, verbal abuse, online harassment or death threats, the ability of Serbian journalists to do their job is severely compromised and their safety is at risk. 

 

On 8 March 2024, journalists from Tanjug and Kurir Television, along with 021.rs radio, were verbally assaulted while covering a demonstration supporting Ana Mihaljica, whose three children were temporarily taken away from her by the Novi Sad Centre for Social Work. During a live broadcast on Tanjug, reporter Saška Drobnjak was interrupted by a woman claiming to be Mihaljica’s lawyer threatening the journalists, whom she accused of lying. A Tanjug photographer, a Kurir correspondent, and Žarko Bogosavljević of Reporter 021 were also verbally abused. According to the Association of Journalists of Serbia (UNS), the police present did not intervene to prevent interference in the journalists’ work. N1 correspondent Ksenija Pavkov also received numerous online insults and threats of physical violence for her coverage of the demonstration. 

 

That same week, two other journalists and leaders of the Vojvodina Association of Independent Journalists (NDNV), Ana Lalić Hegediš and Dinko Gruhonjić, received thousands of online death threats sent via social media and email. Ana Lalić Hegediš has been the target of terrifying death threats including some of sexual nature and insults, also directed at the NDNV she leads, for comments she made on nationalism at the “Rebedu” festival in Dubrovnik where she was invited as a panellist. Lalić mainly mentioned the Serbian authorities, who do not consider Vojvodina’s citizens as Serbs enough because of their multi-confessionalism and multi-ethnicity.

 

Since 14 March 2024, her colleague Dinko Gruhonjić, journalist lecturer at Novi Sad University and program director of NDNV, has feared for his life and those of members of his family.  Gruhonjić has been the target of a public lynching campaign including threats of physical violence since the publication of a video montage with excerpts from his performance at the Rebid festival in Dubrovnik last year. The montage was manipulated to give the impression that Dinko was expressing his satisfaction at sharing a name with the Ustasha criminal Dinko Šakić. NDNV reported these threats to the high-tech crime prosecutor’s office and, for some of them, provided the details of the perpetrators who signed with their names. 

 

“We have been under attack with the Association for decades. But this time, it’s the greatest pressure ever. Who knows what will happen to us” worries Lalić, while Gruhonjić deplores the “policy of impunity when it comes to threats against the independence of the press in Serbia, even when the perpetrators are not anonymous”.

 

“The number of threats and insults against journalists is on the rise in Serbia. Knowing that Serbia is a country where the three murders of journalists in the last three decades have not been punished, we are very worried about every threat against journalists that goes unresolved,” said Tamara Filipović, project manager of the Association of Independent Journalists of Serbia (NUNS).

 

On 15 March 2024, a resident of Novi Sad filed criminal complaints against Gruhonjić and Lalić for allegedly inciting racial, religious, and national hatred and intolerance during their participation at the forum in Dubrovnik. “We have serious reasons thinking the plaintiff is connected to members of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party” declared Gruhonjić. Some politicians have revived the insults in public debates.  

 

We join the Safe Journalists Network in calling on officials to refrain from targeting the media in Serbia. Their hostile rhetoric legitimises and normalises verbal and physical violence against journalists and media workers. We urge authorities to guarantee a safe environment for journalists, allowing them to work without fearing for their lives, and to put an end to the unacceptable culture of impunity by systematically investigating attacks and complaints.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE19 Europe
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • Safejournalists network

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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SafeJournalists and MFRR: Physical Confrontation with Journalist in Serbia…

SafeJournalists and MFRR: Physical Confrontation with Journalist in Serbia is Unacceptable and Must be Sanctioned

 

SafeJournalists Network and the Media Freedom Rapid Response strongly condemn the behavior of the local authorities in Indjija, who forcibly removed the journalist Verica Marincic from the municipality building and prevented her from doing her job. We appeal to the competent authorities to investigate this incident in which the journalist was injured

The journalist of the In media portal from Indjija, Verica Marincic, was kicked out of the Indjija municipality building because she “wasn’t on the list” to monitor the conference regarding the residents’ protest against the abolition of the railway station. In a video published by N1 television, it is seen that a member of the security forces removed the journalist from the building using physical force.

 

Verica Marincic says that she came to see off the protest that was announced earlier, and when she saw that Indija journalists were entering the building, she followed them, but was met at the entrance by the chief of staff of the municipal president, who told her that she could not go to the conference.   

 

“I took my phone to record what he was saying to me and he grabbed my left upper arm because I had a phone in that hand and squeezed me expecting the phone to fall out of my hand. Because I didn’t want to let go, he took my phone. When he saw that it was all being recorded by a journalist from N1, then he withdrew. After that, a man from security came out and started pushing me to go outside,” stated Verica Marincic. The whole case was reported to the competent authorities.

 

The SafeJournalists Network and Media Freedom Rapid Response call on the state to urgently send a message that this kind of behavior is unacceptable and to condemn this kind of behavior towards journalists. The SafeJournalists and MFRR also appeal to public officials and politicians to refrain from targeting media in Serbia, because their rhetoric encourages individuals to later threaten the media and media workers.

 

Each attack on journalists is an attack on public interest, democracy and the rights of all citizens.

Signed by:

SafeJournalists Network

 

Association of Journalists of Kosovo

 

Association of Journalists of Macedonia

 

BH Journalists Association

 

Croatian Journalists’ Association

 

Independent Journalists Association of Serbia

 

Trade Union of Media of Montenegro

 

Media Freedom Rapid Response

 

ARTICLE 19 Europe

 

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

 

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

 

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

 

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

 

International Press Institute (IPI)

This statement was coordinated by the SafeJournalist Network and signed by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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The true cost of journalism: Ongoing impunity cases in…

The true cost of journalism:

Ongoing impunity cases in Europe

19 February, 11:00 CET.

On 21 February 2018, journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered in Veľká Mača, Slovakia. The assassination sparked mass protests and the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico. Although those who ordered and carried out the murder have been found guilty and sentenced to time in prison, the alleged mastermind was acquitted in May 2023.

 

During the latest MFRR webinar, marking the sixth anniversary of the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, panellists will discuss ongoing impunity cases for crimes against journalists in Europe with a spotlight on Slovakia, Turkey, and Serbia.

Moderator

Jasmijn de Zeeuw

Legal Advisor, Free Press Unlimited

Speakers

Massimo Moratti

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBC Transeuropa)

Barış Altıntaş

Co-Director, Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA)

Lukas Diko

Editor-in-Chief, Investigative Center of Jan Kuciak

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Serbia, no justice for the Ćuruvija murder

Serbia, no justice for the Ćuruvija murder

Twenty-five years after the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija and nine after the start of the trial against the four accused of the murder, after a first conviction in 2019 and the repetition of the trial, on Monday 5 February the Court of Appeal of Belgrade acquitted the defendants

07/02/2024 –  Massimo Moratti

The news came at the end of a particularly intense day on Friday: a few hours earlier, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić had announced that, due to the situation in Kosovo, he would request a convocation of the United Nations Security Council. Attention was therefore focused on the events relating to Kosovo and on possible new tensions.

In this context, the news arrived that the Belgrade Court of Appeal acquitted all four defendants accused of the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija.

Ćuruvija, a journalist of great civic spirit, was killed in April 1999 after criticising the regime of Slobodan Milošević and his wife Mira Marković. At that time, Vučić was the Minister of Information.

The four defendants were very prominent figures of the Državna bezbednost (DB), the security agency of the Yugoslav Interior Ministry, heir to the infamous UDBA. Specifically, Radomir Marković was its head at the time, Milan Radonjić was head of the Belgrade department and Ratko Romić   and Miroslav Kurak were DB operatives.

The trial of the four began in 2015, thanks to the  Commission to investigate the killing of journalists in Serbia  . The Commission was created in 2013 by the Serbian government, in which Vučić was then deputy prime minister, as the result of the persistent insistence of Veran Matić, the historic editor-in-chief of B92 at the time of Milošević, who wanted to shed light on the murders of Ćuruvija, Dada Vujasinović and Milan Pantić. At the time of the start of the trial, Vučić himself had said that he would resign   if those responsible were not found.

 

A troubled trial

From the beginning, Ćuruvija’s was defined as a state murder and it was thought that the trial would confirm what everyone knew.

The trial, which began in 2015, saw around a hundred witnesses appear before the judges, although some key figures, such as Milošević’s wife Mira Marković  , believed by many to have instigated the murder, were never heard. The investigation only looked at the facilitators and material executors of the murder, without trying to find out who the instigators were, since this would most likely have led to Mira Marković and Slobodan Milošević.

Other key figures, who could have been investigated   due to their membership and the role they held at the DB, were instead heard only as witnesses. Numerous witnesses then, during the hearings, had sudden amnesia  or changed their initial versions. Over the years, it became known that the inspector who conducted the investigations had been threatened and risked his life  .

The first instance sentence was issued in 2019 and the four defendants were sentenced to over one hundred years in prison. In the second instance, however, the sentence was overturned and in September 2019 the Court of Appeal ordered the trial to be repeated. The trial was repeated starting in October 2020 and in December 2021 the Court of First Instance essentially confirmed the previous decision for the four defendants. This sentence, however, was ultimately annulled by last Friday’s acquittal.

The four are therefore considered not guilty and although in principle there is still the possibility of appealing to the Supreme Court, the chances of success are decidedly slim  , as the experts have pointed out, and the acquittal of the four defendants cannot be overturned. In any case, on Monday 5 February, the prosecutor’s office made it clear that it intended to appeal to the Supreme Court.

 

An announced decision

The acquittal is a tombstone on the chances of justice in the Ćuruvija case. But it is a decision that did not come entirely unexpectedly. Although it was only announced last Friday, it seems that it had already been taken for some time.

Veran Matić himself, in the spring of last year, had implied   that the Court of Appeal had already ruled on the case of the four defendants. In September, Matić himself and the Ćuruvija Foundation   had written that in fact the sentence had already been issued and that the Court had acquitted the four defendants. This despite the fact that the sentence had not yet been published, as they were waiting for the most appropriate moment to make it public  . The same invitation to publish the sentence was then reiterated by the  Ćuruvija Foundation in November   last year.

The authorities gave no explanation as to why the publication of the ruling was delayed for so many months. It is possible that the street protests against the government and the heated electoral climate were the elements that recommended delaying the publication of the sentence, so as not to further exacerbate tensions.

 

The reactions and protests

Despite the content of the sentence having been widely anticipated and the fact that the news was communicated just before the weekend, the acquittal decision still caused quite a stir in Serbia.

Perica Gunjić of the Ćuruvija Foundation   is lapidary: “The decision is scandalous and represents a defeat not only for journalists and freedom of the press, but for the entire independence of the judicial system and for the democratisation process itself”.

Regarding the trial, Gunjić comments that “the court during the entire trial made many strange decisions, which indicated that something was wrong. The two first instance decisions were written in an approximate manner, as if there was the intention to have them annulled in the second instance”. This decision, concludes Gunjić, represents an “immediate return to the 90s, to the darkest period of the new history of Serbia, to the times of wars, to the times of Slobodan Milošević”.

Matić then commented that both the political will and the role of the institutions have failed, especially as regards the judicial sector, which in fact remains anchored to the 1990s.

Matić himself then commented that in the next few days he will discuss the future of the commission investigating the killing of journalists and whether it still makes sense for it to exist. The European Union, OSCE and numerous other members of the diplomatic community expressed their disappointment at the acquittal.

Furthermore, on Monday 5 February, a protest was held in front of the Court of Appeal in Belgrade, organised by journalists’ associations: the demonstrators were silent for 25 minutes in front of the Court, symbolising 25 years of silence since the Ćuruvija murder.

 

The reactions of the judicial and political world

On Monday 5, the President of the Court of Appeal of Belgrade published a statement   in which, while he understands the dissatisfaction of Ćuruvija’s family and friends, he specified that the Court judged on the basis of the evidence contained in the case which was not sufficient to support the prosecution’s thesis.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said she could not comment on the Court’s decision as the judiciary is independent. Brnabić stressed how the proceedings had only begun 16 years after the assassination, thanks to Vučić’s coming to power. As a citizen, however, she said she will seek justice.

The Minister of Justice, Maja Popović, however, said she was deeply disappointed   by the decision of the Court of Appeal, saying that the judicial system had not carried out its function. Vučić himself said late in the evening of February 5 that he was shocked by the decision, which is a great injustice and a terribly serious matter for the country.

The predominant feeling among those who followed the trial is one of anger and helplessness, but at the same time there is a dark awareness that the forces that dominated Serbia during the 1990s are still at work, as pointed out by Jelena Ćuruvija, the daughter of the murdered journalist  .

Symbolically, the day after the acquittal, early in the morning on the pro-government television Pink, Aleksandar Vulin, former director of the BIA – the the agency that replaced the DB – and former leading member of Mira Marković’s party in the 1990s, openly declared that his generation’s task is to bring together all Serbs wherever they live   and that this process has already begun and cannot be stopped.

These words closely echo the idea of Greater Serbia and bring the 1990s back to mind.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Slavko Ćuruvija. Photo by Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation / Predrag Mitić Library

Serbia: Court of Appeals acquits suspects of journalist Slavko…

Serbia: Court of Appeals acquits suspects of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija’s murder

On Friday 2nd February 2024, the Belgrade Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Special Department for Organized Crime of the High Court in Belgrade, and acquitted the four suspects for the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija. This disappointing development constitutes a grave backslide to the fight against impunity and further undermines journalists’ safety.

This final decision comes 25 years after the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija, who was shot dead outside his apartment in Belgrade on 11th April 1999. First convicted in 2019, the Court of Appeals confirmed the guilty verdicts in  2020  of the four former members of the State Security Service (SBD), Radomir Marković, Milan Radonjić, Miroslav Kurak and Ratko Romić. A retrial started in 2022 following additional information related to the facts of the accusation.  The final hearing of the retrial was held in March 2023 and its verdict was only made public last Friday. The Court confirmed the decision of the second instance court and acquitted the defendants due to lack of reliable evidence. This decision is final and cannot be reversed. 

 

The Media Freedom Rapid Response partners strongly denounce the Court’s decision and ultimately the lack of justice rendered for the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija. This verdict reinforces an existing climate of hostility against journalists in Serbia, often singled out for their work and targets of harassment and pressure. Further, this decision fails to send a clear message that attacks and violations of journalists’ safety and rights will not be tolerated and will be strongly addressed by the State. Finally, it casts a shadow over the investigations of the killings of two other journalists in Serbia, Milan Pantić in 2001 and Dada Vujasinović in 1994, whose cases still remain unresolved. 

 

We call on the international community to strongly condemn  the lack of accountability in solving Ćuruvija’s case and bring justice to his family. We also urge the Serbian State to ensure justice for the killings of journalists Pantić and Vujasinović, and commit to ensuring a safe climate for all journalists in Serbia.

Signed by:

ARTICLE 19 Europe 

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

SafeJournalists Network

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Serbia: media pillory for independent journalists

Serbia: media pillory for independent journalists

31/01/2024

Verbal attacks and serious threats against two journalists from independent broadcasters, the Cenzolovka portal and even an NGO and a Belgrade court judge raise concerns about the climate of increasingly heavy repression in Serbia

By Massimo Moratti

Originally published by OBCT  . Also available in ITA 

It is a decidedly agitated post-election period in Serbia, despite the fact that the month of January is generally considered a calm month given the numerous holidays on the calendar. This year, the heated post-election climate is being reflected in debates on social media and is resulting in actual cases of online violence, which have targeted both the independent press and civil society.

 

Hatred, threats and insults towards journalists

The first targets were Vanja Đurić and Zeljko Veljković, journalists from N1 and Nova television respectively, often critical of the government. The two journalists  , on X, had commented critically on the fact that a fourteen-year-old girl had sung patriotic songs dedicated to Kosovo before a Red Star Belgrade match.

Both were immediately overwhelmed by a wave of comments, insults and threats. Vladimir Đukanović, a leading member of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and very active on X, commented   how the journalists had lost their honour, but as a true believer he felt the dutiy to forgive them, light candles for them and hope that “the absurd hatred they carry in their souls” would one day abandon them.

In his tweet, Đukanović says he is convinced that one day the two journalists will repent and confess the bad actions they have committed. He was joined by other politicians from the extra-parliamentary right. The following tweets by trolls and ordinary people, who instigated further insults   and threats, were much less mystical. Pro-government tabloids   soon joined in accusing Đurić and Veljković of attacking   the 14-year-old.

In the end the two journalists were subjected to an actual media pillory, which led Vanja Đurić to delete her account on X after her telephone number had also been made public.

Cenzolovka  , the media freedom portal of the Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation  , denounced the incident and the treatment of Đurić and Veljković. Cenzolovka‘s intent was to draw attention to the “verbal torture” suffered by journalists, who explain that they did not attack the fourteen-year-old.

From here on, attention shifted to Cenzolovka which in turn was made the target of insults and threats. The article collected more than 500 comments, 90% of which with offensive content towards the portal and journalists, accused of being enemies of the Serbian people, who consequently should be deported, tried or even impaled…

It is as if someone had given the signal from above, writes the Cenzolovka editorial team. Among other things, this is the second case of threats received by Cenzolovka in less than a month. At the end of December, commenting   on an article, another X user had threatened the portal’s editorial staff by claiming that journalists and left-wing sympathisers should all be summarily executed. The tweets were then deleted, but the case was still reported to the prosecutor’s office, just as the latest episodes relating to Đurić and Veljković and to Cenzolovka itself were reported to the prosecutor’s office.

 

The impact on journalists

These attacks on journalists and media freedom are not rare. As Perica Gunjić, editor-in-chief of Cenzolovka, states, “almost every day the country’s leaders refer to independent journalists as foreign agents or traitors to the country. These definitions are dangerous and quickly become threats that journalists regularly face, both on social media and during fieldwork”.

The Cenzolovka portal remains determined to continue its work, but there is clearly concern about the state of independent journalism in Serbia which, after the change in management at NIN, sees independent voices progressively dying out.

“In Serbia, many journalists cannot work in such conditions and throw in the towel because they are subjected to enormous stress every day. As for Cenzolovka, there will be no self-censorship, we will not be scared and we will continue to work professionally. But all this has a negative impact on the entire journalistic profession which increasingly becomes a form of propaganda for political leaders and deals less and less with investigative and critical journalism”.

 

A multi-pronged attack

In addition to independent journalism, civil society voices critical of the government were also subjected to attacks and threats on social media, including the Crta organisation, which during the electoral round played a key role in observing the elections and harshly questioned   their regularity. Crta immediately became a target of criticism by the aforementioned Đukanović, who said that they should be arrested, and Nebojša Bakarec  , another member of the presidency of the Serbian Progressive Party.

Diplomatic representations in Serbia have mobilised in support of Crta and even the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, has expressed her concern  .

Together with Crta, judge Majić was also threatened via Telegram by a person who speaks on behalf of the self-proclaimed “president’s wolves”, who are threatening to take to the streets and clean up all the trash from Serbia  . Miodrag Majić, judge of the Belgrade Court of Appeal, is one of the founders of the civic movement Proglas, which before the elections had led a campaign to encourage citizens to participate in the vote. The attacks on Crta and Judge Majić were virtually simultaneous with the Cenzolovka affair.

 

Troll farms in Serbia

Numerous trolls, or bots as they are more commonly called in Serbia, also participated in the attacks against journalists. The presence of trolls in Serbia, at the service of the SNS, was already documented almost seven years ago, when an insider reported the existence of a small army of trolls who managed a few thousand profiles and who acted in a coordinated manner following well-defined instructions. Last summer, a list of around 14,500 fake social media profiles  , managed by around 3,000 people, became public knowledge.

The operating methods were very similar to those reported, with very specific orders given to the various profiles. SNS itself had proudly confirmed that being a troll for SNS was in fact an act of patriotism  . Troll factories are not illegal in themselves, but become very problematic if there are threats, insults and acts aimed at intimidating those who think differently.

 

The word to the prosecutor…maybe

In light of the above, it seems that the attacks on the two journalists and then on Cenzolovka, as well as the attacks on other representatives of civil society, are the result of coordinated activity initiated by political representatives and then relaunched by tabloids and trolls. The cases have been reported to the relevant authorities, in this case the Cyber Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, but the judicial system in Serbia has great difficulties in systematically investigating and prosecuting such cases, unless the person threatened is president Vučić  .

The risk is that the lack of an adequate response by institutions to such attacks could substantially promote impunity and encourage further online violence, which often precedes physical violence. And this must be an additional element of concern in Serbia, where too many cases of violence against journalists remain unsolved.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Library

Threats to Journalists must be addressed by institutions in…

Threats to Journalists must be addressed by institutions in Serbia

The host of the “Good, Bad, Evil” podcast, Nenad Kulacin is again the target of threats. The last threat to the presenter was sent via social networks from an anonymous account. The SafeJournalists Network (SJN) and the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), as organisations dedicated to protecting media freedom and the rights of journalists, are concerned about the rising threats targeting the presenter, and note that the competent institutions in Serbia have not yet determined the identity of any perpetrator in the cases that have been reported since the beginning of the year.

We emphasize that threats to journalists and media workers in Serbia are an almost daily occurrence that endangers their safety. Accordingly, we call on the authorities in Serbia and the international community to condemn these threats, and the institutions in Serbia to protect journalists and sanction the perpetrators of such threats.

Nenad Kulacin reported eight threats to the prosecutor’s office this year, and to this day only one decision has been made to dismiss the criminal complaint, while the other cases are still before the prosecutor’s office. Some of the threats also referred to his colleague Marko Vidojkovic or his family members. For example, the last threat that Nenad Kulacin received via social networks from an anonymous account also referred to his brother. The account “Sacha Pariss” threatened Kulacin with insults, while mentioning his hometown and his brother.

In October 2021, the mother of Kulacin was also attacked in Bor, when a person verbally attacked her and said: “Your son should be hanged.”

Also, earlier pro-government tabloids ran a campaign against Kulacin, where he was characterized as a “leading ideologue of the opposition”, “Dragan Solak’s favorite editor” and “Dragan Djilas’s poodle”, and unknown persons put up posters with his address in Belgrade on it.

Nenad Kulacin and Marko Vidojkovic, the hosts of the satirical podcast “Good, Bad, Evil”, have been receiving threats for years because of their work. In addition to anonymous threats, the outgoing mayor of Belgrade, Aleksandar Sapic, also threatened the presenters a few years ago. He said that he would “rip out the heart” of Kulacin and Vidojkovic when he met them on the street, but the institutions did not recognize these words as a threat and decided to dismiss the criminal charges.

 

Kulacin and Vidojkovic have been suffering serious threats for a long time. As a result, Vidojkovic was relocated from his home, through a scheme provided by international organizations, while Kulacin refused to move.

Inaction by state institutions, tabloid smear campaigns and public threats by government officials create a hostile atmosphere in which attacks on those critical of the government are normalised and even encouraged, which has a serious chilling effect on free speech and independent reporting.

Due to all of the above, SafeJournalists Network and Media Freedom Rapid Response call on the authorities in Serbia and the international community to condemn these threats, and institutions in Serbia to process all reports raised by journalists and to act urgently in such cases in accordance with the mandatory instructions of the Supreme Public prosecutor’s offices and in this way send a message that they stand up for the protection of journalists and media workers, but above all, respect democratic values and international commitments, such as the protection of freedom of speech.

Signed by:

SafeJournalists Network

  • Association of Journalists of Kosovo
  • Association of Journalists of Macedonia
  • BH Journalists Association
  • Croatian Journalists’ Association
  • Independent Journalists Association of Serbia
  • Trade Union of Media of Montenegro

Media Freedom Rapid Response 

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • OBC Transeuropa
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

This statement was coordinated by the SafeJournalist Network and the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Serbian penal code Library

Serbia: New draft media laws represent another step backward…

Serbia: New draft media laws represent another step backward for media freedom

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today raise the alarm about two draft media laws brought forward by the Serbian government for their lack of compliance with international freedom of expression standards. If passed they would represent a regressive step with wide-ranging implications for media freedom and pluralism. As the public debate on the legislation continues, the MFRR calls on the Serbian government to withdraw the problematic changes added into the latest drafts and ensure compliance with the country’s previously agreed Media Strategy.

The latest draft versions of the Law on Public Information and Media and the Law on Electronic Media, developed by the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications, propose a framework that would block the reform of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) and pave the way for a return to full state ownership of private media, including Telekom Srbjia. The MFRR is concerned that the proposed changes do not comply with international and European standards on media freedom and freedom of expression and diverge radically from the objectives of the Media Strategy adopted by the Government of Serbia in 2020.

 

First, the draft of the Law on Electronic Media does not foresee the election of new REM Council members after the adoption of the new law, despite the fact that the draft law prescribes completely new criteria for their election, as well as authorized proposers, as is foreseen in the Media Strategy adopted by the Government of the Republic of Serbia. The REM has faced both domestic and international criticism, including from the MFRR, for its lack of independence and politically-motivated decision-making processes. There has also been widespread criticism about how members of the REM are appointed. Proposed changes which would oblige the Council of REM to adopt the Code of Labour – a shift which would better regulate the ethics of its members – have also been disregarded. If passed, this proposal would solidify political control over REM and block much needed reforms to strengthen the regulator’s independence.

 

Secondly, the new proposal of the Law on Public Information and Media fails to establish legal provisions that would ensure that all media must meet ethical standards to receive public co-financing funding. Under the previous draft, sanctions issued by the Press Council could see media fail to receive public money from co-financing funding for public interest content. However, new rules provide a loophole for print and online media outlets which have not accepted the competence of the Press Council. For those media, such criteria would not apply, meaning they can continue to violate professional standards with impunity and still receive public funding. We fear this will disadvantage media which abide by professional standards and further encourage the dissemination of disinformation and violent rhetoric in the Serbian media landscape. This change was controversially included at the last-minute by the government and was not discussed in a wider Working Group established to discuss the draft laws, which comprises members of civil society and of the journalistic community.

 

Thirdly, the government also included in both draft laws an identical provision which would essentially facilitate the return to state co-ownership of private media in Serbia. Under the current Media Strategy, direct and indirect ownership of private media by the state is banned. However, the new law would formally allow the state to return to being the co-owner and founder of media outlets. This would formally legalise the ongoing ownership situation at telecommunications provider Telekom Srbija, which is majority state-owned, in violation of the current law. If passed, the MFRR fears the new law would further cement government control over Telekom Srbija and represent a damaging new form of media capture in an EU Candidate Country which is already experiencing its biggest crisis for independent journalism in years.

 

Finally, the MFRR highlights that the new proposals radically deviate from the Media Strategy, a landmark blueprint developed after widespread consultation with the journalistic community, which the government of Serbia has held up as proof of its commitment to positive reform of the media landscape. This new approach also undermines years of work by journalist associations and working groups to shape the laws and bring them closer in line with EU acquis and other European standards.

 

Our organisations warn that if passed, the new laws would undermine national and international confidence in the Media Strategy and pose serious questions for the government’s commitment to improve media freedom and pluralism as part of its potential accession to the European Union. Rather than ushering in positive steps in this direction, the last year has been marked by steps backward, as noted by many of our organisations following a visit to Belgrade, and in the most recent report of the European Parliament.

 

The MFRR therefore shares the concerns recently outlined by the Coalition for Media Freedom in Serbia, and calls for the government to reverse the problematic changes introduced in the two draft media laws and ensure that their provisions comply with international standards on freedom of expression. As the public debate on the legislation continues, we urge the government to return to discussions with the Coalition and other groups which remain committed to reform of the media landscape in Serbia in line with European values. Key provisions must be reintegrated into the draft laws, especially those which provide for more democratic management of the REM. Our organisations will continue to closely monitor the situation in Serbia and call for systemic media reform.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe 
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) 
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) 
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU) 
  • International Press Institute (IPI)  
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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