The far away fairytale of Serbian press freedom

These are hard times for journalists in Serbia. Former Minister of Media Aleksandar Vucic has taken the seat of Prime Minister and regulates the press with an iron hand. While Serbian journalists try to fight a hopeless and almost impossible battle, there are almost no reactions coming from the West, journalists claim.

April 2014, big parts of the Balkan are flooded. Tens of people die. Along with the rising water, the Serbian government raises pressure on the media on how to report this floodings. On short notice, more than thirty people are arrested for stuff they published either in newspapers or as comments on Facebook. This is what a recent monitoring report from the SHARE Foundation says along with some other accusations. For example, in thirteen minutes, four journalist’s e-mail accounts were hacked along with the Facebook page of a big Serbian medium. Press freedom in Serbia, it looks like a far away dream.

Playing with fire

“The life of a journalist in Serbia is hard”, confirms Jovana Gligorijevic who’s journalist and member of the Independent Journalists’ Council of Serbia. “You get less paid and you have to work under a constant pressure of your own editor-in-chief who doesn’t want to get in trouble. Bringing critical journalism is playing with fire. Unemployment rates are sky-high in Serbia so journalists don’t want to risk their job by criticizing authorities.”

Subtile censorship

Apart from the arrests and the punishments, the censorship which regulates Serbian media, it’s hard to see for common people. “Media censorship is often very subtile and it requires a lot of media literacy to see this. “, says Gligorijevic. “You have to follow as many channels as possible to see what is not published. An other sign of censorship is the plenitude of positive news in the media.”

Besides this rigorous censorship, authorities also keep an eye on advertisers. “When channels start writing too critically, authorities will pressurize advertisers to withdraw themselves as advertiser. For example, there was this big regional company who ordered eight advertisements  but who withdrew after only advertising twice. As a christmas present they were even offered a free advertisement but they refused fiercely. If your medium gets dependant from financial support, you open the door for censorship.”

Seeing all these actions, media already started with autocensorship. “A lot of channels already know what to write and what not so even before they can be reprimanded they already slow down their critics. They censor themselves”, says Stevan Dojcinovic who’s a respected investigative journalist for the Serbian website “A few online media, like ours, dare to open their mouth but the problem in Serbia is that a lot of online media are still too dependant from the traditional media to pitch their story. And to add to that: online journalism isn’t yet a ‘big thing’ in Serbia.”

Hopeless battle

Serbian journalists are aware of the fact that what the authorities are regulating too strictly is wrong. But many of those journalists consider the battle for freedom as a hopeless fight. One of them is also Dojcinovic. “Fighting back is just a waste of time because you know it’s almost impossible to win this battle”, he sighs. “Suing them takes too long time and is too expensive. Besides that, in Serbia there’s no real system to protect yourself as a journalist.”

But why don’t the Serbian media use their own channels to peach their stories of censorship? According to Dojcinovic the Serbian people are not even interested in that. “As journalists we can write about our problems but no one will read these stories. A lot of Serbians consider the situation as something they’ve always known. And if any protest may occur, government just ignores them without effort.”

Reactions from Europe

According to the two journalists, reactions coming from the Western countries and the EU are too weak. “In fact, almost no reactions are coming from the West. On the contrary, a lot of European leaders see Vucic as a reliable politician and are queueing up to shake hands with him”, says Dojcinovic visibly disappointed. “To be honest, I don’t expect help coming from the EU”, Gligorijevic joins her colleague.

“It is true that a lot of European institutions fail to condemn countries who don’t take the freedom of press as a basic right. “, Anna Saraste from European Youth Press clarifies. “But that doesn’t mean Europe doesn’t care about media freedom. In fact, candidate-members are very strictly checked on press freedom.”

Not all black

Will the situation in Serbia ever improve? There’s a lot of scepticism and making predictions is difficult. The current situation may sound dramatic but that doesn’t mean it’s all dark black. “There are also some good things about being a journalist in Serbia”, Dojcinovid tells. “For example, we have very quick access to government information. These informations may not always be complete but they are most of the time correct. Besides that, an increasing amount of Serbians has connection to the world-wide web and local initiatives of online investigative journalism are booming.” Hope isn’t yet drowned in the Balkan flood.

By: Jef Cauwenberghs

The article is part of the outputs of the European Youth Press’ project “Making Twitter Length News: media literacy in digital media”. The article has not been edited and it doesn’t necessarily represents editorial policy of the EYP.

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