The world’s 400th IKEA store recently opened in Serbia. This seemingly banal event has special significance for the country, where an IKEA first opened in the early 1990s and quickly closed as the crisis in Yugoslavia worsened. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić effusively praised the arrival of the furniture store as a sign of the progress his party and administration are bringing to the Southeastern European country. Many Serbs, however, are rightfully skeptical of the extent of this progress, as some fundamental freedoms are still woefully lacking.
In this EU-aspirant country, still overcoming hurdles to EU accession like enacting judiciary reform and improving dialogue with recently independent Kosovo, press freedom has unfortunately become progressively worse over the past few years.
The dismal state of press freedom in Serbia has a complex etiology. The legacy of its communist past is often brought up as one factor. While the country was part of Yugoslavia, press freedom and freedom of expression were far from perfect. Though Tito’s Yugoslavia had comparatively better press freedom than most Eastern Bloc states–pre-censorship practices were eliminated by 1950 and a relatively pluralistic media landscape existed in the mid-1980s–it was still not ideal and lacked crucial protections for reporters and activists. Political dissidents were often jailed, and the student protests of 1968 were violently repressed.
The period of Yugoslavia’s downfall in the 1990s was an egregious time for press freedom. Serbian President Slobodan Milošević led a severe crackdown on dissident media and created a “propaganda machine” through state-owned channels. In the worst cases, dissident journalists were murdered in gruesome circumstances.
After the overthrow of Milošević in 2000, press freedom started slowly rebuilding under the leadership of liberal democratic activists and politicians. Unfortunately, this upward trend has recently come to an end. There has been a noted decline in media freedom ever since the pro-European, right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) formed government in 2012. Milošević’s Minister of Information, Aleksandar Vučić, served as prime minister of Serbia with the SPP after 2014 and was elected president of Serbia in May 2017. Serbia slid 7 spots on the World Press Freedom ranking between 2016 and 2017, from 59th to 66th out of 180.
Press freedom today
Vučić’s hostility to free press can be explained by a desire to strengthen his party’s power in Serbia’s government, a situation which has led political opponents and critics to describe Serbia as a “particracy.” The press suffers from multiple pressures and independent media is stifled legally and financially, even through outright attacks.
Censorship is illegal in Serbia, and a nominal commitment to press freedom exists. However, this principle is loosely enforced, and journalists often face undue legal pressure. Defamation laws have been used to silence investigative reporting by levying fines against journalists critical of prominent public figures.
After a Serbian weekly was fined in January 2017 for allegedly defaming the Serbian Minister of the Interior in an investigative piece about a series of controversial demolitions in Belgrade, a coalition of independent journalists came out in support of the paper. Commenting on the ruling, journalist Sandra Petrušić asked “how can one assess as illicit the very job of a journalist, i.e. to collect information and suggest possible conclusions based on the collected material?”
The case attracted international attention, with European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) president Mogens Blicher Bjerregard explaining how “penalising editors and journalists with a large fine when reporting about persons working in official positions is extremely damaging for journalism and its watchdog role.”
The press also faces heavy economic pressure in Serbia, resulting in a dearth of independent media. The allocation of state monies in a biased manner leads to widespread self-censorship by journalists, who fear losing what little funding they have by speaking out too much against powerful governmental and private interests.
A 2015 World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers report outlines the danger this situation poses for investigative journalism in Serbia, as “heavy reliance on money from state bodies and public companies inhibits the media’s ability to perform a watchdog role.”
The concentration of ownership of the Serbian press creates a non-pluralistic media landscape, further damaging press freedom and the overall state of democracy in the country. On one day in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election, every single daily newspaper in Serbia was covered in full-page ads for Vučić and the SPP, illustrating the level of concentrated media ownership in Serbia and its detrimental effect on free and fair elections. This clear bias was further evidenced by the media blackout that took place as massive anti-Vučić, anti-SPP, anti-corruption protests took over the country for multiple days after the election.
Along with this less-than-ideal legal and economic environment that the Serbian press faces, cases of smear campaigns, harassment, and outright physical violence against journalists have been registered. In one such instance, journalists from Insajder Production, Vice, Radio Belgrade, and Danas were physically attacked while reporting on protests at Vučić’s presidential inauguration in May. These attacks were defended by MPs of the SPP, as well as President Vučić himself.
Perhaps most vicious is the utilization of nationalist sentiment to further restrain press freedom. Pro-Vučić media regularly use far-right rhetoric about “foreigners” to discredit critical reporters, labelling them “spies” and accusing them of working for the USA, the EU, and foreign intelligence agencies. Vučić has also repeatedly smeared Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) reporters as “liars” with the backing of several pro-Vučić tabloids.
As independent media cannot survive in Serbia without outside funding, most investigative and opposition media can thus be framed as foreign, destabilizing, and harmful to Serbian society. When pressed about the state of independent media in Serbia and his paper’s role in protecting the SPP’s interests, the editor of one pro-Vučić tabloid said “We are the only independent media in Serbia, independent from the U.S. government, George Soros, the evil European Union, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Democratic Institute.”
Direct parallels can be drawn between these comments and the recent right-wing outcry in Hungary against George Soros, the famous Hungarian-American financier. The university he funds in Budapest has been targeted by Hungary’s right-wing government, who have portrayed the institution and Soros himself as grave foreign threats to Hungary’s sovereignty.
While the state of press freedom in Serbia may be dismal at the moment, there is hope for a freer future. The EU must push harder for press freedom standards to be enforced and not tolerate blatant abuses of basic freedoms simply because of the SPP’s pro-Western stance. It is also critical to support organisations of reporters that promote and produce incisive, investigative reporting like the Independent Journalist Association of Serbia (NUNS) or the BIRN, even though it may be a dangerous endeavour at times.
Additionally, to relieve the economic pressure facing journalists, independant media must rely on foreign funding and grants, and other forms of fundraising, regardless of the criticism this might attract from pro-government media and right-wing groups. An alternative media that is “participatory and non-commercial” in nature and funded from a variety of sources is the surest way to push back against the “highly concentrated” Serbian press and promote media pluralism, a critical factor for press freedom. Relying on alternative sources of funding will hopefully also help fight the dreary trend of self-censorship among Serbian journalists, by mitigating their financial anxiety.
As Serbia modernizes and attracts more foreign investment, elected officials are bound to succumb to various forms of corruption. Serbs cannot rely on a broken, non-pluralistic media to report on pressing issues like the Serbian particracy, controversial real estate developments in the Serbian capital, and politicians falsifying academic credentials. It is only through nurturing a strong and independent media, that will not be lenient towards entrenched interests, that Serbia will truly benefit from the press’s role as a public watchdog. In the absence of such media, Serbs are indeed right to be skeptical of Vučić’s praise of flat-packed Swedish furniture as a harbinger of progress and to keep fighting for their freedom tooth and nail.