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Protests for Media Freedom Drag Into Sixth Month in Serbia

Protest against government in SerbiaProtest against government in Serbia
Thousands of Serbians take part in a protest against the government, named as "One in five millions", demanding the resignation of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia on April 13, 2019. Anadolu Agency Getty Images

For six months now, Saturday evenings around Serbia have seen large crowds take to the streets in protest to the government of President Aleksandar Vucic on a number of issues. Opposition from across the political spectrum have joined forces to call for freedom of the press, but some journalists have worried if it is just another way for politicians in the country to abuse media.

The protests began in December 2018 after an opposition politician was beaten in central Serbia, according to Maja Zivanovic, the Serbian correspondent for the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network. What began as general opposition to Vucic his Progressive Party led by mostly grassroots organizers had by March 2019 escalated as protesters in the capital city of Belgrade stormed the building of the state-owned public broadcaster.

Zeljko Bodrozic, president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS), told Fortune these protests are “the last chance to [ensure] Serbia does not slip into dictatorship” convinced the Vucic government was headed straight there given the country’s history.

What has been dubbed part of the “Balkan Spring,” a series of protests across the region calling for change and more open governance, has made for strange bedfellows in Serbia with members of Parliament from both the far right and far left in an “unofficial coalition” called the Alliance for Serbia leading the weekly marches and vocal efforts, Zivanovic told Fortune.

She noted it is the first time Vucic’s party has so openly faced criticism and real opposition since it took power in 2012. Zivanovic said part of the reason for the challenge is how “all this time they were focused on external issues such as Kosovo, the EU integration…aligning our domestic laws with the EU laws,” while essentially ignoring domestic concerns of media access, law enforcement, and reforming the court system.

She said “respecting human rights” is one of the major issues for which the opposition has been protesting, though those within that loose coalition may have differing views on how to go about enforcing that.

“Citizens have recognized and rebelled, seeking primarily free media and free elections, as well as punishing all those who have trampled laws in previous years, abused their official positions, and denied rights to citizens,” Bodrozic said.

The storming of the public broadcaster building in Belgrade was what spurred journalists’ involvement in the protests on a larger scale.

“We should all protect all journalists,” Zivanovic said, “no matter in which media they’re working.”

However, both agreed national broadcasters have long been a problem for other media in the country because the stations are state-owned.

“National television stations…became the propaganda machinery of the ruling party,” Bodrozic said. “Free journalists felt the obligation to join and to vote for freedom with their fellow citizens.”

Zivanovic explained that for years, public broadcasters had “not allowed for political pluralism” on the airwaves and denying opportunities for Serbians to hear opposing, “critical” voices.

The country really only views a small cohort of media outlets with the lion’s share of television viewers going to the public stations.

Bodrozic also said the Vucic government’s “authority demonstrates misunderstanding for objective, independent, critical journalism.”

He noted NUNS has compiled reports showing “media freedom in Serbia is at a low level today” and that the problem extends beyond the central government. Bodrozic said even local governments have begun putting pressure on journalists and regional media outlets to parrot politics rather than allow for impartial reporting, sometimes becoming a safety issue for news staff.

In media freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders’ annual global ranking of countries, Serbia fell 14 places between 2018 and 2019. It now ranks 90th out 180 countries in terms of journalist safety and freedom of information.

Bodrozic said the country is no exception to the financial issues plaguing the global news media industry, which has led to a smaller number of news outlets being able to survive. He noted they survive through a growing influence of advertisers and politics, however. Zivanovic also noted as the protests continued, several media outlets mis-reported crowd sizes and made up news about violence which never took place. These same outlets appear to cover Vucic-organized, pro-government rallies in full.

While Zivanovic agreed—“we have no free media at all”—she said there is an underlying problem to the current fight. Opposition politicians have declared to not participate in snap or regular elections until there has been established rules about media freedom for six to nine months.

“It sounds a bit populistic, but it sounds good,” Zivanovic said, however it may just be another way for members of Parliament to play chess with the media for their own gains.

Vucic may be manipulating the public broadcasters to push his party’s agenda, but she noted that “when many of [the] opposition politicians were in power, they abused media also. Basically it’s just a circle that is repeating.”

She encouraged the various factions of the opposition group to sit down and “agree among each other to just leave media aside and not include it in the political plans,” while understanding that “negative reports, by criticizing them, by doing investigative journalism” do not make journalists the enemy, rather a public service for their constituents.

However, Bodrozic appeared to think that did not matter, explaining that “many independent journalists have responded to calls to speak, since we have all become citizens of the second order in the last few years and we have an obligation to raise voice. It is not support to the opposition parties; it is support for democracy and basic human freedoms.”

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