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Country Reports

Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press 2017

Serbia

Profile

Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Image Graph showing the Selected Country Flag

Freedom of the Press Scores

(0=Most Free, 100=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Population: 
7,100,000
Internet Penetration Rate: 
65.3%

Key Developments in 2016:

  • Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and allied media outlets, particularly the Informer tabloid, continued a campaign to portray investigative and critical media as foreign-backed propagandists.
  • In July, the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) hosted an exhibition at a Belgrade art gallery in which media outlets that had criticized Vučić and his allies were depicted as liars.
  • Following the SNS’s strong performance in elections to the legislature of the autonomous province of Vojvodina, a number of journalists were dismissed from the provincial public broadcaster in what many described as a politically motivated purge.
  • A series of death threats and other intimidation directed at journalists prompted a statement of concern from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) in September.

Executive Summary

Serbia’s constitution and legal framework guarantee freedom of the press. However, in practice, these guarantees are not well enforced, and press freedom has eroded under the SNS-led administration of Prime Minister Vučić. Independent and investigative journalists face frequent harassment, including by government officials and in progovernment media. Physical attacks against journalists take place each year, and death threats and other intimidation targeting media workers are a serious concern.

In 2016, Vučić and a number of government-friendly outlets continued to portray investigative and critical media organizations as foreign-backed propagandists seeking to damage the government and destabilize Serbia. The progovernment Informer often smears critical outlets and reporters, claiming that they have links to mafia groups or foreign intelligence agencies. In March, it ran an article containing details from an independent reporter’s unpublished investigation, prompting some local media advocates to express concern about possible government surveillance of critical journalists. In January, journalists held a series of demonstrations in Belgrade and other cities to protest government hostility toward the media.

In September, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media issued a statement about death threats and other intimidation aimed at reporters, expressing alarm and calling for thorough investigations. Nine journalists experienced physical attacks in 2016, according to Serbia’s Independent Association of Journalists. Such incidents are rarely investigated.

A recent media privatization drive meant to bring the country in line with European Union (EU) market requirements has left the ownership structures of many privatized outlets unclear, though it appears that some were purchased by politically connected actors who use them as party mouthpieces, particularly for the SNS. Separately, following a strong SNS showing in elections to the Vojvodina legislature in April, a number of journalists were dismissed from the region’s public broadcaster. Media freedom advocates criticized the staffing changes as politically motivated. The development prompted both the OSCE and the EU to announce in a joint statement that they had “taken note” of the situation, and to remind the public broadcaster of its responsibility to produce unbiased news for Vojvodina residents.

Legal Environment: 15 / 30 (↓3) 

Freedoms of speech and the press are protected under Serbia’s constitution and legal system. However, these protections are not consistently upheld in practice, and in 2016 were undermined by the efforts of Prime Minister Vučić and a number of government-friendly outlets to portray investigative and critical media organizations as foreign-backed propagandists seeking to damage the government and destabilize Serbia.

Reporters and media outlets may risk lawsuits or threats of legal action in connection with critical or investigative coverage. Journalists are subject to prosecution under the 2009 Data Secrecy Law, which protects information related to national security, public safety, and foreign affairs, among other categories. Defamation was decriminalized in 2012, and is now a civil offense. In November 2016, Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović filed a defamation case against the weekly magazine NIN over an article they published which accused him of being responsible for illegal demolitions in Belgrade’s Savamala district, where a controversial urban regeneration project is planned. The suit, in which Stefanović sought 300,000 dinars ($2,700), was open at year’s end. Articles criminalizing insult remain on the books; such offenses are technically not punishable by prison sentences, but journalists can be imprisoned if they are unable to pay associated fines.

Some confusion within the judiciary over Serbia’s media laws continues.

Authorities frequently obstruct journalists’ efforts to obtain public information under the 2004 Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance.

The Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media issues licenses to broadcasters. However, its processes are nontransparent and it has yet to prepare by-laws that permit the implementation of some 2014 reforms, and the EU has encouraged it to take additional measures to ensure its independence.

There are no licensing requirements for journalists. In March, the progovernment Informer ran an article containing details from independent reporter Stevan Dojčinović’s unpublished investigation, prompting some local media advocates to express concern about possible government surveillance of journalists. The 2010 Law on Electronic Communications requires telecommunications providers to keep records on the source, destination, and timing of all electronic communications for one year for potential government use, provided that a court approves such requests for information.

A number of journalists’ associations are active in working to protect media workers’ interests. In late 2015 and in January 2016, journalists staged a number of protests at which they denounced pressure against media workers by Vučić’s government.

Political Environment: 21 / 40                    

Media outlets and journalists continued to face pressure from politicians and owners over content and editorial policies in 2016. Notably, there was evidence of politically motivated decisions at the provincial public broadcaster RTV Vojvodina in 2016. In April, Svetlana Božić Krainčanić of RTV Vojvodina was suspended and fined by the broadcaster’s director after asking Vučić, at a press conference, whether he had rejected nationalistic ideas of a “greater Serbia.” Vučić condemned the sanctions, which were based on claims that by asking a question posed by members of an activist group that was protesting outside the conference, that Božić Krainčanić had violated the broadcaster’s code of ethics by allowing third-party influence on its programming. Despite Vučić’s remarks, the sanctions were not reversed. Later, following a strong SNS showing in elections to the Vojvodina legislature in April, a number of journalists were dismissed from RTV Vojvodina; they claimed that they were replaced with journalists more sympathetic to the SNS. Media freedom advocates criticized the staffing changes as politically motivated. The development prompted both the OSCE and the EU to announce in a joint statement that they had “taken note” of the situation, and to remind the public broadcaster of its responsibility to produce unbiased news for Vojvodina residents.

Separately, the National Council of the Ethnic Hungarian Minority in Serbia implemented reforms allowing it to appoint the editors in chief of two Hungarian-language media outlets, the Magyar Szó daily and the Hét Nap weekly magazine. Previously, the publications’ journalists had been permitted influence in the selection.

On occasion, websites carrying news about sensitive topics have been temporarily blocked, prompting concerns about government censorship of the internet. Self-censorship is widespread, with journalists attributing the phenomenon not only to harassment that often follows critical or investigative reporting, but also to economic pressures, such as the risk of losing advertising contracts in connection with such reports

Journalists in Serbia face verbal abuse and intimidation. In 2016, Vučić and a number of government-friendly outlets continued to portray investigative and critical media organizations as foreign-backed propagandists seeking to damage the government and destabilize Serbia. The progovernment Informer often smears critical outlets and reporters, claiming that they have links to mafia groups or foreign intelligence agencies. The March Informer article that detailed Dojčinović’s investigation alleged that he had invented a scandal in cooperation with drug dealers and criminals in order to smear Vučić. In September, a photograph of journalist Slobodan Georgiev, of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), appeared in the Informer, where he was accused of being paid by the EU to create chaos in Serbia. And in July, the governing SNS hosted an exhibition at a Belgrade art gallery in which media outlets that had criticized Vučić and his allies were depicted as liars.

In September, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media issued a statement about death threats and other extralegal intimidation aimed at Serbian reporters, expressing alarm and calling for thorough investigations. Nine journalists experienced physical attacks in 2016, according to Serbia’s Independent Association of Journalists.

Economic Environment: 13 / 30 (↓1)

Serbia has hundreds of print outlets, radio stations, television stations, and online news portals serving a population of about 7.1 million. A handful of national commercial broadcasters compete with the public broadcaster, Radio Television of Serbia (RTS). Television is the primary source of news in Serbia for most people. Some newspapers remain influential despite low circulation, with print headlines often serving as the basis for discussions on morning television and radio programs. A recent media privatization drive meant to bring the country in line with EU market requirements has left the ownership structures of many privatized outlets unclear, though it appears that some were purchased by politically connected actors who use them as party mouthpieces, particularly for the SNS.

Most outlets in the country’s crowded media market are not financially self-sufficient, and are unable to fund high-quality journalism. Many outlets obtain news items from social media, or publish press releases as news.

Many news outlets depend heavily on the government’s subsidies and advertising purchases, which are allocated through opaque processes. Broader economic problems have contributed to an increase in self-censorship and a significant decline in investigative journalism in recent years.