While Serbian legislation provides some specific safeguards that protect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom, journalists operate in an increasingly restrictive and highly polarised environment. Media pluralism is in acute danger due to excessive political interference with the Serbian media market. Members of the ruling elite control the narrative conveyed in public media and strive to increase their influence on private outlets through financial incentives in the form of advertisements or indirect subsidies. At the same time, independent journalists who are often perceived as political opponents, are exposed to attacks instigated by politicians and amplified by their media allies that aim to undermine and stifle critical coverage. In addition, independent journalists face challenges ranging from legal threats to physical assault which further hamper public interest reporting. The decline in media freedom and safety of journalists also relate to the lack of concrete implementation of the existing laws by the judiciary.
ARTICLE 19 Europe urges the Serbian authorities to prioritise safety of journalists who need to be free and independent to carry on with their work properly and deliver accurate information to the public. An enabling, resilient and diverse media environment is an essential pillar of a well functioning democracy and indispensable to facilitate Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union. On this page, you can find ARTICLE 19 Europe’s work documenting and analysing main challenges for journalists in Serbia and advocating for robust protection of free expression and media freedom in the country.
Safety of journalists
Independent journalists in Serbia are regularly targeted by law enforcement authorities and public officials while reporting on critical and sensitive issues including protests or corruption and other wrongdoing. Those responsible for acts of violence against the press are rarely held accountable due to a well-entrenched culture of impunity in Serbia. Numerous investigations into the killing of journalists remain in deadlock. The cases could not be resolved despite the establishment of a Commission for the Investigation of Murders of Journalists in 2012This sends a chilling message that perpetrators of these crimes are able to evade justice. Given the gravity of threats against journalists which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, a number of additional mechanisms and working groups comprising public authorities and civil society have been set up to improve journalists’ protection and enhance media freedom. However, over the years these measures have proven to lack efficiency and journalists in Serbia continue to be targeted by insults, smear campaigns, online harassment and physical attacks, often orchestrated by public figures.
Some cases of concern
On 12 December 2018, the house of journalist Milan Jovanovic was set on fire after two Molotov cocktails had been thrown on his property. The judicial proceedings which started in 2019 and were repeatedly postponed after the requests advanced by the defence lawyers, finally led to the conviction of individuals accused of the arson attack. This included former Grocka mayor Dragoljub Simonovic who was initially sentenced to four years and three months in prison for ordering the burning of the house. The first instance verdict was overturned by the Court of Appeal in Belgrade which ordered the retrial. The new trial is set to start in autumn 2022.
An investigative media outlet KRIK has been routinely subject to pressure and threats due to its coverage on corruption and other abuses of power. In 2021, the ruling party’s politicians and pro-government media outlets accused KRIK of being tied to organised crime while KRIK’s journalists received death threats. ARTICLE 19 Europe and partner press freedom organisations have repeatedly condemned a smear campaign against the independent media outlet and called for a swift and thorough investigation into these attacks.
In April 2020, journalist Ana Lalic was arrested for reporting on the inadequate working conditions and lack of basic medical equipment for hospital staff working in COVID-19 wards. Although the legal proceedings against Ms. Lalic were suspended after a month and she even received a public apology from the government, the journalist was vilified as a traitor by many pro-government media and continued to receive threats.
Slavko Ćuruvija, a leading investigative reporter and the owner of the first private newspaper in Serbia Dnevni Telegraf, was shot 14 times in front of his house in April 1999. In December 2021, more that 20 years after the brutal murder, the Higher Court in Belgrade upheld the guilty verdicts handed down to four former Serbian officials in a landmark ruling delievered in 2019. The victory in the long quest for justice for Ćuruvija’s assassination represents an important milestone in the fight against impunity for crimes against journalists in Serbia. The sentence has however been appealed and the Court of Appeal’s verdict is being awaited.
More news on the safety of journalists
Serbia: Authorities must address threats to journalists
Serbia: Multiple journalists threatened and harassed, authorities must take urgent action
SLAPPs and legal threats against journalists
In Serbia, powerful businessmen and politicians frequently use legal threats as a means to silence journalists and hamper their critical reporting. These threats may take the form of vexatious or abusive lawsuits, also named Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). Journalists targeted by SLAPPs are caught up in costly and drawn-out legal battles that distract them from their vital work and may dissuade their colleagues from investigating abuses of power. In a research report on SLAPPs against journalists in Serbia, ARTICLE 19 Europe, the ABA Center for Human Rights and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Journalists in Serbia (NUNS) reviewed laws used to bring SLAPPs as well as identified common trends in such malicious lawsuits. In addition, our research analysed these laws against international freedom of expression standards, and identified gaps in their interpretation by the judiciary.
This report is part of a project in which ARTICLE 19 Europe analyses patterns in SLAPP cases in key European countries and suggests solutions to stop abuse of such laws. Key findings and recommendations informed a comprehensive regional report which is available here.
The media ecosystem in Serbia is radically divided between independent and pro-government media, which mirrors a cleavage in social and political landscape in the country. While public media serve as the government mouthpieces, several private outlets also remain under a heavy political influence. Independent journalists reporting on public interest issues are often vilified and labelled as public enemies for daring to question the government’s policies. Structural lack of impartiality of media regulators, the uneven and opaque allocation of public funds to media, as well as a strong influence of political parties on news coverage contribute to the ongoing erosion of media freedom in Serbia.
Serbia: New draft media laws another step backward for media freedom
Serbia: Tendering process of national TV licences must be transparent
Serbia: TV licensing highlights a failure of media pluralism and diversity
Legislative proposals undermining free expression
Serbia’s government initiated a process to reform the Criminal Code with the original purpose to address harassment against journalists. ARTICLE 19 Europe underscored that while well intentioned, the proposal unveiled by the Ministry of Justice consists of extremely broad definitions which could ultimately damage the right to free speech of independent journalists and other individuals participating in public debate in Serbia. The proposed measures need further and open discussion to prevent negative impact on the freedom of expression.
ARTICLE 19 Europe advocates for the respect and the protection of the freedom of expression in Serbia, and highlights the attempts to curtail the right to know and the right to speak to regional and international human rights bodies.
In 2021, ARTICLE 19 Europe, as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response consortium, and in partnership with NUNS, conducted a fact-finding mission to Serbia to scrutinise the status of freedom of expression in the country. The mission was concluded with a report that identifies and examines the most pressing challenges for free speech and the independent work of journalists.