Aleksandar Vucic

All eyes are currently resting on Hungary and other media freedom bashers across Europe – but it is actually in Serbia where independent journalism is hitting the skids at an alarming pace.

If one perused the recently released World Press Freedom Index, which measures the state of journalism in the world, Serbia’s ranking would surely be an eye-catcher. The country fell 14 positions in the 2019 index to an embarrassing 90th, behind nations like Sierra Leone, Kyrgyzstan and Togo. In the past three years it has fallen 31 positions, farther than even Hungary – Europe’s freedom of expression black sheep – has fallen since 2013.

“The media situation in Serbia is getting worse and worse year by year,” said Dragana Peco, a journalist with the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), a local investigative journalism outfit.

Independent journalists in Serbia are routinely the target of attacks and death threats in tabloids and on social networks. They have nowhere to look for help and no hope of getting protection as most of the very institutions that should protect them are controlled by the government.

“If you are working as an investigative journalist, you become a target of pro-government media [and of] smear campaigns, lies will be published about you in pro-government tabloids, mostly saying that you are a traitor, a state enemy, [that you’re] receiving money from foreign governments, and so on,” Ms Peco says.

The latest victim was the investigative journalist Slobodan Georgiev, who was vilified in a video widely disseminated on the internet. Posted from a Twitter account apparently owned by a low-ranking state official, the video labelled Mr Georgiev, an editor at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), as traitor, foreign mercenary and liar paid by foreign organizations.

“The worst thing is that [Georgiev] has no way to defend himself from this…,” KRIK’s editor-in-chief, Stevan Dojcinovic, wrote on Twitter. “All he can do is wait and hope not to meet some madman in the street who got triggered by this video.”

Starting with the headline “How to recognize a traitor,” the video triggered a storm of insults and threats. It was posted a day after BIRN published photos revealing links between Andrej Vucic, the brother of the Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, and Zvonko Veselinovic, a businessman from Kosovo, a former Serbian territory with a majority Albanian speaking population that broke away as an independent republic which Serbs do not recognize in 2008.

Most of the mainstream media in Serbia, including the country’s public broadcaster RTS, private television stations with nationwide coverage, and print media are controlled by the government, which uses them as propaganda weapons. Their main task is to promote the Serbian president Vucic and to spread venom against “undesirable” media.

Such hate campaigns often target whole media organizations. Investigative outlets such as KRIK and the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) are regularly thrashed in the pro-government tabloids and trolled on social media. Informer, a local tabloid, has relentlessly attacked Mr Dojcinovic, for example.

Ms Peco says that this hate-based narrative is supported by various top politicians who publicly say the same things about independent journalists. The government goes as far as using Serbia’s intelligence services to stalk and take photos of certain journalists to then attack them in tabloid media. Ms Peco says that in the past some of KRIK’s journalists were surveilled and its newsroom tapped.

Even reporting of public events can give journalists headaches. N1 Serbia, a regional news channel, has drawn the ire of the authorities for its reporting about the street demonstrations against the autocratic rule of the president Vucic during the past few months.

N1 has been under the government’s attack since 2014. Now, though, things have taken a turn for the worse: its journalists regularly receive death threats, the station has been labelled as anti-Serbian and is the regular target of smear campaigns in the tabloid press. The interior ministry called N1 a “CIA television.” A tabloid close to the authorities claimed that N1’s reporting on the protests was “a call to murder the president of Serbia,” N1 Serbia’s management said in a letter.

The government’s wrath against independent journalism in Serbia has the capacity to rapidly lead to more violence against individual journalists. Serbian citizens increasingly borrow the politicians’ hate narrative. Therefore, the decline in trust in Serbia’s media, which has plumbed new depths in recent years, doesn’t surprise anyone. Only 11% of Serbians trust media, according to a 2018 report from Thomson Foundation, a media development NGO.

Many local and international organizations have condemned the attacks against journalists. President Vucic pushed back saying that Serbia is no worse than other nations in the region. His answer is far from reassuring and doesn’t augur change for Serbia’s embattled journalism.

Pictured: Aleksandar Vucic (photo: Leon E. Panetta)