Freedom House has nothing new on Serbia
“Freedom House has nothing new. Freedom House is just an article written based on the last year report, and it refers much less to Serbia than last year.”
Following the latest report of European Commission on Serbia’s progress in 2018, which as a recurrent disease underlines the lack of progress as regards the freedom of expression, another “slap” to the authorities in Belgrade came from the Freedom House organisation. Serbia was downgraded from the free countries group into the group of partly free countries in February Report of this organisation, and just a few days ago Freedom House published a new report, which takes the President Aleksandar Vucic, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as an example of a leader skilfully working on repressing independent media.
In the document titled “Freedom and the Media 2019”, it is mentioned, among other things, that Orban and Vucic had enabled the ownership of media to fall into their friends’ hands, ensuring that the media with the highest ratings will support the government, while simultaneously smearing their opponents.
The latest critique, which was directed to him personally, Vucic tried to explain in his guest appearance in the TV talk show “Morning with Jovana and Srdjan” on June 6th on TV Prva. He denied that the report says he had enabled his friends to get the media outlets in their hands as owners, saying “it only says that Vucic has not completed the co-optation”. Vucic said that Freedom House comparison of him to Orban as regards the repression of the independent media “is old news”. He added that is “only an article written based on the last year report”, which had been worse.
“You have not read it this Hungarian woman wrote this smaller article. It is not the report now, Srdjan, listen to me, I will explain. It is about two articles. They are, the targets of these articles are, but people do not realise it because some people from the opposition will never be correct enough to say what is it about, and the others do not like to read. So it is about an article, written I think, by some Hungarian woman. Her main target was Viktor Orban, and the second target of Freedom House is essentially Trump. Trump who is otherwise smashed in their media, so he is supposedly guilty of media one-sidedness… and this goes on for ten pages, and for Serbia, they selected this for the sidebar… However, they had repeated this from the one eight months ago”, Aleksandar Vucic gave his version of the Report.
The President of Serbia is right when saying this article was written based on the last annual report “Freedom in the World 2019”, published this year in February. It is precisely the report that placed Serbia into the group of partly free countries since it declined from the free countries group.
However, Vucic is not right when he says “it is just an article”, because Freedom House published a special report on June 4th, which is an essay drawn up as a derivative of February Report “Freedom in the World 2019”.
So it is not true that nothing is new in the latest report, as Vucic claims. To the contrary, the report explains the new mechanism (toolbox) for control of media in “fragile democracies”, which include economic, legal, but also non-legal methods of silencing critical journalism on the one hand and the other hand the support of the “friendly” inclined media. It is a novelty that Serbia and Hungary are marked as the counties with the most prominent trend of oppressing media freedoms, and Aleksandar Vucic and Viktor Orban as examples of “illiberal leaders” in “fragile democracies”, which are using these new mechanisms (toolbox). Therefore, for his statement that Freedom House “has nothing new”, President Aleksandar Vucic is getting “false”.
Now, let’s see what Freedom House wrote in its report on Serbia, President Vucic and his mechanisms of media control. We’ll start from the beginning.
Similar to Viktor Orban, Aleksandar Vucic also managed to centralise his power and debilitate the system of control and balance, while being assisted with inefficient opposition and European support, as noted by Freedom House concluding that the media domination is the main factor of Vucic’s success (Orban’s too). The control over media scene, similar to his Hungarian colleague, was ensured by special toolbox (mechanisms), developed in the last several years.
The toolbox does not include tactics such as censorship, force or open intimidation of journalist, yet instead uses the strategies for applying pressure to critical media, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the support of the friendly media, as explained in the report.
Freedom House mentions that Hungary is a chief example of successful winning over of media, while Vucic and his allies are following in Orban’s footsteps, but they still have to consolidate their control over Serbian media.
Namely, the degree of establishment of media ownership we had witnessed in Hungary is yet to happen in Serbia, says Freedom House but adds that during latest privatisations several media outlets came into the possession of owners strongly inclined towards ruling Serbian Progressive Party. It also refers to the people close to authorities purchasing the media outlets.
“By the end of 2018, a brother of high SNS official has bought two TV channels with national frequency. He also owns three internet portals, radio stations and nine cable programmes”, says Freedom House, referring to the last year selling of TV stations – O2 and Prva to Srdjan Milovanovic, brother of Zvezdan Milovanovic, SNS supporter from Nis.
What is even more worrying, as the report underlines, is the financial pressure in Serbia, meaning the tax authorities harassment of the media, and it mentions the examples of weekly Vranjske and portal Juzne vesti.
“In 2017, weekly Vranjske received daily visits, which coincided with the publication of the interview with the former head of tax administration, and the owner, in the end, announced that the papers could not withhold the pressure any longer and it will be discontinued. In 2018, website Juzne vesti, recognised for its critical reporting from the south of Serbia, was subjected to the fifth tax investigation in the last five years, which lasted for several months.”
Similar to Hungary, Serbia undermines the freedom of media through politicised manipulations of the laws. Defamation is decriminalised, and the media laws of the country are otherwise in line with international obligations. However, the politicians are still filing expensive lawsuits for defamation demanding huge damages (the minister Nenad Popovic lawsuit filed against the editorial team of KRIK was mentioned as an example).
On the other hand, unlike Hungary, the media regulatory authorities in Serbia do not openly demonstrate animosity towards independent media, but they also do not have the capacities to implement otherwise well-formulated Serbian media laws, writes Freedom House. Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) has only partially filled staff capacities, and it is operationally non-functional, mentions Freedom House adding that the agency failed to point to the domination of the ruling majority in the media environment during the election campaign. As an example, it is mentioned that REM did not react in February 2019 when two TV stations played a video which belittled and insulted the opposition leaders.
Further warnings are that Serbian media environment is much harsher to the journalists who are doing their daily job then the Hungarian one. Freedom House emphasises that smearing and verbal harassment by the politicians and online accounts are constant and that tabloids favouring the authorities are regularly carrying out attacks. Namely, independent journalists are often named as “traitors” and “foreign mercenaries”. The example refers to the case of Milan Jovanovic, whose house was set on fire at the end of 2018, and high official of SNS Dragoljub Simonovic was removed from office later on and arrested due to this.
“The fact that such a planned attack has even occurred indicates that the independent journalists in Serbia are doing their job at their personal risk.”
In its report, the Freedom House continues that pro-regime media get support from the advertising paid by the state, but there are many other ways to transfer the money, such as, for example, project financing or selective taxation.
Finally, creating an empire of loyal media will not suffice. The media have to be strategically utilised, and “illiberal leaders” in Serbia and Hungary are master artists in creating a new reality