The European Commission’s latest semi-annual report on the rule of law in Serbia does not mention the mass protests of citizens that have been held in Belgrade for the last six weeks.
The document rather focuses on the transfer of two female prosecutors who worked on the EPS case, the unresolved whistleblower case from Krušik, threats and a campaign to slander journalists, the need to boost REM’s (Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media) independence, as well as the case of Telekom Serbia and the proceedings against that company.
The European Commission prepared a half-yearly report for the period from October last year to the end of May this year, which should “provide an overview” to the European Council on the progress of Serbia in implementing Chapters 23 and 24. The non-paper includes the “factual development of events”, and is based on the reports of Serbia, the EU-Serbia Subcommittee, and as other member states, as well various missions.
Transfer of prosecutors
In the part related to the judiciary, the report states that the pressure on prosecutors is still high and that government officials, including those at the highest level, as well as members of parliament, publicly comment on ongoing investigations or court proceedings, as well as the work of individual prosecutors and the judge. The report underlines that these comments are contrary to the code of conduct for members of the Government and Parliament. It also says that information about the course of investigations, which is published by numerous media outlets, has been regularly leaked, which is a hindrance to the ongoing investigations.
The EC report also states that the transfer of two deputy prosecutors (Jasmina Paunović and Bojana Savović) from the special anti-corruption department of the Public Prosecutor’s Office without adequate justification was met with widespread criticism and that the transfer was disputed by the prosecutors themselves. According to reports, they worked on the case of corruption and money laundering in the state-owned company Electric Power Industry of Serbia (EPS).
Whistleblower from Krušik
The non-paper also touches upon the fact that the courts in Serbia received 69 new cases based on the Whistleblower Protection Act last year, and a total of 71 cases were resolved. However, as pointed out, 39 cases, despite the urgency, have not been concluded by the end of 2022 even after three years.
Influencing media and REM
The report states that the political and economic influence on the media is still a source of concern, as well as that consultations on amendments to the Law on Public Information and Media continued in November 2022. Violations of the journalistic code, recorded by the Press Council, continue in the print media.
The document states that the government has been working on amending the Law on Electronic Media, as well as that this should boost REM’s independence, in order to effectively protect media pluralism and clarify the procedure for issuing licenses for the provision of audio-visual media services.
It is also emphasized that REM assigned national broadcasting frequencies to television stations that received warnings from that institution for violating legal obligations, as well as that the fifth license was not granted, although the deadline for that was 30 days. The report states that REM has decided not to assign the fifth frequency until the case of the appeal submitted to the Administrative Court is concluded.
Russia Today and Sputnik
The EC document also states that Serbia should undertake urgent measures to oppose foreign manipulation of information and narratives against the EU, which is most obvious in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is stated that in addition to the English-language channel Russia Today (RT), which was broadcast in Serbia on cable television, RT launched a Serbian-language multimedia website RT Balkan.
As it is added, these media outlets, together with Sputnik Serbia, produce and/or disseminate content that manipulates the information environment in Serbia. Sputnik applied for a public tender for issuing licenses for the provision of radio media services for the Belgrade area but was rejected.
Threats, violence and defamation of journalists
The report points out that threats, violence and defamation of journalists continued, especially at the local level, and these are rarely “monitored” by regulatory authorities or prosecutors. It is said that the statements of high state officials prevent the creation of an environment in which freedom of expression can be exercised unhindered.
Although these statements can be heard in the parliament, as it is added, the Administrative Committee in charge of implementing the code of conduct did not find any violation of it. It also says that, through so-called SLAP lawsuits, pressure on the media has been increased.
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