Freedom House report: Serbian leader masterfully creates new reality

The Serbian authorities have created an environment in which attacks on journalists are allowed and critical reporting is shunned while media loyal to the president and government are rewarded – Freedom House said in its latest report on media freedom in Serbia.

The report also reiterated previous warnings to which Belgrade voiced disagreement saying it was not sufficiently objective.

President Aleksandar Vucic’s administration in Serbia has had great success in snuffing out critical journalism, blazing a trail for populist forces elsewhere. He has consolidated media ownership in the hands of his cronies, ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear its perceived opponents, similar to what the Hungarian PM, Viktor Orban has done in Hungary.

Vucic has also moved to dismantle institutional checks and balances and centralize power and has benefitted from European support and ineffectual domestic opposition. But it is the domination of the media that has underwritten his success, the report said.

The report further adds that illiberal leaders in fragile democracies have been using a new set of tools to control and co-opt the media and ensure their stay in power. In Serbia, the tools for co-opting the media contains a variety of legal, extralegal, and economic strategies for applying pressure to the media that are critical of the government, while supporting “friendly ones.”

Recent privatization transferred ownership of several media outlets to owners friendly with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the report said and cited the example of the brother of a top SNS official who purchased two national television channels who also owns three online portals, a radio station, and nine cable channels.

An even more worrying form of financial pressure in Serbia is the harassment of media by the tax authorities. The report noted that the weekly Vrjanske was visited daily by tax inspectors forcing it to close down and that the news site Juzne Vesti, known for its critical reporting in the south of Serbia, was subjected to its fifth months-long tax investigation in five years.

Serbia’s media environment is tough on journalists doing their day-to-day work. Smears and verbal harassment from politicians and online accounts are omnipresent, and attacks by government-friendly tabloids are a regular occurrence. Media workers are frequently called “traitors” and “foreign mercenaries.” 

Sarah Repucci, Senior Director for Research and Analysis at Freedom House and the main author of the latest report on the media in Serbia told the Voice of America that “the situation (with media) in Serbia is not the worst ever, but that the fall in media freedoms is obvious under (President) Aleksandar Vucic’s rule,” and that there was “a serious reason for concern.”

“Serbia is a democratic country, and there is still a chance for the rotation of power and we can still be optimistic and believe that something will change. However, taking everything into account, the situation is very serious,” she said.

The report said that Vucic is indefatigable when it comes to talking to friendly media. Ahead of the 2018 local elections, reporting on the president, the SNS, and the government received four times more airtime than did the remaining 23 electoral lists combined.

Despite the grim situation in the Serbian media space, the report says that media consumers can still access quality journalism produced by small, public-minded teams of reporters, but in light of increasing government control of the media landscape, these outlets are fighting an uphill battle.

(Danas, 05.06.2019)

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