A report released by the US State Department on Tuesday says that Serbia experienced significant human rights challenges in 2020, and a number of issues in different areas like severe restrictions on freedom of expression, including violence, threats of violence and unjustified arrests and prosecutions of journalists.
The State Department 2020 report cites numerous cases of corruption among members of the government, crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, and crimes committed against members of sexual minorities – the LGBT population.
Also, it said that „the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but courts remained susceptible to corruption and political influence. Civil society contacts and international organizations such as the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) criticized the slow pace of constitutional reforms aimed at reducing political influence over the judiciary, the High Judicial Council, and the State Prosecutorial Council. The State Prosecutorial Council’s commissioner for autonomy examined more than 40 cases of alleged inappropriate political influence and issued several advisory opinions. The High Judicial Council expressed concern that 74 courts in the country operated under acting presidents.“
The report deals with violations of freedom of expression, including the freedom of the press.
„The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but threats and attacks on journalists, a lack of transparency of media ownership, and the oversized role of the state in the country’s oversaturated media sector undermined these freedoms.
The Nations in Transit report from 2020, written by the watchdog organization Freedom House, downgraded Serbia from a ‘semi consolidated democracy’ to a ‘transitional or hybrid regime,’ citing deterioration of media freedoms as one of the country’s biggest problems. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the NGO Reporters without Borders noted, ‘Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate.
“Unbalanced media coverage and a large volume of fake, misleading, or unverified news stories continued to threaten the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process,’ the report goes on to say.
The report also notes that NGOs alleged excessive, unjustified and illegal use of force against protesters, specifying that the alleged perpetrators were police officers and other unidentified persons.
“In July, 11 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sent an urgent appeal to the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment demanding the rapporteur’s intervention with Serbian authorities to investigate police brutality during anti-government protests throughout the country. NGOs reported excessive, unjustified, and illegal force against protesters, including journalists, by police and other unidentified persons allegedly from informal criminal groups closely linked to the Ministry of Interior. The ombudsman initiated an investigation of police actions and concluded police did not use excessive force against participants except in several individual cases, which were to be further investigated. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights (BCHR) filed two criminal charges against police for actions during the protests,” the report warns.
“The BCHR stated the “practice of courts and public prosecutors was to, without exception, show more trust in depositions of police and other officials than those of citizens who claim to have suffered torture and those who testified” and warned that most criminal charges filed by victims of torture and abuse against officials were rejected and very few resulted in convictions.
Police corruption and impunity remained problems, despite some progress on holding corrupt police officials accountable. During the year experts from civil society noted the quality of police internal investigations continued to improve.
In the first nine months of the year, the Ministry of Interior’s Sector of Internal Control filed five criminal charges against six police officers due to reasonable suspicion that they had committed a crime of abuse and torture. During the same period, the ministry’s Internal Control Office filed 115 criminal charges and three annexes against 127 officers and civilian employees of the ministry,” the State Department says.
In terms of treatment of prisoners and detainees, the report says that “prison conditions were sometimes harsh due to physical abuse and overcrowding. Physical abuse by police and prison staff occurred, and there were reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year. According to the Ministry of Justice, prison capacity was 10,543 inmates; the average prison population decreased from 11,077 in December 2019 to 10,543 in September 2020.”
As far as freedom of press and media goes, the report had the following to say: “Independent media were active but were limited in their ability to express a wide variety of views by the oversaturation of the media market and government support of pro-government outlets. The media market was oversaturated with more than 2,500 registered outlets, many of which were not profitable.
Independent journalists and outlets continued to operate several independent newspapers, albeit with low and declining circulation. Tabloids remained popular but regularly published incorrect or unverified information. Many of the stories defamed political leaders of opposition parties. These stories were often presented in false or misleading headlines on the cover page. On January 21, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) published a report asserting that the four highest-circulation tabloids, Informer, Srpski Telegraf, Alo, and Kurir, published at least 945 false or unfounded claims on their front pages in 2019. Informer led with 317 such claims, followed by Alo (259), Srpski Telegraf (227), and Kurir (142).”
This post is also available in: Italiano