President vs Journalist: analysis of President Vucic answer to EU Observer



On November 2, 2018 Matteo Trevisan published an opinion piece for EU Observer portal titled How media freedom in Serbia is under attack. Four days later, the portal published Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia response Media freedom in Serbia – President Vucic responds. The president’s response was greeted with disbelief among independent media experts in Serbia, primarily because it contains statements do not reflect Serbia’s reality. In order to bring the topic closer, IJAS produced an analysis of the president’s letter and his statements, countering them with facts.

ALEKSANDAR VUCIC REALITY
 

As the president of Serbia I have rarely reacted on media attacks against the country I lead, because I have always, it seems to me, understood well that each different opinion and criticism serve for changing things quickly in our country, for improving ourselves, and for providing normal functioning and full respect for democratic norms and laws.  But, I will try – without any passion – to make a rational and decent response to what was written in an opinion piece full of accusations against Serbia in EUobserver on 2 November.

 

The practice Aleksandar Vucic established while he was an PM – labeling journalists, liars who got the money from [Michael] Davenport [head of the EU delegation in Belgrade] and the EU to speak against the Serbian government, and enemies of the state continued through his presidency: TV N1 was continuously labelled American, including  15 times in the course of a single interview,   TV collaborating with drug cartels, with “known criminals convicted of drug trafficking and selling drugs to our children”. In the past 6 months the same TV became Djilas TVDanas Daily suffered the same criticism as well as other media that report in public interest. Vucic also offends, humiliates and treats journalists with disrespect

His rhetoric is reflected by the Minister of Interior who also called it  a CIA TV,  Serbian MPs and other state officials. Such rhetoric is further multiplied by MPs who use the Parliament to publicly label specific journalists and media ‘enemies of the state’, ‘foreign agents’, insult and humiliate them thus jeopardizing their safety. In its online database IJAS recorded 78 of cases of public officials attacking the journalists and media since 2016, 27 this year at the moment of closing this text.

Additionally, this is reflected in numerous smear campaigns against media by the state owned or openly pro-gov media the president publicly endorses.

1. It is a complete falsehood that [the] media network became a subject of a disruptive state monopoly – on the contrary, we created a strategy, and – after so many years of so many reforms – we were the first government which, to the greatest extent, renounced its own involvement in media.

 

 

 

The Strategy 2011 – 2016 was indeed created and adopted, however one of the key issues is how it was implemented. As reflected in all major national and international reports, the poor implementation facilitated creation of party (para-state) media through privatisation, with no ownership transparency, closure of the state agency Tanjug and its after-life (see below), distribution of funds to pro-gov media though badly implemented and/or illegal public calls and degradation of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media.

While the privatisation was implemented poorly, leading to party-media that report in the interest of the ruling party, the state remains  a co-owner of Politika (50%) and Vecernje novosti (30%). This includes Ilustrovana Politika that infamously published a front page featuring daily Danas, weeklies NIN and Vreme as ‘dogs unleashed’ and an article featuring them and TV N1 media as ‘frenetically attacking the president of Serbia.’ This prompted international condemnation, but was followed by an attack on journalists Ljiljana Smajlovic in its next edition. In a step assessed as many experts as strengthening its domination over media, on 05.11.2018 it was announced the state owned Telekom Serbia became 100% owner of the Kopernikus Technology, second largest cable operator in Serbia at a disputably large price.

 

You mention the Tanjug case, the very same agency for which those same independent journalists published an obituary in their newspapers, on the day it was closed regarding the termination of operation of that state agency. Today, when the respective agency operates, speaking the truth, without state support, it’s once again our fault – of the state, government, and mine, as the president.

It would be nice if many in the EU, as well as in Serbia, would agree whether they want us to shut down state-owned media, or they want us to be benevolent towards their work.

 

Due to failure to privatize Tanjug news agency on November 3, 2015 the Government of Serbia passed the “Decision on the legal consequences of the termination of the Public Company Tanjug News Agency,” signed by the then Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. However, Tanjug was never closed – it continued to operate with the financial support of various ministries and state-owned enterprises due to, apparently a legal loophole. Since the the date of the ‘closure’ till the end of 2017, 33 institutions, public companies, and local self-government units paid it 114.4 million dinars.

Replying to the request for information of public importance regarding state financing of Tanjug in 2016, Istinomer portal received the following response from the Ministry of Finance Treasury: “having in mind its magnitude, complexity, structure and content, providing the information (about state financing of Tanjug) would jeopardize the technical processes and lead to (state’s)  inability to perform tasks related to the execution of the state budget, budget accounting and reporting, public payments and other duties of state finances, which would result in the fall of performance of the system,  lead to overload  of the system and jeopardise the security of information system of public finances management and result in the reduction of the country’s ability to manage the economic processes in the country.”

2) The author, Matteo Trevisan, says that physical assaults against journalists are the tip of the iceberg, and I’m asking you: which is the country in the EU that has fewer assaults against journalists than Serbia, not counting brutal assaults of the representatives of the opposition against female journalists of the TV Pink – Goca Uzelac and Mara Dragic? Please, respond me concretely which EU country is the one that had fewer physical assaults against journalists, with concrete data.

 

The facts that the number of physical assaults on journalists in Serbia is decreasing (and other EU countries may have more such incidents) does not mean that journalists in Serbia feel and are safe while reporting. It shows that the means have changed: IJAS data shows a significant increase in different types of pressures, from threats to publicly naming individual journalists as enemies of Serbia.  However, while IJAS doesn’t have access to  data in the EU states, its regional database of incidents (assaults, intimidation, attack on property, murders) paints a grim picture – Serbia is the regional leader in intimidation on journalists: since 2014 Serbia recorded 155 incidents (40 physical assaults), BiH 114 (20), Kosovo 83 (14), Macedonia 51 (22), Croatia 46 (17) and Montenegro 32 (4).

IJAS data shows that on 01.09.2018 out of 18 physical attacks in the last three years in only 2 cases perpetrators were sanctioned, while out of 62 recorded cases of intimidation, this happened in only 3 cases.

Attacks on women journalist are a concern and the swift reaction in the case of TV Pink journalists Goca Uzelac and Mara Dragic was initially encouraging. Attacker was quickly identified and court procedure is under way, journalists were visited by Vucic at the hospital and the incident was widely reported by the media. However, initially denied incident at the inauguration day of Aleksandar Vucic against both female and male journalists received authorities’ attention only after media published the photographs of the incidents. It took the prosecutor more than 4 months to identify the attackers, affiliated with the Serbian Progressive Party, while journalists did it much quicker.  The prosecution dropped criminal charges, on the grounds that there were no elements of a criminal act. These cases illustrate serious concerns about the selective approach by the authorities when investigating such incidents and existing policy of impunity.

To find out more about 8 intimidated journalists, some of which were almost assassinated, live with 24/7 police protection, are tailed, threatened, beaten up… see IJAS documentary Forcing the Fourth Estate and turn on the subtitles.

3) Trevisan says that pressure is being exerted in various ways, among other things, through numerous court procedures against journalists. I would like to inform you that more than 90 percent of the procedures that were initiated against journalists had taken place upon the requests of opposition leaders, and not of government representatives.

Personally, despite numerous insults, threats and slanders in the past six years, I have never filed a complaint against media and journalists. I believe that, in this way, I demonstrated how we should refer to and what the way for cherishing the differences is.

In the last 4 years IJAS has been unsuccessfully trying to obtain the information about how many court procedures against journalists are being initiated by politicians and state officials. We hope the information will be shared with journalists’ associations. Trends identified so far show that president Vucic was unsuccessful in his demonstration of what the way for cherishing the differences is to his party officials: Minister of the Police, Nebojsa Stefanovic, sued weekly NIN and the portal Pescanik – both media are preparing for Strasbourg. The vice-resident of the Executive Committee of Vucic’s  party Branko Malovic sued the columnist of the newspaper Danas and the portal “Pancevo Si Ti”. SNS Deputy Darko Laketic recently sued Juzne vesti portal, Nenad Popovic, a minister without portfolio filed four lawsuits against KRIK over Paradise Papers leaks.

The 2017 case of sentencing Stefan Cvetkovic to 27 months prison sentence and fining him 2.15 million dinars, based on three private criminal charges brought against him by the officials of the ruling SNS attracted international attention and, fortunately, the verdict of the Basic Court in Vrsac was later annulled by the second instance court.

 

4) Additionally, I want to say that nobody has ever, and in anyway, shut down Vranjske Novine, even though their circulation was small in the market. And they were not facing any kind of pressure.

 

The case of Vranjske caused international attention – the media was undeniably subjected to months of administrative harassment through tax inspections. Vranjske reported different administrative pressures, but the disputed tax inspections started after it had published an interview with the tax official disclosing wrongdoings at the institution. Vranjske weekly was subjected to different kinds of threats and pressures since its establishment – the premises were burgled three times, the owner’s car damaged twice and threats were sent journalists, the owner and his family. None of the cases were solved, while majority of reported threats were not investigated. At the same time as a result of political pressure companies refrained from advertising in the media, making it impossible for it to operate.

The events prompted Serbia wide support to Vranjske and IJAS requested from the  EFJ to organise a fact finding mission with IPI and SEEMO at the beginning of 2018. Please see the Mission recommendations regarding the overall situation regarding media freedoms and safety of journalists here Regarding an alert posted on the Council of Europe platform, the State responded citing the amounts awarded to Vranjske project proposals and without any reference to the actual events.

It is important to add that the tax authority final report cited no irregularities in the work of, now closed, weekly Vranjske.

The case is similar to Juzne vesti and gives an insight into unfortunate new trends in Serbia,

 

5) Further, in the article it is said that no solution was reached in cases of Dada VujasinovicSlavko Curuvija and Milan Pantic.

Those people were killed 30, 20 and 15 years ago. The so-called democratic ruling power you speak so nicely about, hadn’t moved either of these cases from a standstill.

Despite fighting ghosts from the past, the indictment was raised and the apprehension of the accused is almost finalised.

 

Three cases of murdered journalists are not solved: Radislava Dada Vujasinovic, Duga magazine journalist (1994), Slavko Curuvija, a journalist, editor-in-chief and the owner of the Dnevni telegraf (1999), and Milan Pantic, the Vecernje novosti correspondent from Jagodina (2001). While two cases are still at a pre-investigative stage, the court proceedings underway in Curuvija case cause concern among family members and journalist community.

Veran Matic, President of the Commission for investigation of murdered journalist stated: “The court shows a clear intention to release those accused of murdering journalist Curuvija”.   He considers that the Trial Chamber conducted this case irrationally, that the defence was permitted to obstruct the proceedings, and indicates that many witnesses did not remember their statements made during the investigation in previous years. The court procedures started almost 4 years ago (Vucic became the PM in 2014, President in 2017), Curuvija was murdered in 1999 (Vucic was the Minister of information 1998-2000).

In 2017, Matic announced that the police probe into Pantic murder has at long last been finished, however no steps were taken by relevant authorities. The Vujasinovic case still lingers.

To find out more about how Curuvija and Vujasinovic family feel about the progress of investigations please see these short subtitled clips featuring Jelena Curuvija (Curuvija’s daughter), Branka Prpa (Curuvija’s partner) and Radislav Vujasinovic (Vujasinovic’s father) and Vesna Malisic (Vujasinovic close friend and a colleague).

 

Also, for almost three years I’ve been listening how killings of journalists would take place in Serbia, and meanwhile journalists were killed in MaltaSlovakiaBulgaria, wounded in Montenegro, while in Serbia (not counting the injuries of Gordana Uzelac, inflicted by the opposition members) there was no one with such serious injuries.

 

We are unaware of the predictions in the past 3 years the President is referring to. However, based on information about the situation journalists and media face in Serbia, during a Free European Media conference in Gdanjsk in February 2018 Matthew Caruana Galizia expressed a chilling warning: Serbia is the European country in which the next murder of journalist is most likely to happen. The prediction didn’t come true, but journalist being murdered or shot in other countries doesn’t mean Serbian journalists are safe. In addition to TV Pink journalists the following physical attacks, some with very serious injuries, took place since the president’s premiership started in 2014:

Only 3 months after Vucic became a PM, on 03.07.2014 FoNet news agency editor Davor Pasalic was severely beaten up by still unknown persons.

On 27.08.2015 journalists Ivan Ninic was brutally attacked with metal bars by two still unknown persons.

During the inauguration of the president, on 31.05.2017 journalists were physically removed from the events and attempts to take their equipment were made. At first instance, the prosecutor rejected charges – it concluded that men who were caught on photo violently handling journalists and protesters  “acted decently, did not threaten anyone, pleaded for the provocations to end, and suchlike.” In April 2018, the second rejection cited that “there is no substantial doubt that any of the suspects in any way jeopardized the safety of the journalist by threatening to attack her life or body” thus sending a message that such treatment of journalists is acceptable.

I do understand that I am an easy target for anyone who wants to attack Serbia for the media situation, first of all because of a brief participation in Milosevic’s government, 20 years ago, but I would ask all of them to use facts – and not a mantra which was set as the only way for attacking Serbia, which is economically significantly improving, whose reputation is rising worldwide, and which is trying to resolve important regional political problems.

 

Aleksandar Vucic’s “brief participation as a Minister of Information in the Milosevic’s government 20 years ago” imprinted strong and well-founded scepticism regarding his attitude to free speech and freedom of media. Reporting about the infamous 1998 Law on Public Information the Human Rights Watch stated:

“The circumstances of the law’s enactment and the record of its application have shown its primary purpose to have been the restricting of speech critical of the government and to oblige journalists to exercise self-censorship. The law was adopted on October 20, 1998, as the NATO alliance was threatening to launch air strikes against Serbia. Two weeks earlier, on October 9, the Serbian government had adopted a decree that prohibited re-broadcasting of the BBC, Voice of America, and other foreign programs in the Serbian language. As of January 2000, fifteen months after the law’s enactment, Serbian and Montenegrin independent media had been punished for violations of the media law on thirty-one occasions, and the average fine had been 420,000 dinars; pro-government newspapers were fined six times, and the fine averaged 143,000 dinars. Apart from the fines incurred for published information, some sixty media law fines, amounting to 3.2 million dinars (U.S. $100,000) were imposed in October and November 1999 upon the ABC Grafika printing house, ostensibly because the house was printing a newsletter not registered with the Serbian Ministry of Information.”

Committee for Protection of Journalist listed press crackdown incidents and reported Minister Vucic use of the Law: “In December alone, three of Serbia’s leading media outlets, including the opposition television station Studio B, were assessed massive fines in a case brought by Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian information minister. Vucic argued that the three outlets had defamed him by publicizing opposition politician Vuk Draskovic’s claim that the government had tried to assassinate him (Studio B is run by Draskovic’s party, the Serbian Renewal Movement, which controls the city council). Later that month, authorities invoked the law to confiscate more than US$ 400,000 worth of equipment from a printing company that publishes most of Serbia’s independent newspapers.”

Getting better

Finally, I agree with you about one thing. The situation in Serbia, certainly, is not brilliant and there are many things that we need to do in order to make it better.

Precisely, that is why it is important for the state to continue to cooperate with all the media representatives and unions.

 

After months of advocating nationally and internationally, journalists and media associations made it impossible to ignore the fact that the process of drafting the Media strategy is flawed due to lack of participation of the representatives of profession. After they left the process in Oct 2017 due inefficiency and lack of credibility, and despite calls for a new Working group to be formed, the authorised Ministry continued drafting a document. In an unexpected U-turn, seemingly after a EC annual report and series of meetings with the international actors, the President’s media advisor announced that the draft is being withdrawn and a new document will be drafted. PM Brnabic’s statement followed quoting lack of legitimacy of the Working group.

The initial rejection of the state to recognise this a problem and treatment of media and journalists’ associations does not imply that its authorities truly understand why it is important for the state to continue to cooperate with media representatives and unions. It implies that the decision to start anew was a result of external pressure.

Prime minister Ana Brnabic and myself are firm in showing political will to improve the situation in the media and to cooperate with relevant journalists and media associations in order to achieve that goal.

We invited the OSCE to facilitate the process, while journalists and media associations were asked to contribute by delegating members of the task force for designing a media strategy.

The newly found President and the Prime Minister’s firmness in showing political will to improve the situation in the media is yet to be proved in practice. Based on their statements journalists and media associations accepted the call to participate in the new Working Group for development of the Media strategy. They, however, conditioned their participation with a request for urgent actions on burning issues regarding media freedoms and safety of journalists. A negotiating platform was established comprised of representatives of the journalists and media association and those of the government. Five months later, despite public announcements that dialogue is successful, it is becoming clear that government failed to respond to journalist associations’ demands and the environment is turning more hostile towards independent media and journalists:

After some period of professional behaviour, the President again started using press conferences to humiliate and smear journalists of critical media outlets, calling them ‘American’, ‘CIA’, ‘opposition’ media. Such rhetoric is multiplied by the state officials, as described above. Despite President’s call on TV Happy to his party members to communicate decently with media, and stating he will try the same, this remains to be seen. Since the statement, a Serbian Progressive Party member dropped one of two lawsuits against an online portal.

The state financially and publicly supports tabloids and electronic media that champion fake-news, hate speech and label and insult individuals critical of the authorities, and citizens of different nationalities and confessions.

The Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media is either docile or its Council members use official channels to publicly attack those who are critical of its lack of action using inappropriate language and messages (response of the REM Council member Olivera Zekic regarding calls to react in the case of  Ratko Mladic’s live phone in from the prison suggested that “those with ethical concerns should go to church”)

The independent media is subjected to political, economic and administrative pressures (and Serbian Tax Authority is withholding information about its inspection of the media between 2015 and 2017).

After a series of attacks on Danas daily from the parliamentary podium, the media being put in the context of media under Goebbels and Hitler, Corax the daily’s cartoonist, shared his views in a cartoon. Its publication on Danas daily front-page caused condemnation by the Ministry of culture and information that just a fortnight before stated it cannot condemn already mentioned (partially) state owned Ilustrovana Politika front page with the headline Dogs are Unleashed and issues of Vreme, NIN and Danas in the background. The exhibition of Corax and the work of cartoonist Petricic in town of Lazarevac was closed after the opening evening without a meaningful justification of the local self-government.

The State remains illegal owner (to different extent) of media, some of which publish content that fuels hostility toward critical journalists and media; while the process of privatization of state owned media resulted in creation of party, or para-state media.

As mentioned before intimidation of journalists continues, as well as the authorities’ ineffectiveness, as well as pressure through court procedures.

All issues were highlighted through the negotiating platform with a request for urgent action, but remain practically unchallenged – apart from the President’s appeal on TV Happy. Unless concrete steps are taken to counter the increasing state-supported hostility and unless media and journalists association are treated as equal partners in the negotiations, they see no reason in securing pro forma legitimacy of the negotiation process and will withdraw from it.

According to all media associations and unions the good news is that this document is being drafted, in a widely-inclusive process, which is satisfactory.

Of course, I hope that we will get support from the EU, and we are ready to work together with you and reach European standards.

Aleksandar Vucic is the president of the Republic of Serbia

 

The drafting process is (for now) satisfactory and the Group is using analysis produced by IJAS in cooperation with four journalist and media associations. However, the practice has shown that before the Strategy is adopted it may undergo substantial changes in comparison to the draft submitted by the Working group. Even if it remains the same – the experience proves that strategic documents in Serbia often remain nothing but a list of unfulfilled wishes.

Bearing all above in mind, we hope that the EU will:

– hold the Serbian government accountable for curbing media freedoms and insist on creating a non-hostile environment through effective implementation of laws that guarantee safety of journalists, media freedoms and freedom of expression

– insist on real dialogue and participatory approach in the process of drafting, finalising and adoption of the Media Strategy, with no last-minute changes to the document

– make it very clear that the Media strategy must be implemented in accordance with the highest standards of the rule of law

 It is noted that President Vucic failed to address Matteo Trevisan’s assessment of the work of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM). However, bearing in mind the mandate of this body and its (in)action we pass some of IJAS concerns also reflected in the original text by Trevisan.
MATTEO TREVISAN REALITY
Another reason to be concerned is the questionable independence of the official body elected as a guarantor of the freedom of expression, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM).

The REM, which has been systematically accused of bias, not only avoids using its legal means to punish violations of the law, but has also refrained from publishing official documents that should ensure transparency in the monitoring process provided under those same laws.

Its initial abstention from monitoring the election campaign for the 2017 presidential elections caused an uproar.

REM is an example of what a regulatory body should not be like, a case study of bad practice. Since 2017 REM Council has been operating with 6 out of 9 Council members. They are appointed by the Parliament which by definition opens the possibility unwarranted political influence.

While media with national coverage broadcast content that endangers human rights and violate legally prescribed obligations (endangering the privacy of people about whom it is written, smear campaigns, attack on personal dignity, hate speech, fake news, disregard for special rights of children and minors and victims of violence, leaking data from investigations, media promotion of convicted criminals, etc.), REM Council is mostly silent.  It doesn’t use its legally prescribed authorities, or uses it rarely – by August 2018 REM announced 5 measures, in 2017 three and in 2016  – 9 measure. Since its transformation in 2014, REM Council didn’t pronounce a single measure of permit revocation and had one measure of temporary prohibition of broadcasting. REM did not not publish its 2016 parliamentary election report and decided not to monitor 2017 elections. Acting only upon complaint, it failed to initiate a single procedure despite receiving more than 300 complaints. Monitoring is performed by different NGOs and in the last two years shows that candidates from the opposition parties did not have fair and equal coverage by the PBS nor national broadcasters. Since they cannot rely on REM, the Serbian opposition wrote to EBU to exert pressure on PBS, but with no success.

But, REM is not always silent – its Council acting public representative, Olivera Zekic responds to criticism by statements that often insult journalists who are critical of its inactivity: Tamara Skrozza, Gordana Susa – targeted twice alone and once together with the editor of Danas daily Draza Petrovic, daily Danas, TV N1, public service RTS director Dragan Bujosevic, politicians such are Boris Tadic, but also opposition in general even Vladan Vukosavljevic, the current Minister of Culture and Information.

While on hand, there is little or no reaction to increasing violations of broadcaster’s code of conduct and lack of monitoring the election period, on the other hand there is hyperactivity by REM Council that boils down to demeaning of this body and its full politicisation furthering it away form its envisaged role as an independent guardian of media pluralism in the electronic media.

As a result, the Serbian citizens have no access to alternative views and are unable to be informed about issues that determine their livelihoods. Media content during the elections campaigns (and outside) is reduced to propaganda of one specific political solution and smearing of all potential opponents. There is no freedom to information necessary to make an informed choice – this is why experts often refer to REM as the cancer of the Serbian media scene.


IJAS/Maja Vasic-Nikolic, Belgrade, 30/11/2018