PARIS, 23.01.2019. – After a wide-ranging discussion with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the presidential palace in Belgrade yesterday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expects positive changes for press freedom in the biggest Balkan country, which aspires to join the European Union.
The discussion between President Vucic and RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire, which lasted 90 minutes and took place in the presence of the head of RSF’s EU and Balkans desk, Pauline Adès-Mevel, was direct and concrete, and covered all aspects of media freedom, including journalists’ safety, editorial independence and journalistic ethics.
RSF voiced its concern about the safety of investigative journalists six weeks after reporter Milan Jovanovic’s home was destroyed in an arson attack. Three persons are now detained on suspicion of throwing the Molotov cocktails that started the fire, which could have killed Jovanovic and his wife.
RSF has seen a decline in the press freedom climate in Serbia, which fell 10 places in the latest World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 76th out of 180 countries.
When RSF urged Vucic to appreciate the gravity of the many verbal and physical attacks on journalists and to respond appropriately, he provided specific information about some of the police investigations currently under way and recognized the need to shed light on several murders of journalists in the 1990s and the 2000s.
RSF also deplored the lack of independence of many Serbian media outlets, especially the pro-government media, and the arbitrary way that state advertising its allocated. Describing Serbia’s media as polarized, which he said he regretted, Vucic denied the discretionary nature of state subsidies for the media.
“We know that we must change something,” he nonetheless acknowledged, especially as regards the level of defamation and insults in the media. RSF regrets that, despite satisfactory media legislation, Vucic has failed to propose measures to ensure that the laws are implemented effectively.
Insisting on his commitment to press freedom despite the many criticisms levelled against him, Vucic requested the help of RSF’s expertise in improving the situation of the media as regards regulatory issues. He said he was ready to provide RSF with all relevant documents so that it could verify the way that state subsidies are allocated to the media. In the end, he provided documents about the “Media Strategy,” a new government initiative that is supposed to encourage media development.
After consultation with international organizations such as the OSCE, these documents were handed to the prime minister on 27 December and could be submitted to parliament at the end of February, according to a source close to the president, who said he had not read them himself because his priority was the country’s economy.
“We think that that the Serbian president uses the excessive and abusive accusations published in certain, often secondary, news outlets to divert attention from the reality of his influence, or his party’s influence, over some of the biggest media, especially TV broadcasters,” Deloire said.
“As Vucic readily recognizes the errors of the past and is proposing an opening, we think it is right to take note of his verbal undertakings. We nonetheless believe that the defence of journalism requires concrete measures. Instead of criticizing the media, the president must demonstrate the sincerity of his discourse by means of concrete measures. His professions of sincerity are too often belied by the behaviour of members of his political entourage and by their control over certain media.”
RSF is pleased to note that, in the statement issued by the president’s office after yesterday’s meeting, the president affirms his support for the principles of the International Declaration on Information and Democracy that was issued last November by an independent commission formed at RSF’s initiative.
The Serbian statement says: “Serbia supports the principles of this Declaration and we believe that its signing would also contribute to improving both the media situation and the overall democratic processes in our society.”
RSF will draft proposals for improving the independence and the quality of journalism in Serbia.