The Serbian authorities have created an atmosphere in which attacks on journalists are allowed and critical reporting is frowned upon while media loyal to the president and government are rewarded, Freedom House said in its latest reported N1 reported on Wednesday.
The latest report 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.
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.
It added 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. The illiberal toolbox for co-opting the media contains a variety of legal, extralegal, and economic strategies for applying pressure to critical outlets, and supporting friendly ones. In Serbia, the process of co-optation has not yet been fully successful, but an environment of intimidation and harassment inhibit journalists’ day-to-day work.
A recent privatization drive handed several media outlets to owners friendly with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), it said and cited the example of the brother of a top SNS official who purchased two national television channels. He 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.
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.
Serbia’s media regulators do not display overt hostility to independent media but they lack the capacity to implement Serbia’s otherwise well-formulated media laws. The Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) is only partially staffed and is operationally dysfunctional, having notably failed to call out governing party dominance of the media landscape during election campaigns. In February 2019, it failed to act when two television stations aired a slick video that mocked opposition leaders, and that had first appeared on the governing SNS’s YouTube channel, even though Serbia’s laws prohibit political advertising outside elections.
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.” Serbia has also undermined press freedom through politicized manipulation of the law. Defamation has been decriminalized, but politicians have continued to file costly defamation suits seeking exorbitant civil damages. Harassment can also take more direct forms, such as physical attacks and threats such as the torching of elderly investigative journalist's home, the report said and expressed concern that something like this could happen at all. Political leaders have signalled that hostility toward journalists is permissible, cultivating an atmosphere of fear and impunity in which journalists know that scrutiny of power is fraught with risk.
Establishing and supporting a pro-government media empire is as important a tactic as is pressuring critical media. Such support can take many forms, including the preferential awarding of state advertising contracts, special financing schemes, and privileged treatment by tax authorities. State advertising plays an important role in supporting pro-government media in Serbia as well, and there are additional innovative methods available for the government to channel money to friendly media. Project co-financing, through which the state chips in to help media projects that serve the public interest, has been used to allocate money to pro-government outlets. Friendly media outlets have also benefitted from selective tax enforcement, while smaller, critical outlets have suffered harsh penalties.
Creating a loyal media empire is not enough—the outlets have to be put to use in a strategic way, and the leaders of Serbia are masters of constructing a grand narrative and crafting a new reality. The public media are an important part of this narrative building. State-owned or state-controlled news agencies dwarf their private competitors in Serbia. Serbia’s Tanjug news agency was formally closed as part of a privatization drive, yet it continues to operate through support from public coffers. Public broadcasters have always been supportive of governments in power, but the tone and nature of that support have dramatically shifted in recent years. Whereas previously they were more or less professional outlets with a slight bias, now they are government mouthpieces.
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. In Serbia, the prospect of EU membership, which brings with it increasingly stringent rule-of-law monitoring, can still provide an incentive for change. But once successful co-optation has taken place it is very difficult to reverse.
Illiberal co-optation does not eradicate independent journalism, it harnesses institutional weaknesses and market conditions to severely limit its reach and impact. 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. The illiberal toolbox works because it discourages and obscures independent reporting, funnels limitless resources into the creation and maintenance of a loyal media juggernaut, and makes sure journalists know their place in the new system.