July 21, 2003

15/08/2003: SERBIA – PRESS FREEDOM 2003

Vienna, 15 August 2003

The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), a network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in South East Europe, and an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), is deeply concerned about the media situation in Serbia.

SEEMO strongly condemns the attack on Radisav Rodic, owner of the daily newspapers Glas Javnosti and Kurir, whose car exploded in front of the restaurant “Avala” around 10 p.m. on 6 July 2003. SEEMO urges the

authorities to launch an immediate investigation into this case and to arrest the perpetrators as soon as possible. In addition, there should be greater urgency in the investigations into the murders of Slavko Curuvija and Milan Pantic, journalists assassinated in 1999 and 2001 respectively.

SEEMO also condemns the recent verbal attacks made against a journalist for the Novi Sad-based TV Apolo, who received death threats from a local businessman. This year, the SEEMO help-line has already registered numerous verbal threats made by local businessmen or politicians against journalists in Serbia.

According to SEEMO sources, there have also been several irregularities connected to the election of three Broadcasting Council members. Although the Council has not yet started its work, two members have already resigned.

SEEMO asks the Serbian Parliament to repeat the procedure for the election of all nine members of the Broadcasting Council and to ensure that the Broadcasting Council functions normally.

SEEMO is also appalled by the behaviour of certain politicians in Serbia, who have, not for the first time, physically attacked journalists. For example, Vladimir Jesic, a journalist for Apolo Television in Novi Sad, was attacked on 1 June by Velimir Ilic, Mayor of Cacak and leader of New Serbia.

Jesic said he was insulted and physically assaulted by Ilic while he was conducting an interview. He claimed Ilic kicked him in the knee and insulted him after he asked him about a new tobacco factory in Cacak. The incident was filmed.

Furthermore, SEEMO is informed that the discord between the authorities in Belgrade and media representatives is growing, and that the number of legal complaints by politicians against media have risen drastically. We urge the authorities to demonstrate a greater degree of tolerance towards media reporting and to accept criticism by the media. Also, SEEMO is deeply concerned that there are still people in the government who perceive the media as easily manipulated and capable of being used as a weapon. According to the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (IJAS), there are 220 ongoing lawsuits against media and journalists in Serbia and this number is increasing daily. An example of the numerous court procedures are different complaints filed by Vladimir “Beba” Popovic, former head of the Serbian Government’s Communications Bureau.

SEEMO urges that libel and tort should no longer be regarded as criminal offences and that they are dealt with under civil law. The financial sanctions applicable should be redefined in the light of the real economic situation in the country.

SEEMO also recalls that the Public Information Act was adopted during the state of emergency imposed after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, when all civil rights, including the right to freedom of speech, were curtailed. The politicians abused the situation and adopted new articles without public discussion. This relates particularly to the provision regulating the prohibition of publication and the provision enabling the state to establish a news agency. The Serbian Government should review the viability of those provisions of the Public Information Act and propose that the Parliament deletes the questionable provisions via a bill to amend the act. Also, the Government should urgently adopt legislation on freedom of information.

The Government should also urgently expedite the ownership transformation of state-owned media, as well as create the Serbian Telecommunications Agency which should regulate the use of frequencies and prepare a strategy for the purpose of outlining the frequency range and a strategy for frequency allocation. This body should begin defining the technical parameters which would enable the Broadcast Council to develop a sound strategy for the distribution of radio frequencies and television channels in such a way as to balance the needs of local media, regionalisation and define the frequency requirements for national media. Also, the Government should ensure the conformity of various pieces of legislation which would prevent the establishment of monopolies in the media sector and cross-media ownership which would stimulate media pluralism.