The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), expresses its concern about the deteriorating media environment in Serbia, including the government´s delay in formulating the promised Media Development Strategy; unreasonable court sentences; physical threats; and political, economic and legal pressure against journalists. Currently, three journalists live under 24-hour police protection.
The Independent Journalists´ Association of Serbia (NUNS), the Journalists´ Association of Serbia (UNS), the Independent Electronic Media Association (ANEM), the Independent Journalists´ Association of Vojvodina and the Local Press sent a joint letter to Serbia´s president, Boris Tadic. In the opening statement, the letter states: “This is not the reform that you have promised when coming to power. The situation is utterly alarming; however, the ruling coalition is procrastinating even with the adoption of the Media Development Strategy, despite the firm pledge, made more than a year ago, of its passing in agreement with us and the European Union…We know you are eagerly awaiting the decision from Brussels on the country’s candidacy for EU membership, but please note that at this moment Serbia is not offering any satisfactory answers to our questions, let alone European’s.”
The letter mentions several cases of grave concern. Belgrade-based daily Danas was recently fined 10 000 EUR for reproducing an article from another newspaper in 2006. The original story, published by the Belgrade dailies Kurir and Glas Javnosti, dealt with three policemen accused of beating their two colleagues and fabricating evidence. The policemen allegedly involved in the beatings sued all three newspapers. After five years of legal proceedings, the Appellation Court in Serbia ruled that Danas should pay the fine for all three newspapers as an act of solidarity.
SEEMO finds it inacceptable that one media is obliged to pay a fine for another. According to the media law expert, Slobodan Kamenjak, the court decision was not the result of an inadequate law, but of its wrong interpretation.
Furthermore, the pressure on media is particularly pronounced in small towns; local journalists are vulnerable to economic and political pressure. The economic crisis has exacerbated the already fragile economic basis of local media outlets, and municipal financing seems to be the last chance for their survival. In return, journalists are expected not to publish and/or broadcast critical stories. “Local press is on its deathbed, while financial situation of journalists is deplorable,” states the open letter and recalls that both in Belgrade and in the southern town of Loznica, three journalists live under the 24-hour police protection.
Two journalists from B92 Television- editor- in- chief Veran Matic and star investigative reporter Brankica Stankovic- are permanently protected. Stankovic has revealed several cases of high level corruption.
In Loznica, Vladimir Mitric, the local correspondent for Vecernje Novosti, was severely beaten by a policeman in 2005. He has been living with the round- the- clock police protection ever since. It took five years for the courts to sentence the perpetrator to a six month jail sentence. The mastermind has never been found. Although the court in Sabac has recently refused to pursue the investigation as to who ordered the beating, the police believe Mitric´s life is still under threat and keeps protecting him.
In Serbia, those who organize and order killings and assaults against journalists are usually not brought to justice. The masterminds behind the killings of Slavko Curuvija (1999) and Milan Pantic (2001) have not been found; nor has the death of Dada Vujasinovic (1994) been properly investigated. It was initially assumed that Vujasinovic had committed suicide. However, recent evidence appears to indicate that she was murdered.
The Serbian Journalists´ Association has recently published a long list of public promises related to the cases of murdered journalists. Starting 2001, politicians, ministers, public prosecutors and even President Boris Tadic have promised imminent detentions.
Supporting the demands stated in the public letter, Oliver Vujovic, SEEMO Secretary General, said:
“I urge Serbia´s authorities to comply with all their promises, i.e., draw a new and transparent media strategy, create a legal framework for transparent press ownership, respect media freedom and above all, bring to justice those responsible for killing, beating and threatening journalists. A free media is the basis of a democratic society.”