Media Freedom in Serbia

Serbia’s European course is no longer a matter of internal debate – all major political factions have committed to the project. Now that accession talks with the European Union have officially been launched, the country’s task to implement the necessary and already initiated reforms in one of the key areas – media freedom – seems ever more urgent. Not outright attacks against journalists but lingering soft-censorship is the most pressing obstacle for media freedom in the Balkan country.

Serbia’s 66th place of 180 countries in the 2017 Reporter’s Without Borders (RWB) press freedom ranking increases optimism as Romania was ranked 67th in 2015. Therefore, Serbia is ranked before Bosnia and Herzegovina (65), Macedonia (111) and Bulgaria (109). Freedom House, another press freedom watchdog, rates the country’s media landscape as "partly free" and ranks it 45th out of 100 countries.

These concerns are mostly unrelated to the legal framework for freedom of speech and press. Serbia’s constitution and specific laws protect media freedom to a satisfactory extent and are in line with European and international standards. Persistent problems rather relate to the concrete implementation of the laws, the courts’ handling of media cases, or, to a lesser extent, to conflicting laws. The Capital City Law is, for instance, directly at odds with the Public Information Law, as it allows the city of Belgrade to own media outlets, whereas the latter forbids this. As for the courts, the IREX Media Sustainability Reports 2013 and 2014 paint a bleak picture of a judiciary system succumbing to strong political pressure and influence. Although some journalists apparently enjoy police protection, the majority of journalists do not feel adequately protected by the existing legal framework, as it is enforced by judges who frequently, willingly or unwillingly, misinterpret laws protecting free expression in favour of a higher national interest, driving journalists into a practice of self-censorship of sensitive topics. For 2016, the 2017 IREX report draws a rather grim picture: "in the last 24 months, around 50 serious independent analyses of different aspects of the Serbian media sector were prepared; all point to an unsustainable media situation." Many analysers even would consider it to be the worst year for media in Serbia.

Although libel was decriminalised in 2012, several other offences remained untouched by the criminal code reforms. Therefore, many journalists still face criminal prosecution for the same or similar offences under the disguise of, for instance, insult. According to the 2014 IREX report the recent practice after the amendments has proved that "conditions for misapplication of the law" are "ripe" and the number of court cases remains high, discouraging critical reporting of political and business interests.

The Serbian law on access to public information is very strong in theory, heading an international ranking measuring the quality of legal provisions for information access in 95 countries. There are, however, deficiencies in the application of the law and authorities many a time refuse requests for information coming from normal citizens and journalists alike. The commissioner for public information has often been successful in assisting the public to realise their right to information, but resistance by the authorities remains strong.

One of the biggest challenges, also related to a failure of the legal framework to protect vulnerable journalists, is the practice of physical attacks and threats against media representatives, especially those investigating sensitive issues. The problem lies in the way authorities respond to such instances, namely with relative ignorance. The 2017 IREX describes how investigative reporters are tried to be muzzled: "Serbian authorities use different tactics to silence investigative reporters and media critical of the government, for example unleashing tabloids they control to malign media outlets and individual journalists." Additionally, Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSZE) expressed concern about a series of death threats and other intimidation directed at journalists.

Although the failure to apply the legal standards for media freedom in the country is clearly a problem, the biggest threat in the eyes of many observers is the subtle "soft censorship" prevalent in the highly politicised Serbian media environment. A recent report titled "Soft Censorship: Strangling Serbia’s Media" prepared by the French-based World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers elaborates on the worrying trend. According to the study, soft censorship relates to the mechanisms of state funding of media outlets indirectly used to promote positive coverage of officials and their actions and to punish those that criticise them. Media subsidies and advertising placements are examples of how such political power translates into power over media content. A weak and poorly functioning regulatory body for broadcast media aggravates the possibilities for influence taking. Media managers are frequently elected according to political lines. The Serbian media market being as resource deprived as it is, most outlets and journalists succumb to the pressures.

Media freedom in Serbia thus critically depends on the political will to limit this subtle and soft type of censorship. The official media strategy has not been realised so far and media experts can only hope that further advancements of Serbia’s European aspirations can give the long awaited impetus for pushing media freedom on the country’s agenda.

Lina Rusch, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2016 adjusted by Rebecca Kittel, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2017 adjusted by Lena von Holt, KAS Media Program South East Europe