Censorship in serbia: the stodginess of mr. Vucic

In Serbia, websites are attacked, blogs are blocked and bloggers are arrested. Those affected were probably reporting too critically about the government.

Here, only the handshake between Putin and Vucic is censored. Picture: Reuters

Everything seems fine in Serbia. The country started accession negotiations with the EU in January, Belgrade is praised in the West for its Kosovo policy, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is given a statesmanlike welcome as a partner in Vienna, Paris and Berlin.

During his visit to Germany at the end of June, he even had a sublime hour in private with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Yes, the economic situation in Serbia is difficult, but Vucic asserts his desire for reform, and the EU wants to help him.

He is forgiven for having made a name for himself as a warmonger in the 1990s – as long as he delivers regional peace policies, the minor blemishes of his domestic power politics are tolerated: that there is almost no opposition left in Serbia, that the tabloid press is harnessed like a hammer of the government, committing character assassination of opponents of the regime, that there are hardly any media critical of the regime, that Vucic places himself above state institutions.

"In the narrow sense of the term, there is no censorship in Serbia," says well-known journalist Jovana Gligorijevic. But freedom of speech is very much under threat, she says, with websites recently blocked, blogs removed and bloggers arrested.

"There is no evidence that the regime is behind this, but in all cases it was content critical of the regime," Gligorijevic says. On the other hand, one cannot read any articles critical of the regime in the daily press; there are just two critical TV formats, one of which is satirical.

Journalists’ associations warn that the difficult economic situation of the media threatens media freedom. Large companies do not want to make themselves unpopular with political rulers so as not to jeopardize their business – and so regime-critical media do not get the advertisements on which they depend financially.

Mud in every sense of the word

"This leads to auto-censorship," says Gligorijevic, journalists fear for their material existence. Thus, the huge floods in Serbia in the spring did not only bring mud to light. Any criticism of the government during the state of emergency was seen as an attack against Vucic – and thus against the entire state.

Some critical portals were blocked, bloggers arrested. But when the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, wrote to the Serbian head of government drawing his attention to the "suppression of the media," things got really heated.

Not he, but "many representatives of the international community, foreign ambassadors and the OSCE are putting pressure on the (Serbian) media," Vucic countered. They are all waging a campaign against him, he said, "because Serbia does not want to impose sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis." All this about suppressing the media is nonsense, he said. He would never have heard of these portals being blocked. "You will not shut me up because I am telling the truth and you are lying," Vucic said angrily, demanding an apology from the OSCE.

Fairy tale of the evil West

Paula Tide, the OSCE’s deputy chief in Serbia, declined to apologize. According to Tide, the Serbian parliament should soon pass important media legislation, and then we would soon see whether the situation of the media was improving. So far, however, nothing has happened. However, the EU Representative in Belgrade, Michael Davenport, and U.S. Ambassador Michael Kirby backed the OSCE mission in Serbia.

The tabloid press devoted to Aleksandar Vucic then wrote of a "European blow against Serbia," of the "Ukrainian ultimatum." Even in the affair surrounding Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic – his dissertation is said to be plagiarized – they sensed "a message from the West to Vucic that he could be replaced at any time." The epilogue: nothing. The media have been muzzled, and the opposition has been silenced.