Media in Serbia are surely not in the same position of those surviving under authoritarian regimes, but since the latest elections the situation has seriously worsened
The US Ambassador to Belgrade, Michael Kirby, believes that freedom of the media in Serbia is not what it should be, but it is also 'not as bad as many would say'. His position is diametrically opposite to the opposition's, according to whom the government has literally “occupied” the media. Of course, among the ranks of the government, the Ambassador's statement is used to shut up the critics, also those in the non-governmental side, ever more persistent in drawing attention to the restrictions to the freedom of the media.
As always, truth is not so linear. The status of the Serbian media is surely not comparable to the one of the media surviving under the most authoritative regimes around the world, but it surely is not tolerable or praiseworthy.
For years, now, the situation has not been rosy, but it has seriously worsened since the 2012 elections. The new power has even “innovated” the traditional mechanisms of influencing the media, attempting at controlling the internet as well. If truth be told, this it not leading to positive results and is somewhat bothersome for the public opinion.
The most recent example is the attempt at blocking a satirical video inspired by footage of Serbian deputy prime minister and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) Aleksandar Vučić, saving a young boy from a line of cars stuck in a snowstorm near Feketić, in Vojvodina. Television channels showed the pictures praising Vučić's gesture. The video, on the other hand, depicted the 'heroic gesture' as comical and it immediately flooded the social media and most websites.
The SNS tried to stop the spreading of this satirical video but was unsuccessful: finally, the same Vučić posted it on his Facebook profile, stating his approval. After this, no one tried blocking the video, and the media followed with a campaign that underlined Vučić's readiness for sacrifice, and all of those who had criticized him were accused of being petty politicians and of complaining while comfortably sitting on their sofas.
The attempt at censoring the satirical video is a clear indicator of how government parties and other power bases in Serbia exercise control over the media. What the author of the video was aiming at was to show that Vučić's gesture in Feketić made no sense at all, and that he was only exploiting it for his electoral campaign. On the other hand, the main objective of the SNS was that of presenting Vučić's gesture as extraordinary.
In the so called traditional media, fatigued by long years of crisis, there is mild resistance to the influence of those in power. Indeed, no one even tried to insinuate doubts about Vučić's gesture, but only reported his critiques to his political opponents, as well as the statements from various government officials that presented his action of rescuing the child as heroic. Thus, a slice of the population - mainly the one who reads tabloids and watches television - is still convinced that Vučić personally intervened to save people from the snowstorm.
The issue, however, was widely tackled on social networks and blogs, where Vučić was harshly criticized. Considering that Serbia has about a million profiles on social networks, it seems clear that this slice of the public is nothing short of having an impact. This makes Vučić's general headquarters somewhat edgy: the failed attempt at censorship of the video showed that this type of contents is not so easy to control as the classic media and their websites may be.
The rescue in the snowstorm is only the latest in a series of attempts at influencing the media. It is an open secret, for instance, that last December Vučić married again, but the news was only given by a few web portals and social networks. It was natural to expect it to make the headlines on all the tabloids. However, they remained totally silent, even though some people speculated that they actually had the pictures of Vučić's wedding.
The tabloids are of high importance on the Serbian media scene and they almost daily report information – or pseudo-information – on the private lives of the opposition's politicians. It is highly unlikely, of course, that they dismissed the news of Vučić's wedding as so insignificant as to not publish it. One is thus lead to believe that they did so on request of someone.
Tabloids in Serbia work as an infantry at the services of those in power. Government officials are rarely their target, whilst almost every day the representatives of the opposition are given banner titles such as 'Thief', 'Impostor' and the like. Sometimes the tabloids attack the government's representatives, but these are usually people who all of a sudden no longer suit the SNS and who deserve some sort of a public message.
That is what happened to the former Minister for the Economy, Saša Radulović, who very recently resigned. He was involved in a clash with the government because it did not pass a number of his important laws for the reform of the Serbian economy. Soon after he resigned, the tabloids started 'reporting' how he was an undependable man and a thief. They also tried to make him look like he was violent with his family, but the 'action' was promptly blocked, probably because even someone at the top thought it went overboard.
Tabloids, defined as the main platform of political confrontation, were not invented by the present government. The strategy relating to their use was developed by the Democratic Party (DS) when it was in office. The government lead by the SNS has made this its own and made it even more aggressive. The influence over the tabloids is, of course, carried out through the advertising market. This too is a legacy of the previous DS government.
The tabloids are very rarely subject to attacks by government officials, while accusations from the ranks of the opposition and reporters' associations are often ignored. Unnerved by the arbitrary writing of the tabloid Kurir, last week the leader of the Nova stranka party, Zoran Živković, tore a copy into pieces in public. This was followed by a campaign from the tabloids, who accused him of exercising an unprecedented pressure on the media. This way, the tabloids try to build a common front against everyone attempting to oppose their half truths or, at times, lies.
Reactions from journalists' associations have been many and diverse. The Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS) and the Independent Association of Vojvodina Journalists have remained silent, believing that Živković's gesture did not hurt anyone, as they believe Nova stranka is a small opposition party, who does not have the tools to exercise significant influence over the media, and their leader is often a victim of media campaigns.
The Journalists Association of Serbia (UNS), operating under this name during Slobodan Milošević's regime and closely collaborating with it, has condemned Živković's behavior. This way, it indirectly supports the leading government for which the tabloids, even more now that the electoral campaign is under way, play a vital role.
This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page: Safety Net for European Journalists.A Transnational Support Network for Media Freedom in Italy and South-east Europe.
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