The unacceptable state of Serbian journalism

The opening of the EFJ annual meeting in Belgrade on 15 June was an important occasion for Serbian journalists. Present, with security personnel in attendance and a host of national and local media, was Boris Tadic President of the Republic of Serbia. He first assumed office in 2004 as leader of the Democratic Party. He was elected President again in 2008 and believes in Serbia’s full integration with the European Union, but only if sovereignty over Kosovo is respected. Between 1980 and 1996 he was married to a journalist but they divorced. He subsequently married again. Before giving his welcoming address, in which he referred to his determination to ‘fight for free journalism’ and ‘a free media’, he listened to speeches from the heads of the three Serbian journalist unions/associations, the Journalists’ Union of Serbia; the Journalists’ Association of Serbia and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia. All three made critical comments about the state of journalism in the country, in contrast to the ‘smooth words’ of the President.

Dragana Cabarkapa, President of the Journalists’ Union of Serbia referred to the low pay of journalists (400 Euros per month in Belgrade – 250 elsewhere). He said that journalists in Serbia have been ‘impoverished, humiliated, terrified and silenced’. During this year alone more than 400 had lost their jobs and there was no real dialogue with the employers or the government, who ignore them. Vukasin Obradovic, President of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia highlighted the murder, attacks and threats to journalists (some of whom now have police protection) and the culture of impunity that exists, which result in few arrests of those responsible. Lyiljana Smajlovic President of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia kindly sent me a copy of her address which is set out below and also sets out all too clearly the state of journalism in Serbia.

‘Dear colleagues,

We learned the hard way in Serbia that press freedom must be vigorously fought for and vigilantly defended, with or without a Milosevic. If given the opportunity, even a democratically elected, pro-European government will do its best to manipulate and control the media.

Even as I speak, the Serbian Ministry of Defence is preparing to prosecute a journalist for publishing the contents of a leaked state document, a document disclosing that what the government is saying is diametrically opposed to the facts. To keep a public matter private, it was stamped “top secret.”

Yesterday’s announcement to prosecute the journalist ironically coincides with the very date that the New York Times published the historic Pentagon papers 40 years ago.

Moreover, the government is far from being the only threat to journalistic freedom in Serbia. We cheered the arrival of multinational media corporations ten years ago, only to find that they suck up to our government just as much as local tycoons, and frequently more so. Only last week, for instance, Ringier Axel Springer fired the chief editor of a high-circulation tabloid under false pretences, without giving the editor an opportunity to defend himself against spurious accusations. Journalists are being fired, right and left, with little regard to their legal rights.

We are finding out the hard way that we shall either hang together or hang separately. Two years ago, when our government hastily adopted a Draconian media law, we received prompt and invaluable support from the European Federation of Journalists.  It resonated publicly, lending credibility to our cause despite a government that remains extremely popular in Brussels and other Western capitals.

We deeply appreciate your support and depend on your solidarity in our struggle for labour rights and editorial independence. Our dreams and aspirations are the same as yours, even though our circumstances differ drastically.’

The presence of the EFJ in Belgrade was much appreciated by the three unions/associations, but it does not end there. This April the EFJ’s president, Arne Konig, wrote to President Tadic pressing the point of view shared by thousands of Serbian journalists that “press freedom in Serbia is still seriously compromised” and that the situation is “utterly unacceptable”. He added that this was one of the main reasons why the EFJ came to Belgrade for its annual general meeting. The EFJ intends to continue to press President Tadic on the state of press freedom and journalists’ rights in Serbia and will be writing to him again in the weeks after the meeting and in consultation with the journalists’ unions/associations. Reports will be made to the EFJ’s steering committee, the federation’s governing body and will no doubt be reported on the EFJ web site at: http://europe.ifj.org/en

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