Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić has put on a stellar performance for the international media as the firm, strategic but fair leader that the country has lacked in the past three decades of political twists and turmoil.
Since his appointment to the position after the March 2014 elections, he has made headlines for his promises of much needed reforms in the small but hopeful emerging southeast European market, his meetings with top EU officials, and his handling of relief efforts during and after tragic flooding in the region.
What hasn't made as many headlines, however, is Vučić's past as an inward-looking adversary of the media. He says he has learned from those “political mistakes,” but for the country’s media and journalists, new Vučić is starting to sound a lot like old Vučić.
Serbian authorities have taken down websites that are critical of Vučić's government, such as independent news and commentary site Peščanik. Other media outlets have received warnings about their coverage. Social media users and bloggers have been questioned by police.
A wider audience might have caught on that all is not well with freedom of expression in Serbia when Representative for Media Freedom for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Dunja Mijatović recently expressed her office's concern about the country's trend of online censorship. Vučić demanded a public apology, and the story was picked up by many mainstream media outlets worldwide.
Mijatović and Vučić had a meeting to discuss the subject later, but no concrete resolution was conveyed to the public, other than a similar statement from both ends that the talks were “productive”. In the eyes of the general public – a small but clear public relations victory for Vučić.
A troubling history
Those who live and work in Serbia, in particular in the media industry, know only too well how the current Prime Minister has handled such situations in the past. Aside from his political history – Vučić was a member of the Serbian Radical Party and long-time close associate of accused war criminal Vojislav Šešelj before founding and presiding over his current political party, the Serbian Progressive Party – he has had a long and troubling history with media and journalists in the country.
In 1998, during the government of Mirko Marjanović under the strong-hold regime of Slobodan Milošević, a much younger and less politically correct Aleksandar Vučić was appointed minister of information. At the time, the country was in turmoil. From late March until early June 1999, Serbia was bombed by NATO forces in response to ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians during the war in Kosovo. A state of emergency presided over Serbia, making it all to easy to silence media critics under the guise of protecting the nation and its people.
Vučić's term as minister ended abruptly with the September 2000 election, the results of which led to the now historic October 5th Revolution in Serbia, ultimately overthrowing Milošević's regime.
Although he only held the position for two years, Vučić made the most of the time. He implemented larger fines up to several hundreds of thousands of dollars for media outlets and journalists who criticized the government and politicians in office.
Vučić was also the author of a new Law on Information that gave the government arbitrary power to decide what media statements qualified as endangerment of government and national security, as well as almost absolute power in deciding to shut down any medium that did not meet the law's vague requirements. It also included an outright ban on foreign television networks in the country.
The law, which many called Draconian, was passed by Parliament with only brief discussion.
When asked about it at the time, then Minister Vučić claimed there was no such thing as independent media in Serbia. A 1998 article from Serbian weekly NIN, available in their online archive, offers a quote from his statement:
S druge strane, Zakon stiti, kaze Vucic, teritorijalnu celovitost i integritet zemlje. “To sto se Madlen Olbrajt toliko sekira zbog naseg Zakona ili sto se on ne svidja Holbrukovoj zeni znaci da nam je Zakon veoma dobar.” […]
Posle donosenja novog Zakona o informisanju, veli Vucic, tzv. nezavisni mediji od sebe namerno prave zrtvu, jer “nezavisni mediji zapravo ne postoje, to je samo jedna politicka floskula koja bi trebalo da pokaze da su ti mediji nesto bolji i objektivniji od medija koji podrzavaju politiku vlade ove zemlje ili nacionalne interese ovog naroda”.
On the other hand, the law protects, says Vučić, the territorial entity and integrity of the country. “Just because Madeleine Albright worries so much because of our law or because [Richard] Holbrook's wife doesn't like it doesn't mean our law isn't very good.” […]
After the new Law on Information was passed, Vučić claims, the so-called independent media have been purposely making victims of themselves because “independent media doesn't actually exist, it's just a political speech ornament that is supposed to indicate that those outlets are better and more objective than the outlets that support the politics of the government of this country or the national interests of this people”.
Journalists and Internet users in the crosshairs
Although the law was short-lived, it was highly damaging. Under Minister of Information Vučić, journalists and media outlets endured steep financial penalties, smear campaigns and even jail time for their reporting.
An article from online news magazine Preko Ramena tried to remind readers of this ahead of the second round of presidential elections in 2012, in which the Progressive Party's candidate Tomislav Nikolić was eventually elected over Democratic Party incumbent Boris Tadić. In the article, titled “The Nation With the Shortest Memory in the World”, author Marija Dukić reminisced:
Prema podacima Gordane Suše, koja je bila na čelu NUNS-a u vreme kad je Vučić bio ministar, vrednost kazni na koje su po hitnom postupku bili osuđeni Dnevni telegraf, Evropljanin, Danas, Glas javnosti, Blic, Studio B i mnogi drugi mediji, prelazi milion tadašnjih nemačkih maraka. U to vreme novinar Slavko Čuruvija je ubijen, pet novinara je osuđeno na zatvorske kazne, a oko 250 ih je bilo pozivano na informativne razgovore. Nekoliko dana pre Ćuruvijinog ubistva u dnevnom listu Politika ekspres on je optužen za „priželjkivanje bombi i izdaju”. Ništa sofisticiranije reči nisu koristili ni radikali, pa i Vučić, u skupštinskim nastupima na temu opozicionih novinara. Ova gebelsovska tehnika već neko vreme koristi se za stvaranje atmosfere u kojoj je lako ukloniti protivnike bez prevelikih empatija javnosti.
According to information from Gordana Suša, who was head of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, while Vučić was minister the value of fines issued through emergency procedures for Dnevni Telegraf [Daily Telegraph], Evroplajnin [The European], Danas [Today], Glas Javnosti [Voice of the Public], Blic [Blitz], Studio B and many other outlets surpassed one million Deutsche Marks at the time. During that period, journalist Slavko Ćuruvija was assassinated, five journalists sentenced to prison terms, and approximately 250 of them brought in for police questioning. A few days before Ćuruvija's murder, he was accused of “wishing for bombs and treason” by [government-run] daily Politika Express. No more sophisticated were the words used by the Radicals, including Vučić, in their parliamentary discussions on the subject of opposition journalists. This Goebbels-esque technique has been used for some time to create an atmosphere in which opponents are easily removed, without too much empathy from the public.
Vučić seems to be reviving his late-90s approach to the Serbian media in 2014. A key difference, however, is the addition of the Internet.
During his term as minister, Internet providers were just beginning to enter the market in Serbia and the region, so it could easily be disregarded as no threat to the government's tight grip on any independent public critique. But today, the Internet, blogs and social networks in particular are a massive, infected thorn in the side of his image as a reformed, open, pro-European and politically correct leader.
As many communications professionals have pointed out, one of Milošević's biggest mistakes and perhaps a pillar in his downfall was his view of the Internet as another source of cheap entertainment to keep the dissatisfied people of Serbia amused and content.
His collaborator and now Prime Minister Vučić seems to still refuse to understand the role that the World Wide Web has in modern democratic societies. He has made several relatively botched attempts to silence Internet users and online media in the country, from shutting down satirical YouTube videos during his pre-election campaign, to taking down websites critical of his government. The YouTube videos and articles on these websites, however, only seem to multiply and gain popularity when they are abruptly taken down by the Progressive Party's digital communications team.
A battle for free expression
Since he abandoned the very nationalistic Serbian Radical Party, Vučić has presented himself as a pro-EU, understanding and contemporary reformist that many have said Serbia requires to complete its already long road to (re)joining the European family.
The devastating floods in the region, however, have put a stain on that carefully crafted reputation. During and in the aftermath of the flooding, many have openly called out Vučić and his government on their ineptitude in getting aid to the areas of the country that needed it.
The response of Vučić's government, unexpected in a democratic nation in the year 2014, was to issue warnings to media outlets that were critical of the government's rescue efforts, shut down websites, and bring in social media users and bloggers for police questioning. These have now become regular occurrences in Serbia and many are wondering what will come next.
As rains continue to fall only a month after the floods that left over a third of the country's cities and towns in ruins, a battle from freedom of expression between media and the government of Serbia hangs in the air.