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The Silent Crackdown on Serbian Media

(R), Olja_Bećković (L). Images mixed from wikimedia commons and  Vreme.com

Popular journalists Predrag Sarapa (L), Olja Bećković (R) recently had their political shows taken off-air in Serbia. Images mixed from Vreme and Media Center Belgrade.

The current and previous government in Serbia invested years into cleaning up the image of this Eastern European country that was known for decades as a hot spot for crime and war. Figureheads from across the political spectrum have sought to demonstrate their commitment to Serbia’s accession to the European Union. Publicly, they appear to want Serbia to become a truly free, democratic, and economically successful country. The reality, however, is different.

While most of Serbia's politicians appear committed to bettering the economy and quality of life in Serbia, their practices surrounding one of the most basic and necessary human rights in the country – the right to freedom of expression – are far from conducive to developing an open and prosperous society.

Pressure on independent media from ruling politicians has been mounting in recent months. Following a wave of critical reporting on government officials’ poor management of relief and rescue operations during massive floods in the region last spring, three long-standing and popular television shows were taken off the air. Journalists and editors routinely avoid reporting on these matters in media, with most living in daily fear of losing their livelihoods, which usually amount to a monthly net salary of between EU 250 and 300.

The media landscape in Serbia mirrors that of many other countries in the region. As in Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and other countries, media houses rely chiefly on advertising revenue to stay afloat, which is often connected to political parties and figures. In Serbia, this unofficial but powerful system has been exploited by various democratic coalitions that held power between 2003 and 2012.

Almost a year ago, in February 2014, there were already signs that popular talk shows that discuss politics and economy might be taken off the air. During the pre-election campaign ahead of the March 2014 early parliamentary elections, the pressure became more evident to the public and it finally began to affect the public directly, with some social media users being brought in for police questioning and sometimes detained for tweeting critically about the government. The Serbian Progressive Party won an absolute majority in government in the March 2014 elections.

In September and October 2014, three long-running television shows, which often discussed politics, economy, and society in the country, were taken off the air.

The first to go was popular talk show “Impression of the Week” (“Utisak nedelje”) created and hosted by journalist Olja Bećković, who had led the program for over 20 years, since the Milošević era. Ms. Bećković has begun openly speaking about receiving telephone calls from Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, pressuring her to change guests and topics on her show. In an interview with Al Jazeera Balkans, Ms. Bećković expressed regret for not speaking out about direct pressure from Vučić and his cabinet earlier and said, “Yes, he [Vučić] called me.”

The next to fall was “Sarapa's Problem”, led and hosted by popular journalist Predrag Sarapa on Belgrade's Studio B television. The description of the show on Studio B's official website describes the show as:

Emisija “Sarapin Problem” ima za cilj da aktuelizuje najuočljivije političke i društvene probleme, i to bez namere da ih rešava.[…] Cilj je upravo zbog toga da gosti različitog profila i opredeljenja ponude svoja rešenja.

The show “Sarapa's Problem” has as its goal to actualize the most obvious political and social issues, without any intention to solve them.[…] The goal is, specifically because of this, for guests of different backgrounds and [political] tendencies to offer their solutions.

Studio B and others related to the state-owned television claim that Mr. Sarapa's show, one of very few that discussed current political and social topics, was taken off the air due to poor ratings. Journalists and Belgrade residents gathered by the dozen the same day the show was taken off the air and later by the hundred to protest this decision, while social media and websites flooded with support for Mr. Sarapa's journalistic plight, which since has been ironically dubbed “Sarapa's new problem”. Sarapa has also been speaking out openly about the pressure placed on him and was quoted in a recent interview saying,

Censorship is no longer a relic of the past, it's the present that we must fight against.

The third to fall was another highly regarded investigative reporting show by the name of “Insider”. The show, hosted by prominent Serbian investigative journalist Brankica Stanković, who has seen more than her fair share of trouble over the years for reporting on organized crime and political corruption in the country, was apparently pushed into having to desist from airing the show. The independently produced show had a long-standing collaboration with one of the national networks when network executives insisted on new terms for renewal of their contract, including preparing the show's new season for airing over a month earlier than planned. As the show relies on investigative stories, the show's producers, journalists, and host said they could not meet the deadlines that the network insisted on and refused to produce a show of lesser quality.

In late October, just days after learning that her show no longer had a contract with Serbia's national B92 network, Brankica Stanković was awarded the prestigious Courage in Journalism Award by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) in New York. B92 network commended Ms. Stanković on the award and wrote about it, but offered no new terms for renewal of their contract with her and her team.

The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia and similar organizations have complained time and again against these actions, calling attention to the political pressure on Serbian journalists and demanding freedom of media and rule of law, but to no avail. Officials in Serbia seem to prefer to keep their voters entertained, rather than well informed about current political and social events.

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