Social networks in Serbia have been buzzing since early January when the country's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić took another public swing at already pressured investigative journalists in the country.
At a press conference on January 9, when asked about a recently published investigative piece indicating possible corruption and irregularities in a large government-funded project, Vučić called the investigative journalists “liars” and accused European Union officials of paying select journalists in Serbia to slander the Serbian government.
The investigative piece in question was produced and published by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) as part of a project titled “Strengthening of Media Freedom in Serbia” that was funded by the European Union and the National Endowment for Democracy (a fact noted in a disclaimer published with the article).
Both BIRN and a European Commission spokesperson have denied the prime minister's claims. EC spokesperson Maja Kocijanić reminded the public that “grantees have full editorial independence” and stated that “governments should in turn be ready to act on such criticism in a constructive and transparent fashion, rather than trying to stifle it.”
The piece pointed to possible evidence of corruption and several irregularities in the procurement and implementation of the state-funded project to pump out water and repair damage at one of the country's main energy sources, the Tamnava-West Field coal pit, after floods hit the Balkans in May 2014, damaging the mines enough to put them out of commission.
BIRN published the piece in the first days of January 2015, just days after Prime Minister Vučić held a high-profile inauguration of sorts at the re-opened Tamnava coal pit on December 26, 2014, calling it a successful recovery project, although the mine in question was reopened to work at only partial capacity and repairs are still underway.
In the press conference, Vučić went after BIRN's journalistic credibility:
“Jel’ to rekao BIRN? Aha, kažite to važno je da ljudi znaju ko su. To su ljudi koji su lagali oko Er Srbije. To su oni koji su dobili pare od gospodina Devenporta i Evropske unije da govore nešto protiv Vlade Srbije. E tim lažovima recite da su opet lagali! To je sve što imam da vam kažem
Did BIRN say that? Oh, then say it, it's important for people to know who it was. Those are the people that lied about Air Serbia. Those are the ones that got money from Mr. [Head of EU Delegation to Serbia Michael] Davenport and the European Union to say things against the government of Serbia. Well, tell those liars that they lied again! That's all I have to tell you
Only months earlier in August 2014, Vučić had questioned BIRN's intentions over an an unrelated investigation that included draft agreements between the Serbian government and the UAE's Etihad Airlines regarding the purchase of JAT Airways and joint formation of the new Serbian national carrier, Air Serbia. After BIRN's analysis of the drafts was published, Vučić made parts of the actual contracts public at a press conference and criticized the journalists for not having the right versions. BIRN maintains they contacted Vučić for response for months before publication, but were ignored.
Friends or enemies?
The core topic of the investigative report — possible corruption and irregularities in the process of procurement and implementation of repairs at the Tamnava mines — seems to have been placed on the back burner for now, and an online discussion regarding the prime minister's attitude toward EU officials and pressure tactics on media has taken center stage.
Internet users seem to be confused by the prime minister's accusation that EU officials are “against the government of Serbia”. Once a right-wing politician during his days as a member of the Serbian Radical Party, Vučić has since presented himself as a pro-EU leader who likes to emphasize the support that EU officials have shown for his government's reforms and actions as the country prepares to join the union.
A Serbian firefighter and EMT Dušan Zukić tweeted:
— Драгиша Зукић (@dragishaz) January 10, 2015
Another Twitter user from Serbia also raised the question:
Some users asked for Davenport's rebuttal, while others found the irony of the situation and ask that Davenport “keep funding” investigative journalism in the country:
— Vino i gitare (@SinTwi) January 10, 2015
BIRN and other journalists in Serbia have been targeted before by Vučić and his government. In response to the recent accusations, BIRN Director Gordana Igrić told Global Voices:
BIRN has always been transparent in regards to its work and financing, including sources of funding that Prime Minister Vučić's government also accepts funds from.
This is not an isolated incident, but a part of a longer campaign by this government against BIRN and investigative journalists throughout Serbia. BIRN will not be requesting any reaction from partner organizations or anyone else. We will just continue to do our jobs.
Spotlight on media freedom
The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia also condemned the prime minister's accusations. The association's official statement calls Vučić's statement “unacceptable for a democratic society and a state that, as Aleksandar Vučić himself often claims, wishes to become a part of the European Union.”
Small independent online media began republishing BIRN's investigation into the coal pit project after the prime minister's statement on the matter. Independent news site Južne Vesti (Southern News) was one of those who printed a portion of the extensive BIRN article, titled “Pumping out the pit and the budget”. The site explained in a disclaimer under the headline that while it normally only publishes topics directly related to the south, “the general censorship of media in Serbia compels us to use extraordinary measures.”
Mainstream media in the country initially did not report on BIRN's investigation, but in the days and weeks after Vučić's statements, pro-government outlets accused the organization of everything from “espionage” and “inciting revolution” to insinuations of sexual consorting with foreign officials in the country. BIRN has since begun keeping record of the public attacks in a “Chronology of attacks on BIRN” timeline.
Online news and opinion site E-novine lobbed a series of sexist and insulting remarks at BIRN Director Gordana Igrić, calling her a “pole-dancer” for Head of EU Delegation Michael Davenport. A January 27 E-novine article focused entirely on Igrić, titled “The English Patient”, describes the BIRN director as a flirty bottle blonde willing to do almost anything for money and avoids the topic of BIRN's investigative report entirely. The article, with no author signed to the piece, begins by saying:
Ako se neko usudi da piše o Balkanskoj istraživačkoj mreži palanačkih intriga pod moćnom zaštitom Delegacije EU u Srbiji, onda su to, po Devenportovim evroskeptičnim kriterijumima, napadi na BIRN koji eskaliraju do ataka na direktorku i urednicu Gordanu Igrić. Kada, međutim, istraživačice u mrežastim čarapama pišu o drugima, onda je to istraživačko novinarstvo nepismenih novinara koje zavređuje stotinak hiljada evra godišnje.
If anyone dares write about Balkan Investigative Network of Peasant Intrigues under the powerful protection of the EU Delegation in Serbia, then they are, according to Davenport's Euro-skeptical criteria, attacks on BIRN that escalate to attacks on Director and Editor Gordana Igrić. When, however, investigative journalists in webbed stockings write about others, then it is the investigative journalism of illiterate journalists that deserves some one hundred thousand euros per year [in financing].
E-novine is led by editor-in-chief Petar Luković, who was once lauded for his journalistic pieces criticizing Slobodan Milošević‘s authoritarian regime, but who has since taken a much different stance.
Readers and social media users in Serbia, having had very little access to the BIRN investigative piece that started this media war, have been confused from day one as to what the issue is in the first place. Miloš Subotić, a lawyer from Kosovska Mitrovica, in reference to both Vučić's statement and the lack of support for BIRN and CINS in Serbian mainstream media, said on Twitter:
— Milos Subotic (@miki028s) January 10, 2015
— Milos Subotic (@miki028s) January 10, 2015