Serbian Groups Stage Blackout to Protest Media Intimidation By Tax Authority

Screen shot of the Twitter profile of Vukašin Obradović, owner and editor of Novine Vranjske, featuring a header photo from September 18 “I stand with Vranjske” protest featuring the hashtag.

More than one hundred media outlets and NGO websites staged a website blackout on September 28, in an act of resistance against media control and intimidation in the country.

The blackout is the latest in a series of events following the September 18 closure of Novine Vranjske (“Vranje Newspaper”), an independent weekly magazine that covered Southern Serbia for 23 years.

Vranjske owner and editor-in-chief Vukašin Obradović explained that the newspaper was forced to close down due to administrative harassment and other forms of state pressure, particularly from Serbia's Tax Authority. In a statement about the closure, the European Federation of Journalists noted:

[Obradović], his family and his colleagues experienced multiple non-investigated instances of harassment and persecution, ranging from repeated direct threats, car tampering, offices robbed, to inspections and controls leading to the economic suffocation of the newspaper, peaking this year.

On the morning of September 19 Obradović locked himself in the newsroom and began a hunger strike. He was hospitalized the next night for health reasons, but then left the hospital on September 20 of his own accord. He soon after published an open letter to the director of the Tax Authority asking for clarification of the closure, citing evidence that the newspaper had paid all its taxes, which came in the form of a state-issued certificate. He noted that his firm had been subjected to selective justice since 1994, including inspections by Tax Authority and Bureau of Labor, with malicious intent to compromise them. The agency has not responded thus far.

Using the hashtag #StojimUzVranjske, meaning “I stand with Vranjske,” journalists and other free speech advocates staged protests in person in Belgrade on September 18, and online. Two print newspapers also expressed solidarity with Vranjske.

Behind a black front page, Danas daily republished a selection of the investigative articles from Vranjske which made it a target of the regime. Vreme featured the hashtag and provided an overview of media freedom issues.

I am buying only those newspapers that stress that they stand with Vranjske: Danas daily and Vreme weekly.

Some leading journalist organizations also joined the protest movement, including Balkan Insight, one of the few independent media outlets that produces news from Serbia in English.

Even though the number of websites participating in the blackout action might seem large at first glance, this is just a small portion of the overall number of around two thousand media outlets in Serbia. Most of them keep silent or are openly complacent towards ruling party propaganda.

Even though over 1800 media outlets are registered in Serbia, the media situation had never been darker. There are much more propagandists than journalists. #IStandWithVranjske #Upitnik [a TV show which dared to conduct an interview with Obradović]

It is an open secret that authorities misuse Serbia's tax authority as a tool for punishing disobedient media.

Independent weekly Vreme (“Time”) noted in its September 28 issue that Kikindske novine (“Kikinda Newspaper”) had laid dormant for three months in 2015, and was blocked for six months due to a reported error of Tax Authority.

According to Vreme, the Tax Authority has failed to respond to journalist inquiries whether it conducts similar controls in pro-government media companies such as Politika and Informer. Both of them had recently published libelous ‘dossiers’ by a secretive organization called Antidot – New Media Network Western Balkans. The dossiers portrayed leading local investigative journalism organizations such as BIRN, CINS and KRIK as producers of “para-media contents” and foreign mercenaries used by the US to “topple Balkan governments.”

Antidot was formerly owned by the lawyer of Stanko Subotić, a well-networked businessman convicted for organized crime perpetrated during the reign of Slobodan Milošević. After the newspaper Blic revealed this connection in April 2015, the Antidot portal changed ownership in attempt to “cover up its tracks.”

Vreme also reported that the bank account of publisher Adria Media Group was also blocked after its tabloid Kurir (“Courier”) started criticizing the regime of President and former PM Aleksandar Vučić, even though their tax debt was confirmed to be zero dinars. “AMG claims that in less than three months they received over 60 tax controls, however the Tax Authority has not issued any public information about the case,” noted the expose.

On the other hand, regime-friendly media companies such as Pink TV suffered no consequences when dealing with the Tax Authority, in spite of owing hundreds of millions of dinars to the state in unpaid taxes.

In 2016, the Center of Investigative Journalism (CINS) discovered that Pink received over 7 million euros in state loans, despite its debts, which legally render the company ineligible for loans.

Hashtag translations: #StopMediaDarkness #ForMediaFreedom #IStandWithVranjske

Media freedoms have been deteriorating in Serbia in recent years, under the rule of the populist regime headed by President Aleksandar Vučić, who served as Minister of Information in the Milošević's governmet, and who styles himself as a pro-European reformer. His party, the Serbian Progressive Party is a member of the European People's Party (EPP).

The methods of the Serbian Progressive Party echo the practices used in neighboring countries ruled by EPP member parties. For example, Macedonia's former ruling party (voted out in 2017) also used proxy propaganda groups misrepresenting themselves as think-tanks and civic actions to produce libelous dossiers. These were similar to Antidot's efforts to target activists and journalists, and state institutions for administrative harassment of independent NGOs and media, as well as impunity for criminal activities against them.

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