Serbia: Regional news portal under severe administrative pressure

On April 11th, Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS) sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabic, on the occasion of the pressure on the news portal “Juzne vesti” from Nis. We report the letter in full.

We call on you  to stand up for defence of journalistic and media freedoms and, in accordance with your role as the highest official of the Government of the Republic, take appropriate steps to stop the administrative pressures that endanger the survival of independent media in Serbia.

The pressure on the news portal “Juzne vesti” from Nis is the latest reason for our address. In the last five months, “Juzne vesti” editorial staff has been exposed to inexplicable tax inspections – the fifth time in the last five years – suggesting that it is actually a kind of pressure on the most read portal in the south of Serbia.

Employees in that media outlet are convinced that frequent controls that hinder their work significantly are motivated by the dissatisfaction of local authorities due to critical reporting of “Juzne vesti”. They believe that inspections are politically motivated controls ordered by people from the very top of the Nis City government.

“Juzne vesti” journalists, who won prestigious awards for investigative journalism, are facing serious problems continuously.  They are being threatened and lawsuits are frequent, while its editor-in-chief was followed and secretly filmed.  During public competition for co-financing the production of media content of public interest, local self-governments in southern Serbia regularly avoid “Juzne vesti” while pressure  is exerted on the companies that advertise on the portal.

The first time tax inspectors visited “Juzne vesti” was in 2013 – they reviewed the financial documentation for eight months.

During 2014 inspection checked media business twice:  the reason for the first inspection was to determine whether the editorial office used legal software, while during the second visit, the media outlet was required to explain its business relationship with some of the clients – companies that are business partners of the Simplicity software company,  the owner of the “Juzne vesti”.

In November 2017, a new control took place: two tax inspections arrived to go through the financial documentation of “Juzne vesti” at the same time. While previous inspections had rather specific orders and covered relatively short period, the last one included the period since “Juzne vesti” was established – 2009. The tax inspection is still on-going, after five months.

Formal reasons for all inspection visits are alleged anonymous reports to the Tax Authority.

It is important to highlight that, so far, the Tax Authority has never detected any problems in the business of this media outlet. This is an additional reason for doubts about the real motives of frequent, long, exhausting inspections. In addition, the tax inspection did not respond to “Juzne vesti” requests for information about whether the business of other media are being subjected to inspections in the same or similar way.

We remind you that the recent years saw several cases of media that critically reported about the functioning of the authorities subjected to the tax control in such unusual manner. We would also like to highlight that the abuse of tax authorities in order to deal with “unsuitable” media has become a new form of pressure – this was also recognised in the latest report by Freedom House.

You must be aware that the tax authorities controlled “Vranjske” weekly in early September 2017 and that the media outlet was later shut down due to the political and economic pressures by the local authorities. After its closure, it was officially announced that the tax inspection did not determine any irregularities in the business of that weekly.

“Kikindske” weekly also had problems with the tax administration that made a mistake and left the media outlet in the financial blockade for six months in 2015. The weekly couldn’t be published for three months, which was enough to lose some advertisers.

This year’s Freedom House report stated a downward trend of democracy in Serbia – among other reasons, due of attempts to weaken critical journalists by arbitrary tax investigations, denying advertising revenues and direct intimidation.

More information about the case:

Predrag Blagojevic, editor in chief of “Juzne vesti” told IJAS that on 10.04.2018 he received a new inspection warrant prolonging the control until 15.05.2018. The warrant stated two new inspectors. On the same day Blagojevic received information from “Juzne vesti” clients that they received inspection warrant and a day later the same information from 4 more clients. Each was allocated 2 inspectors.  Based on documentation he received, Blagojevic identified a minimum of 14 tax inspectors allocated to “Juzne vesti” case.

On the same day, Harlem Desir, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, met a group of journalists and representatives of media associations, including Predrag Blagojevic who briefed Mr Desir about the situation.

On 11.04.2018 IJAS published the open letter to Ana Brnabic.

Mr Desir held meetings with the Prime Minister Brnabic and President Vucic.

FoNet news agency published information that PM Brnabic cabinet told  them that Brnabic had spoken to the director of Tax Authority on Tuesday, 10.04.2018, about the controls in “Juzne vesti”.  It was highlighted that the control should end in the shortest period of time to avoid hindering the work of the media outlet, unless there are indications that it should be broadened.

Blagojevic states that there is no evidence that Brnabic reaction was initiated by Mr Desir meetings with PM Brnabic and President Vucic.
IJAS, Belgrade, 16/04/2018

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