Following the latest attack by a pro-government tabloid on BIRN and other independent media, a number of Serbian journalists have suggested that the real aim is to pressure donors to stop backing the free media.
by Milivoje Pantovic, BIRN, Belgrade
After the pro-government Serbian tabloid Informer again attacked BIRN project coordinator Slobodan Georgiev – calling him one of those “paid by the EU” to cause “chaos” in Serbia – journalists say such attacks are probably intended to pressurize donors to stop financing them.
They believe the Serbian government and media close to the government want to cut outside funding for the independent media since they are aware that – without funding from the EU and other donors – they might close, leaving the government without real supervision.
“They want funding from the EU and other donors to the independent media to stop so the government can silence the free media, not through repressive laws but through a lack of funding,” Nedim Sejdinovic, president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, told BIRN.
He added that such attacks on the independent media are also aimed at sending a broad message that criticism and monitoring of the government’s work are risky and unacceptable.
Nebojsa Stefanovic, Serbian interior minister, already stated that the government had intended to pose a question regarding the EU financing of Serbian media to the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn.
“I would like to hear answers related to that, I think that it is impossible that the EU is funding some media outlets, institutions that are distributing lies, such as the story on Tamnava [mine], which was published by BIRN,” he told Serbia’s public broadcaster RTS on September 8.
On September 10, Informer published an article accusing Georgiev of being paid by the EU to smear Serbia. The paper also quoted Zoran Babic, a senior official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, as calling on “the competent judicial and medical authorities to react” to such actions.
The same day, Dragan Vucicevic, Informer’s editor-in-chief, told TV Pink that Georgiev, Sejdinovic and others were being paid to “create chaos” in Serbia.
“There are no plans, there are no real projects that aim to protect human rights, promote democracy … It is only about creating chaos in Serbia,” Vucicevic said.
Georgiev himself also believes the government is pushing to cut EU funding for the independent media.
“Without funding from the EU and other donors, the free media would die out in Serbia; the current situation when it come to a free press is already dramatic,” he said.
Stevan Dojcinovic, editor-in-chief of the Network for Investigating Crime and Corruption, KRIK, said he feared the government could indeed persuade the EU to stop funding independent media in Serbia.
“It doesn’t look like persuading the EU to stop funding would be ‘mission impossible’ for the ruling party,” Dojcinovic said.
He also accused the tabloids and government officials of using inflammatory and irresponsible language about independent journalists.
“The overall situation that is created in society by the tabloids and ruling politicians is such that I would not be surprised if some hothead reacted independently and hurts investigative journalists,” he concluded.
Babic and Vucicevic did not respond to BIRN’s calls for a comment on these claims. In August, Georgiev won a lawsuit in the First Belgrade Court against Informer and its editor-in-chief for slander.
Georgiev has been under attack from Informer for over a year, accusing him of treason. Comments on its website have called for him to be lynched or exiled.
“I don’t feel safe since there are these threats on social media and ‘regular media’ and I’m just waiting for the moment when someone crosses the line and hurts me,” Georgiev said.
He added that it was indicative that the threats and accusations always restarted when new investigations were published.
“When we publish some investigation about corruption in the government or some other abuse of power, the pro-government tabloids come up with accusations of treason or stealing, and so the public eye is diverted from the real problems,” Georgiev said.
Sejdinovic, who is also under regular attack from pro-government tabloids, also said he does not feel safe anymore.
“It has become “normal” for people to threaten me and my colleagues on the social media. There is no reaction from the state [to the threats],” he said.
The Independent Association of Journalists in Serbia, NUNS, stated on Monday that it had notified the Special Public Prosecution for high-tech crime about the threats that are being sent on social networks to Sejdinovic, Georgiev and others.
“NUNS has given the prosecution evidence from which it can be seen that, besides the slurs, there are calls for the lynching of Sejdinovic and Georgiev,” a statement from NUNS published on its website said.
“We expect a fast response from the prosecution on this matter, as it was when a similar situation occurred with threats to politicians,” it added.
NUNS also warned Informer that, though its writings and its accusations, it was putting the physical security of journalists in jeopardy.