Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Serbian government to stop supporting and instead publicly condemn attempts to intimidate N1, Serbia’s only major independent TV channel, whose journalists have been subjected to repeated, systematic defamatory attacks by the government and pro-government media in recent weeks.
The victims include Miodrag Sovilj, a young N1 reporter who is accused of sending President Aleksandar Vucic to hospital and who, as a result, is currently the target of an unprecedented explosion of public anger stirred up by the president’s allies and pro-government media.
While the president was opening a children’s park in Belgrade on 15 November, Sovilj is said to have upset him by repeatedly asking him questions about allegedly questionable purchases of state-manufactured arms, suggesting that corruption was involved. A few hours later, Vucic had to be hospitalized with cardiovascular problems.
Sovilj has been subjected to additional smear attempts since 18 November, when photos taken when he was student were stolen from his Myspace account and began circulating online. The Serbian tabloids have used them to portray him as an alcoholic and drug addict.
Affiliated to CNN, N1 has been the target of repeated criticism and sometimes open hostility from government politicians in a campaign designed to “prevent us from doing our work and gag us,” Sovijl told the investigative news website BIRN.
N1 programme director Jugoslav Cosic has also been the target of a smear campaign waged by pro-government media accusing him of being a “lobbyist in the pay of Kosovo” – the former Serbian province with an Albanian majority that proclaimed its independence in 2008 – on the grounds that he favoured accepting Kosovo’s independence.
RSF unequivocally condemns these defamation campaigns and attempts to smear journalists and calls on the Serbian government to publicly denounce the attacks instead of encouraging them.
“The sole aim of this campaign, which is based on statements and speculation that are discriminatory and offensive, is to intimidate and scare these journalists,” said Pauline Adès-Mevel, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.
“The Serbian president nonetheless told RSF during a meeting in January that he regretted the media’s polarization and undertook to change things with regard to defamation and insults in the media. He has a duty to create an environment that encourages the existence of impartial and critical investigative journalism.”
Recent weeks have seen unprecedented attempts to intimidate N1’s journalists. On 6 November, leaflets accusing N1’s programme director of being unpatriotic and sympathetic to Kosovo were thrown over the fence around its Belgrade headquarters at the very moment that it was broadcasting an interview with one of Kosovo’s candidates for prime minister, Albin Kurti.
Just over two weeks before that, two masked men got into the gardens around the N1 building and scattered hundreds of leaflets with the message "Goodbye Republic of Serbia. Welcome to Luxembourg" – apparently suggesting that N1’s journalists should move to Luxembourg,, where N1’s parent company has its headquarters.
In mid-October, an improvised installation near the entrance to the N1 building carried the same message. These intimidation attempts are always accompanied by attacks on social media. In response to the attacks, Serbia’s few independent journalists demonstrated outside government headquarters on 16 October in a show of support for N1.
The situation is increasingly worrying in Serbia, which has fallen steadily in RSF's World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 90th out of 180 countries.