“I don’t know anybody who votes for Vucic, but he stills wins every election convincingly.” This is a common comment among the liberal intelligentsia in Serbia, but also amongst the young generation unburdened by the past, grown up in seductive postmodern forests of social networks. It is an observation that speaks a lot about the clientelist nature of the regime, the effect of social media echo chambers on the internet, but most importantly — about parallel “realities” in which the citizens of Serbia live.
The fifth year of the domination of Vucic and the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is mostly founded on occupying not just the political and social spaces but also the media, which is exclusively used for creating a rosy picture of Serbia whose wise, courageous, and above all proud leader is leading it towards a bright future.
Factor of stability
Aleksandar Vucic, Slobodan Milosevic’s minister of information as well as a former prominent member of Vojislav Seselj’s chauvinist Serbian Progressive Party, during whose mandate journalist Slavko Curuvija was murdered, is obsessed with the media.
The extent of this obsession was expressed by a recent “artistic” exhibition Vucic organized called “Uncensored Lies,” built from negative clippings of the limited and hardly influential Serbian printed media, in order to “show” that there is no censorship in Serbia.
Vucic, who European officials refer to as “a factor of peace and stability in the Balkans,” has introduced a state of permanent election campaign in which hordes of poorly paid journalists make daily visits to pseudo-events and regular extraordinary press conferences, during which they are sprinkled with a bucket of cranked-up statistical data and treated with rhetorical escapades and misuse of thesis.
The same discourse dominates national television, due to which older citizens, who make up most of Serbia’s population and represent the most faithful television audience, are repeatedly forced to watch the melodrama in which super-hero Aleksandar Vucic conducts internal dialogues with himself and against everybody else.
In effect, Vucic and co. have congested the media space so much that citizens who are not involved on the internet are not only not conscious that certain political affairs exist, but are also unaware of the opposition and different political views.
No money, no journalism
Slobodan Georgiev is a journalist and editor at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) who has often come under attack from pro-government tabloids and received death threats due to both articles he has published and critical commentary made on social networks. He believes that the current president views the media as “joysticks for managing Serbia at literally every level.” According to Georgiev, Vucic has “mastered” the media, above all, by controlling the money flow.
“He controls the state-owned money that is given to the media, and indirectly the money that goes to private companies that make advertisements because not a single company wants to engage in conflict with the authorities. Therefore, they act in the recommended way — they give money to the media they see fit, in the amount the government estimates,” Georgiev said.
According to BIRN research, Aleksandar Vucic’s party, through high ranking official, Goran Veselinovic, entered the area of media advertising after coming to power in 2012. Veselinovic replaced people close to the Democratic Party, who had previously “sovereignly ruled over this market.”
The propaganda-advertising program is working like a drugstore: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Simultaneously, the media that are close to the authorities receive money from the state budget, often through secret contracts on carefully selected tenders, that are insufficiently regulated.
For example, TV Pink, which is a kind of media service for the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), received more than 7 million euros worth of loans from the Insurance and Financing Exports Agency between 2014 and 2016, even though they were one of the largest tax debtors in Serbia, as revealed by data published by the investigative portal CINS.
TV Pink is the most viewed channel in Serbia alongside the public broadcasting service, where quasi coup d’etats and assassination attempts are conducted, where “foreign mercenaries” are lurking, malicious journalists are “junkies,” and where opposition leaders are “thieves,” who don’t do anything all day long but “sit in cafes soaked in cappuccino or beer foam.” The propaganda-advertising program is working like a drugstore: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Dejan Ilic, the author of the left-wing liberal portal “Pescanik,” has often been the target of government tabloid attacks. He believes that media control is “in the nature of the regime” led by Aleksandar Vucic. “This is a regime that gives false promises and presents false successes. This lie is only possible if all channels are being closed down where the truth could reach the citizens,” he says.
Georgiev and Ilic agree that the former government paved the way for the ruling regime, but both of them emphasize that “the former government was more scrupulous and softer than this one.”
“This government is unscrupulous and arrogant,” Ilic states. “Though most certainly the corner-stone for this kind of attitude towards the media was set by the previous government, who shouldn’t be exempt from responsibility. As for the media workers, they have shown that they are as greedy as people working in other professions, especially in Serbia, those with intellect.”
“Breaking the spine” of the independent media
Georgiev thinks that there is an essential difference in the societal atmosphere, which used to be a lot more pluralistic, while at present there is “the voice of only one man” on the air.
“The difference is reflected in the style,” the BIRN editor believes. “The former government controlled the media in a similar manner, but the overall societal state of affairs was significantly different, in some manner democratic, because it was possible to hear different credible voices. With the SNS, there is only the voice of one man, nothing more than that,”
The modus operandi of the government’s attitudes towards the media is demonstrated by Aleksandar Vulin’s recent attack on the investigative portal “KRIK” and its editor Stevan Dojcinovic, immediately after the portal published a text revealing suspicious origin of 205,000 euro with which minister Vulin purchased an apartment in 2012.
Vulin’s Socialists’ Movement party published several press releases including savage attacks on Dojcinovic, accusing him of being, among other things, an enemy of Serbia and a drug-addict that refuses to test himself for drugs.
Have the state’s leaders adequately reacted to this affair, or condemned the behavior of one minister towards journalists as not fitting in an allegedly well-regulated, law-abiding state on its way to the EU? Judge for yourself.
When responding to journalists’ questions on the attitude of the minister towards the media, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic stated that she understood Vulin’s emotional reaction, but that it personally it isn’t her style. President Vucic, meanwhile, said that he trusts Vulin and that he didn’t steal anything while being in power.
“Anybody who wants to engage in politics or criticize and address the control of the government, even only to objectively report to the public about what is going on, is existentially threatened and at permanent risk of losing their job."
Only a day after the conflict between minister Vulin and KRIK, Vukasin Obradovic, the editor of Vranjske commenced his hunger strike in protest at the closure of his newspaper, one of the most important local media in Serbia. Obradovic told the media that this was “a move of a desperate person that sees no other way to end his journalistic carrier, while simultaneously keeping the bare minimum of personal respect and dignity.”
Isidora Petrovic, editor of the Serbian edition of the Le Monde Diplomatique, believes that recent cases serve “for the authorities to demonstrate to the rest of the society that they can break anyone’s spine.”
She points out that the state of affairs in the media is a reflection of the situation of the entire society, as well as that the “existential threat” is the basic means of control of the Vucic regime — in the media, opposition, and civil sector.
“Anybody who wants to engage in politics or criticize and address the control of the government, even only to objectively report to the public about what is going on, is existentially threatened and at permanent risk of losing their job,” Petrovic explains. “In that sense, the media are impacted first when they point to the consequences of the ruling party policies, especially those whose sustainability is conditioned by the presence of advertisers, which can be directly and indirectly influenced by the government.”
Professional resistance the light in the media blackout?
After of shutting down of Vranjske and the attacks on KRIK editor Stevan Dojcinovic, as well as other journalists who are constant targets of the regime tabloids, a group of around 30 independent media, journalistic associations and civil society organizations was established. This group organized a support protest for Vukasin Obradovic on the day he started his hunger strike, but also announced new courses of action.
Georgiev is sceptical towards the suggestions that such a journalistic project could have a significant impact on strengthening media solidarity and change of the attitude of the government towards Serbia’s media.
“It seems that it is impossible, because certain associations and its members are so opposed to each other that even at the very mention of joint action, some people are found in disbelief as if the proposer of such an idea is insane,” he states. “In this sense, the last ‘protest’ will not be able to have a greater effect since clear goals and demands have not been formulated, they have only reached three hashtags.”
Journalists in Serbia still have the statement of Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for enlargement, ringing in their ears. In 2015, Hahn declared that “proof is needed for the claim that the freedom of media is threatened.”
The hunger strike of the former president of one of the leading media associations was joined by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), who declared that they are one with Vranjske, condemning the political and economic pressures on the media and demanding that “international organizations halt the ignoring of serious problems which Serbia’s media face, and actively engage in the protection of democratic values promoted by them in the first place.”
However, even though this support is relevant, it seems to be mostly diplomatic. Journalists in Serbia still have the statement of Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for enlargement, ringing in their ears. In 2015, Hahn declared that “proof is needed for the claim that the freedom of media is threatened.”
“This statement of Hahn is beautifully captures the attitude of global officials towards the state of the freedom of media in Serbia,” Petrovic states. “Mr. Hahn, and other EU officials, are mostly interested in regional stability and implementation of neoliberal policies, for which the autocratic leader Vucic is an ideal partner. Has Hahn found proof for everything in the end? I don’t think he still has, austerity measures are still important, the public sector still needs deregulation, whereas a solution for Kosovo still awaits.”
Unlike Petrovic, the deputy of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, Dragan Sormaz, believes that the state of affairs in the Serbian media isn’t all that dramatic.
“I can say that the government doesn’t have many problems in the media,” Sormaz told Radio Free Europe.
And indeed, the government doesn’t have too many problems with the media. Simply put, the media in Serbia don’t cause problems. They have been annihilated financially and ethically, with no outside help, they can only hope for better times and conditions for independent journalism.
Until then, it is important to show solidarity with and organize with our colleagues from the profession, to patiently wait for the notion of “stabilocracy” to become outmoded, and for the EU Commissioner to “find proof.”
Feature image courtesy of Kontrapress.