The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. A lack of transparency of media ownership, continuing government involvement in media ownership, and threats and attacks on journalists undermined these freedoms.
The law includes a specific provision on hate speech based on race or religion, national or ethnic affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Press and Media Freedom: While independent media organizations generally were active and expressed a wide range of views, there were reports that the government pressured media by withholding advertising, abusing tax audits, and restricting access to public information. The media privatization law, which was passed in 2014 and amended in 2015, required the privatization of public media outlets. While the largest media company on the sale list, Tanjug news agency, failed to find a buyer and legally ceased to exist after 2015, the agency continued to operate. Competing news agencies FoNet and Beta complained that Tanjug received favored treatment and benefited from government-owned facilities and special access to public tender notices. For example, in August Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic issued a press statement to Tanjug only, which its competitors said violated the law. On August 21, FoNet wrote that only Tanjug, not FoNet or Beta, received notice of a public funding tender the government budget. Media reported the government continued to have a significant ownership stake in the major newspapers Politika and Vecernje Novosti.
After unknown persons wearing masks used machinery to tear down buildings in Belgrade’s Savamala neighborhood in late April 2016, news magazine NIN reported that demolition would not have been possible without the knowledge and help of Minister of Internal Affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic. In response to the story, Stefanovic filed a lawsuit against NIN, seeking damages of 300,000 dinars ($2,590). The first verdict found in Stefanovic’s favor but was overturned in April by a higher court, and Stefanovic was ordered to pay 89,700 dinars ($885) for NIN’s legal fees.
Violence and Harassment: The law prohibits threatening or otherwise putting pressure on public media and journalists or exerting any other kind of influence that might obstruct their work. During the year some reporters and media organizations were the victims of vandalism, intimidation, and physical attacks. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia announced that during 2016, it recorded a total of 69 cases of physical and verbal attacks on journalists, including nine physical attacks, one threat against property, 26 verbal threats, and 33 instances of pressure targeting journalists.
During the year the government-friendly tabloids Informer, Srpski Telegraf, and TV Pink published and broadcast various reports related to supposed pending “coups d’etat” in the country and conspiracies to “bring down” then prime minister, now president, Vucic. The outlets accused several investigative journalists, whom they identified by name and photographs, as members of a group of “traitors” supporting the alleged “coups.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports that the government actively sought to direct media reporting on a number of issues.
Economic pressure sometimes led media outlets to practice self-censorship. State-controlled funds were believed to contribute a significant percentage of overall advertising revenue, giving the state correspondingly strong leverage over media outlets. Since the media depended heavily on advertising to survive, advertising agencies were in a strong position to influence them, including through the nontransparent termination of advertising contracts, making asymmetrical changes to such contracts, and inequitably distributing funds from public budgets and state-controlled advertising funds (such as those for public companies or municipalities). Many media outlets faced financial pressures to shape editorial opinion and news coverage and affect working conditions for journalists.
Journalists reported increasing difficulties and obstacles that limited their ability to practice their profession. Stevan Dojcinovic, director of the KRIK (Crime and Corruption Reporting Network) Investigative Center, stated in an article published in February, “Most laws in Serbia are irrelevant, as the state itself does not respect them.” Both KRIK and Dojcinovic were repeatedly targeted by tabloid publications after they reported on President Vucic’s personal assets. Dojcinovic stated that government employees and institutions were instructed not to cooperate with KRIK, despite the provisions of the law on public access to information. Bojana Pavlovic, a KRIK journalist, stated, “While we were working on politicians’ properties, suddenly all the people with whom we communicated in the Department of Land Registry were replaced. Later, we were told that the information we requested was not of public interest.” Pavlovic also stated she encountered obstacles to requests for information from courts about verdicts. Nedim Sejdinovic, president of the Association of Independent Journalists of Vojvodina, expressed concern about decreasing media freedom, stating there is a “drastic fall in the level of access to information.”
Nongovernmental Impact: During the year several media outlets published articles that accused numerous journalists, NGO activists, and independent institution representatives of being “traitors” to the country and attempting to violently overthrow the constitutional order. In August a group of journalists and NGO activists filed criminal charges against the right-wing organization Zavetnici, TV Pink, the tabloid Informer, and the internet portal Pravda, claiming that these reports included wrongful accusations and exposed them to public persecution. The case remained pending at year’s end.
There were no reports that the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content. According to National Institute of Statistics’ most recent data, 68 percent of the country’s population had an internet connection.
Although the internet remained unrestricted, the law obliges telecommunications operators to retain data on the source and destination of a communication for one year; the beginning, duration, and end of a communication; the type of communication; terminal equipment identification; and the location of the customer’s mobile terminal equipment. While intelligence agencies can access this metadata without court permission, the law requires a court order to access the contents of these communications.