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Serbia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Serbia is a constitutional, multiparty, parliamentary democracy, led by a president. The country held extraordinary elections for seats in the unicameral National Assembly (parliament) in 2016 and presidential elections in 2017. International observers stated that the elections were mostly free but that campaigning during both periods benefited progovernment candidates. In 2017 Aleksandar Vucic, president of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was elected president, winning approximately 55 percent of the vote in the first round.

The national police maintain internal security and are under the control of the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture by police; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence and threats of violence against journalists; numerous acts of government corruption; and crimes, including violence, targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals.

The government took steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses (and punish them, if convicted), both in the police force and elsewhere in the government, following public exposure of abuses. Nevertheless, many observers believed numerous cases of corruption, social and domestic violence, and other abuses went unreported and unpunished.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but threats and attacks on journalists, a lack of transparency of media ownership, and the oversized role of the state in the country’s oversaturated media sector undermined these freedoms. Independent observers claimed the trend of decreased media freedom continued, and Reporters without Borders rated the country’s media environment unsafe early in the year, noting it “has become a place where practicing journalism is neither safe nor supported by the state.” During the year Freedom House downgraded its assessment of the country’s media environment from free to partially free. Unbalanced media coverage and a large volume of fake, misleading, or unverified news stories continued to threaten the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but were limited in their ability to express a wide variety of views by the oversaturation of the media market and government support of progovernment outlets. The media market was oversaturated with more than 2,000 registered outlets, many of which were not profitable. The government accounted for between one-third and one-half of the country’s annual media revenues of 420 million euros ($460 million), the majority of this through collection of a service tax and funding of the public broadcasters, according to a foreign development aid agency’s analysis. According to a 2018 study by Reporters without Borders, government ministries and state-owned enterprises were collectively the biggest advertisers in the country, allowing the government to use its purchasing power to support progovernment editorial content and stifle critical viewpoints. Media association representatives claimed the government’s role was far larger than the numbers indicated because private firms that purchased advertising patronized outlets that published progovernment content to appease the government. Watchdog organizations believed the media market was too saturated for outlets to be financially viable without government support or access to government advertising contracts.

Television was the most influential media format due to concentration of viewership and popularity. There were five national terrestrial television-broadcasting licenses in Serbia. This concentration and dependence on government advertising monies strongly benefited incumbents during election periods and made it difficult for opposition leaders to communicate with potential voters. The largest distributor of paid media content was United Group, which controlled more than 50 percent of the broadband (cable) market, followed by Telecom Serbia, a majority state-owned firm with more than 25 percent of the market. Both firms were vertically integrated and controlled production and distribution of the media content, as well as physical infrastructure.

Independent journalists and outlets continued to operate several independent newspapers, albeit with low and declining circulation. Tabloids remained popular but regularly published incorrect or unverified information. Many of these stories defamed political leaders of opposition parties. These stories were often presented in a false or misleading headline on the cover page. A report published on August 15 by the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) indicated the progovernment tabloid Informer published 150 fake, unfounded, or unverifiable news items from January through June. Another tabloid, Alo, published 115 such stories, while Srpski Telegraf printed 94 and Kurir printed 60. In addition to fabricating stories, the same papers showed a clear progovernment bias. The report noted that these four publications routinely reported negatively on opposition parties, antigovernment protests, and neighboring countries.

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. Between January and August, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported 85 cases in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure. The attacks included vandalism, intimidation, and physical assaults. In one example, in December 2018 two assailants ignited the home of Milan Jovanovic while he and his spouse slept inside. The couple narrowly escaped the blaze through a rear window. Jovanovic worked as an investigative journalist for a local news outlet in the Belgrade suburb of Grocka that reported on local corruption. Dragoljub Simonovic, mayor of Grocka and an official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was indicted for ordering the arson attack. The trial was underway as of October; hearings were delayed three times due to defense attorneys not appearing before the court with the defendant.

Spontaneous violence and threats against journalists also occurred and demonstrated the willingness of nationalistic groups to echo the rhetoric of political leaders while perpetrating violence. On August 28, a television crew and correspondent covering the placement of a Yugoslav-era military tank outside a soccer stadium were attacked by a mob who reportedly tried to break their equipment and called them “spies,” “thieves,” and “American mercenaries.”

Harassment by government officials was often targeted at news organizations. The law provides for punishment of defamation against individuals but not against organizations or groups. N1 television was a frequent target of government criticism; staff reported receiving death threats at N1’s studio. Cable provider Serbia Broadband (SBB) was subject to intense criticism from government officials. Belgrade deputy mayor Goran Vesic engaged in a prolonged spat with SBB in which he repeatedly claimed that its cable equipment was incorrectly installed. SBB insisted that it had licensing agreements for all of its equipment. SBB reported a deluge of threats of vandalism of its installed equipment in response to Vesic’s comments. Harassment of individual journalists often intensified following publication of stories that embarrassed ruling party officials. After Balkan Insight (BIRN) published photographs of President Vucic’s brother meeting with a suspected organized crime figure, a video of BIRN editor Slobodan Georgiev called “How to Recognize a Traitor” was published on social media. Progovernment media outlets also published content critical of independent media outlets. In late 2018, for example, the weekly Ilustrovana Politika published an issue with an image of a growling guard dog in front of the covers of three of the leading opposition-leaning newspapers titled “The Hounds Have Been Released,” in an image that was widely interpreted as inciting attacks on the outlets.

Watchdog organizations also noted that past killings of several journalists were yet to be resolved, including those of Dada Vujasinovic (1994) and Milan Pantic (2001). In April, four former members of the security apparatus were sentenced to 100 cumulative years of detention for their role in the 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija. Media watchdogs welcomed the verdict but remained concerned that no high-level officials had been indicted for ordering the assassination and that the series of delays that led to a 20-year delay in justice had not been addressed.

A 2018 study by the Slavko Curuvija Foundation, Media Freedoms and Control: Journalists Testimonies, found that 74 percent of the country’s journalists believed “there [were] serious obstacles to exercising media freedoms” or that they had no media freedom at all. Nearly two-thirds of journalists interviewed believed the political establishment had the strongest influence over the media community.

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, refraining from publishing content critical of the government, based on a fear of government harassment or economic consequences, according to media association representatives.

Direct funding to media outlets by the state was distributed in an opaque manner that appeared to support media outlets loyal to the ruling party rather than to bolster independent journalism. According to a 2018 report from the Center of Investigative Journalism of Serbia, the progovernment tabloids Srpski Telegraf and Informer were granted approximately 23.05 million dinars ($222,000) by the government, notwithstanding their frequent breach of the country’s Code of Journalism. Meanwhile, the daily newspaper Danas, the weekly news agency Beta, the weekly Novi Magazin, and the Media Center of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia–none of which had ever received even a sanction or warning from the press council–did not receive state funding. The report concluded, “The situation is completely clear: progovernment media obtain money at state-run contests.” Public funds were also directed to profitable private media outlets that regularly published progovernment content. The Center for Investigative Journalism Serbia reported that Pink International, TV Pink’s corporate parent, received loans in excess of 10 million euros ($11 million) from the Serbian Export Credit and Insurance Agency in 2014, plus assurances of another 2.5 million euros ($2.8 million). In 2017 it reportedly received another loan of 3.2 million euros ($3.5 million) from the same agency.

Government representatives continued to receive far more media coverage than opposition politicians. The law mandates equal coverage during campaign periods, but the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) often considered campaign-style rallies by government officials to be official activities and therefore outside the scope of this law. Opposition leaders and civil society activists contended that REM did not pursue its mandate effectively and continually sided with the ruling party, ensuring an unfair media environment before, during, and after electoral campaigns, effectively denying the political opposition access to the media.

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 overthrow the constitutional order. In 2018 a representative of the Security Intelligence Agency speaking at a conference explained that one of the most intense threats to the country came from foreign agents in opposition political parties, civil society, and some parts of the media. The Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS) was a frequent target of verbal attacks by convicted war criminal and Member of Parliament Vojislav Seselj. Following these remarks, CEAS claimed to have received written threats calling organization members “traitors, bastards, and degenerates” and telling them to leave the country. NGOs and their employees received frequent threats; these threats often mirrored or amplified the rhetoric employed by public figures on social media and were often targeted by distributed denial of services attacks to take their websites offline.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government limited these rights in some cases.

In March, CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists, added the country to its watchlist of countries where civic freedoms were under serious threat. In April, 20 NGOs signed the platform “Three Freedoms for Preserving the Space for Civil Society in Serbia” in order to protect and promote freedom of assembly, association, and information. The platform registered 19 separate cases of alleged violations of freedom of assembly and 18 of freedom of association between March and July.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: Humanitarian organizations noted the government lacked the resources and expertise to provide sufficient protection against refoulement. Various press and humanitarian reports indicated that authorities pushed back irregular migrants without screening them to see if they were seeking asylum. In the first half of year, according to reports provided by UNHCR field staff and partners, 1,022 persons were apprehended and prevented from entering the country’s territory across land borders (48 percent occurred at the border with North Macedonia and 38 percent at the border with Bulgaria). This represented a 350 percent increase in apprehensions, compared to 2018. In addition, according to information attributed to the Ministry of Interior, 1,186 denials occurred at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, representing a significant increase, compared with 2018 (771 denials). There were unconfirmed reports that potential asylum seekers arriving at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, for instance Kurds from Turkey, may be sent back on the next flight. Concerns regarding the practice of the border authorities at the Belgrade International Airport were also expressed in the report of the UN special rapporteur on torture, who noted a number of problems regarding access to the asylum procedure and the conduct of the border authorities at the airport.

The government’s Mixed Migration Group was inactive during the year and did not deliberate on any of the issues in its portfolio or communicate the number of illegal entries prevented.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for giving protection to refugees. The Asylum Office within the Ministry of Interior is responsible for implementing the system but lacked the capacity, resources, and trained staff to do so effectively.

The law provides procedural guarantees to asylum seekers and outlines procedures pertaining to refugee children. It recognizes a range of grounds for granting international protection, including gender-based violence and sexual orientation.

According to UNHCR, the law does not meet international standards by providing for judicial review early in the asylum proceedings or containing safe third country and safe country of origin provisions that align with international standards. Provision of free legal aid to asylum seekers and interpretation services (as basic procedural guarantees) in the asylum procedures was dependent on international funding.

The intention to seek asylum was expressed by 1,061 children, 355 of whom were unaccompanied by their parents or guardians. UNHCR estimated that most of the unaccompanied children did not have adequate protection services due to the government’s lack of capacity. The country lacked quality guardianship protection and appropriate models of alternative child care. The Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Policy was responsible for three institutions for unaccompanied migrant children with a total capacity of 45 beds, and two additional institutions run by NGOs had a total capacity of 30. Most unaccompanied minors were accommodated in the asylum center Krnjaca in Belgrade and Sjenica in inadequate conditions and without adequate guardian care.

The government had the capacity to accommodate approximately 6,000 persons in the 18 state-run asylum and reception centers, three of which were closed in 2018 due to a decline in asylum seekers from 2017. In January, 4,200 migrants were living in reception and asylum centers in the country; by August the number had fallen to 2,500.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: Since the adoption of the new asylum law in 2018, the first country of asylum and safe third country concepts had not been applied by the Asylum Office. According to UNHCR, authorities assessed each case on its individual merits but did not automatically apply these provisions.

In one example, the Asylum Office issued a positive decision in May for an Afghan citizen who applied for asylum in March. Rather than apply the safe country of origin or transit concept, the Asylum Office found the applicant, who transited Bulgaria, was at risk of persecution in his country of origin based on his ethnicity and membership in a social group. The asylum seeker had been a target of the Taliban’s verbal and physical assaults because he worked in various ministries in Kabul and because he was an ethnic Tajik. In addition, before arriving in Serbia, the asylum seeker was in Bulgaria, which the Asylum Office considered a “safe country of transit.” The Asylum Office accepted his claims that he could not apply for asylum there because he was under constant surveillance by a group of smugglers, who controlled his movements and prevented him from approaching Bulgarian asylum officials. Since he could not contact the relevant Bulgarian authorities, the Asylum Office decided to review the facts of relevance to his asylum application, rather than apply the safe third country concept.

Employment: Asylum seekers have the right to work nine months after an asylum application is submitted. Employment is also available once an applicant is recognized as a refugee at the end of the country’s refugee determination process.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees have the right to access health and education services, although barriers including language and cultural differences limited access.

Durable Solutions: The government provided support for the voluntary return and reintegration of refugees from other countries of the former Yugoslavia. Those who chose the option of integration in Serbia rather than return to their country of origin enjoyed the same rights as citizens, including access to basic services such as health care and education, and had access to simplified naturalization in the country; they did not have the right to vote unless their naturalization process was complete.

Together with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro, the country participated in the Regional Housing Program to provide housing for vulnerable refugee families who had decided to integrate into their countries of residence. During the year, 1,303 housing units were provided in Serbia.

For refugees who originated from countries outside the former Yugoslavia, refugee status did not provide a pathway to citizenship. The government provided integration assistance that included financial assistance for accommodation for a period of one year and obligatory Serbian language courses. Despite harmonization of by-laws providing for individualized integration plans, which UNHCR considered a good model, coordination between relevant line ministries remained insufficient.

Temporary Protection: The government made no decisions on temporary protection during the year.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. There was a widespread public perception that the law was not being implemented consistently and systematically and that some high-level officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The EC’s Serbia 2019 Report stated the country made limited progress in its fight against corruption. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The government reported an increase in low- to mid-level corruption cases, money laundering, and economic crimes cases, largely through the use of authorities permitted under the law and based on technical assistance and training provided by international donors. Even so, corruption was prevalent in many areas and remained an issue of concern.

While the legal framework for fighting corruption was broadly in place, anticorruption entities typically lacked adequate personnel and were not integrated with other judicial entities, which inhibited information and evidence sharing with the prosecution service. Freedom House’s 2019 report on the country noted the work of the Anticorruption Agency (ACA) was undermined in part by the ambiguous division of responsibilities among other entities tasked with combating corruption. In May parliament adopted a revised Law on the Prevention of Corruption, primarily concerning the ACA, which was scheduled to become effective in September 2020. The law provides some improvements over the previous version, such as clarifying the ACA’s competencies and broadening preventive measures. Freedom House downgraded the country’s political pluralism and participation score in part based on the credible reports that the ACA did not thoroughly investigate dubious political campaign contributions, including the use of thousands of proxy donors to bypass legal limits on individual campaign donations and disguise the true source of funding.

EU experts noted continuing problems with the overuse of the vague “abuse of office” charge for alleged private-sector corruption schemes. Despite the government’s publicly stated commitment to fight corruption, both the country’s Anticorruption Council and the NGO Transparency Serbia continued to point to a lack of governmental transparency.

Corruption: There were numerous cases of corruption during the year. Between March 2018 and May 2019, the Republic Public Prosecutor’s Office reported 255 corruption-related convictions through trial and 530 convictions based on plea agreements. The number of cases proceeding through the courts indicated the anticorruption prosecutorial departments made progress in working with other government agencies, investigating malfeasance, and indicting suspects.

The newly formed Anticorruption Department within the Ministry of Interior was created to investigate corruption and economic crimes. In the first eight months of the year, the department filed numerous charges on low- to mid-level government officials, including customs officials, police, and municipal officials. The Police Service for Combating Organized Crime filed two charges for high-level corruption.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires income and asset disclosure by appointed or elected officials. The ACA is designed to be an independent institution that monitors financial disclosures of public officials, political party financing, and conflicts of interest. The ACA oversees the filing of disclosures and verifies their completeness and accuracy. Declarations are publicly available on the ACA website and upon request. Failure to file or to disclose income and assets fully is subject to administrative and criminal sanctions. Significant changes to assets or income must be reported annually. Officials also must file a disclosure form immediately after leaving office and must inform the ACA of any significant changes to their assets for two years after leaving office.

The ACA continued to initiate administrative and criminal proceedings against several former and current government officials who failed to file or incorrectly filed asset disclosure forms. Between January 1 and June 30, the ACA filed two criminal reports for the failure to disclose assets and six reports for other criminal offenses (prosecuted ex officio) with the competent prosecutor’s offices or other authorities. The ACA received 141 trial judgments from the misdemeanor courts, which resulted from requests to initiate misdemeanor proceedings filed in the previous period. These cases were related to untimely disclosure of assets, conflict of interest, or violations of political financing laws. Most of these resulted in fines.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases without overt resistance from the government. While government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to their questions, at times government bodies selectively ignored freedom of information requests. Civil society groups were subject to criticism, harassment, and threats from nongovernmental actors, including progovernment media outlets and a number of suspected government-organized NGOs that vocally participated in government consultations with civil society. Actions likely to draw this response included expressing views critical of the government, contrary to nationalist views regarding Kosovo, or in support of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Threats, vandalism, and attacks aimed against civil society organizations did occur and were rarely investigated thoroughly or prosecuted. The new Law on Free Legal Aid potentially limits these organizations’ ability to provide free legal aid in some traditionally important areas for human right protection, such as defamation suits and misdemeanor offenses.

In September human rights activist Dobrica Veselinovic received a prison summons for failure to pay a fine he received for organizing a 2016 “Let’s not Drown Belgrade” protest in response to the illegal demolition of residential and commercial buildings in Belgrade’s Savamala neighborhood, despite having a receipt showing the fine had been paid. Civil society organizations claimed that the 30 cases underway surrounding these protests and the summons Veselinovic received were part of a government campaign to pressure and silence activists and NGOs.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government bodies dedicated to the protection of human rights included the Office of the Ombudsman, Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, and Office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. All three bodies were active during the year and issued reports for parliament’s review, but parliament did not review their annual reports in plenary sessions in accordance with the law.

The Office of the Ombudsman was responsible for identifying problems within state institutions and making recommendations on remedies. The ombudsman continued to operate branch offices in three municipalities with significant ethnic Albanian populations. The ombudsman facilitated citizen complaints regarding violations of the human rights of members of national minorities, children, persons with disabilities, persons deprived of their liberty, and persons experiencing discrimination based on gender by state administrative bodies or any other entity entrusted with public authority. Vojvodina Province had its own ombudsman, who operated independently during the year.

The commissioner for the protection of equality has legal authority to bring civil lawsuits against businesses and government institutions for violations of the antidiscrimination law. The commissioner’s office reported a 20 percent increase in complaints in 2018, the most common being on the application of a law on financial support to families with children and complaints about accessibility by persons with disabilities.

The commissioner for information and personal data’s term expired in December 2018; outgoing Commissioner Rodoljub Sabic’s final report criticized the government, stating, “By refusing to cooperate, the competent or supervised authorities often made it difficult, even impossible, for the commissioner to either undertake legal measures or these measures had no effect.” A new commissioner, Milan Marinovic, was confirmed by parliament in July, but opposition parties did not participate in this process due to their continuing boycott of parliament.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

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