The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but a lack of transparency of media ownership, continuing government involvement in media ownership, and threats and attacks on journalists undermined these freedoms. Independent observers claimed that 2017 was one of the worst years on record for press freedom in the country. The trend of decreased media freedom continued during the year.
Press and Media Freedom: Although independent media organizations continued to exist and express a wide range of views, press organizations and international monitors claimed government pressure on media was deepening. The government reportedly controlled media outlets through advertising revenue and the allocations of media grants. According to a 2017 study by Reporters without Borders, the government is the biggest advertiser in the country and uses its purchasing power to support progovernment editorial content and stifle critical viewpoints. A number of independent journalists and outlets claimed that they were being pressured by targeted tax investigations, smear campaigns, threats, and politically motivated attacks.
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. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported at least 92 cases in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure in 2017. These attacks included vandalism, intimidation, and physical attacks.
In May 2017 six journalists were attacked while reporting on the presidential inauguration by members of the security service of the SNS, which were securing the event. Despite photographs of the journalists’ being dragged and choked, state prosecutors dropped criminal charges because they claimed there were no elements of a criminal act. The journalists filed an objection to the high prosecutor’s office in late 2017; there were no developments on the case during the year.
N1 television was a frequent target of government criticism. Some observers blamed the criticism for a January attack against an N1 journalist, Nikola Radisic. Two unidentified men insulted, spat at, and threatened Radisic after recognizing him in the street.
According to Amnesty International’s 2017-18 report on the country, investigative journalists were subjected to smear campaigns by ministers and media close to the government. In particular, the report noted that journalists working for the Network for Investigating Crime and Corruption (KRIK) received death threats, and that the apartment of its investigative reporter Dragana Peco had been the subject of a home invasion. KRIK’s investigative reporting into the unexplained source of funding that allowed Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin to purchase property in Belgrade was also met with a smear campaign. The Movement of Socialists immediately responded to the story by publishing a statement accusing KRIK’s editor in chief, Stevan Dojcinovic, of being a drug addict and foreign agent.
Watchdog organizations also noted that past killings of several journalists have yet to be resolved, including the killings of journalists Slavko Curuvija (1999), Dada Vujasinovic (1994), and Milan Pantic (2001).
A study by the Slavko Curuvija Foundation, Media Freedoms and Control: Journalists’ Testimonies, found that 74 percent of Serbian 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 that 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 economic consequences. State-controlled funds were believed to contribute a significant percentage of overall advertising revenue, giving the state leverage over media outlets. According to the regional media advocacy group fairpress.eu, the government allocated more than two billion dinar ($19.2 million) each year for media support; the recipients of these funds were not publicly disclosed.
Watchdog organizations believed the media market was too saturated for outlets to be financially viable without government support or access to government advertising contracts.
According to a report from the Center of Investigative Journalism of Serbia, the progovernment tabloids Srpski Telegraf and Informerwere granted about 23.5 million dinars ($225,000) 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.”
Between October 2017 and mid-January, research by the Center for Research Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) showed that government representatives received four times more coverage in the media than representatives of the opposition. After the research results were published, progovernment broadcaster TV Pink used its platform to discredit CRTA and journalist Tamara Skrozza, who is also a member of CRTA’s board of directors. The Center for Investigative Journalism Serbia reported that Pink International, TV Pink’s corporate parent, received loans in excess of 10 million euros ($11.5 million) from the Serbian Export Credit and Insurance Agency in 2014, plus assurances of another 2.5 million euros ($2.9 million). In 2017 it reportedly received another loan of 3.2 million euros ($3.7 million) from the same agency. The government did not provide information to explain why a governmental agency tasked with supporting exports had funded a private television company.
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.
Shortly after the Independent Journalists Union of Serbia (IJAS) objected to the slow progress in solving the January 16 killing of Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent politician in Kosovo’s Serb community, President Vucic denounced IJAS president Slavisa Lekic, IJAS vice president and Beta editor in chief Dragan Janjic, and others for suggesting that the killing may have been politically motivated. Janjic’s photograph and home address were posted on a website, together with the statement, “This is what a man who hates all things Serbian looks like.” Responses on Facebook included, “Put a bullet in his head,” and “Hang him in the public square.”
There were no reports that the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority, or censored online content.
Although the internet remained unrestricted, the law obliges telecommunications operators to retain certain data for one year. This data included the source and destination of a communication; 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.
According to National Institute of Statistics’ most recent data, 68 percent of the country’s population had an internet connection.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The law provides protection to IDPs in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, but implementation fell short in some areas. According to official statistics of the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (SCRM), approximately 200,000 displaced persons from Kosovo resided in the country, most of whom were Serbs, Montenegrins, Roma, Egyptians, Ashkali, Gorani, and Bosniaks who left Kosovo, then an autonomous province of Yugoslavia, because of the 1998-99 war. Approximately 80 percent resided in urban areas. According to recent research conducted by the SCRM, more than 68,000 of these persons were extremely vulnerable and in need of assistance. These displaced persons met one or more of UNHCR’s vulnerability criteria, such as households that had income below the poverty line; persons living in undignified conditions; persons with mental or physical disabilities; single parents; elderly persons and women, children, or adolescents at risk.
According to UNHCR research, displaced Roma were the most vulnerable and marginalized displaced population in the country, with 92 percent of the 20,000 internally displaced Roma living below the poverty threshold, and 98 percent of displaced Roma households unable to satisfy basic nutritional needs or afford to pay for utilities, health care, hygiene, education, and local transport. Displaced Roma had a 74 percent unemployment rate. According to UNHCR, almost 90 percent of displaced Roma lived in substandard housing, and the vast majority had not been able to integrate or return home. According to the SCRM, over the past 18 years, the government, supported by the international community, implemented measures and activities related to the reception and care of displaced persons from Kosovo to provide for adequate living conditions. Their recent research stated that more than 4,700 housing units, generally defined as living spaces for one family, were provided. It was not clear how many of these units were provided to Romani displaced persons, who often did not identify themselves as Roma.
While government officials continued to state publicly that displaced persons from Kosovo should return, senior government officials also claimed that it was unsafe for many to do so. To assist refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as displaced persons from Kosovo, the government continued to implement its 2002 National Strategy on Refugees and Internally Displaced People. It was expanded and updated in 2015 and slated to continue until 2020. The strategy was not comprehensive and failed to provide the technical and financial capacity to ensure durable solutions for displaced persons. Some progress was made within the Skopje Process, which started in 2014 when the governments of Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo identified security, property, data management, documentation, and solutions planning as the issues to be resolved and agreed on actions that needed to be taken. The adoption and implementation of these actions, however, were still pending. UNHCR stated that the government continued to underreport the funding needed for the integration of displaced persons to avoid pressure from the EU to direct more funds to these programs.
During the year the government provided 173 housing units and 151 income-generation packages to displaced persons. Local NGOs and international organizations provided additional housing, financial assistance, and free legal assistance for civil registration, resolution of property claims, securing work rights, and obtaining personal documents.
The housing situation of many displaced persons remained a source of concern. Many of the more than 68,000 extremely vulnerable displaced persons from Kosovo lived in substandard private accommodation. The Commissariat for Refugees and Migration reported 68 displaced persons from Kosovo remained in three official collective centers in the country; 52 of the displaced persons from Kosovo were Roma accommodated in the so-called “Salvatore” collective center in Bujanovac, a minimally habitable facility originally constructed for only temporary accommodation. These individuals were particularly marginalized and, according to UNHCR, did not have access to social assistance or economic empowerment programs.
The most vulnerable displaced persons were Roma living in informal settlements without access to basic infrastructure, electricity, water, and sanitation, who were in constant fear of forced evictions. These Romani communities were mostly in urban areas; some of the most vulnerable were in the informal settlements Cukaricka Suma in Belgrade, Veliki Rit in Novi Sad, and in other urban areas.
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. There was also a credible report of a group of 25 Afghan nationals, who expressed their intent to claim asylum in the country in February 2017. The migrants were issued asylum intention certificates stating that they should proceed to Divljana Reception Center, in accordance with the country’s asylum law. The group’s arrival at the Divljana Reception Center could not be confirmed, and reports indicated that they were expelled into Bulgaria by Serbian security forces.
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 entrances prevented since January 1. UNHCR estimated that some 5,267 individuals were prevented from illegally entering Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia from the country’s territory in the period through August.
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.
While the law was broadly in accordance with international standards, failures and delays in the implementation of its provisions denied asylum seekers access to a prompt and effective individual assessment of their protection needs. In the majority of cases, asylum applications were discontinued or suspended because the applicants left the country. According to UNHCR the primary reasons for asylum seekers leaving the country were their lack of interest in living in Serbia and a lengthy government procedure for adjudicating applications.
The Asylum Office granted subsidiary protection to 14 asylum seekers and refugee status to nine asylum seekers during the year. In March parliament adopted a new Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection, which came into effect in the beginning of June. In theory, it represented a step forward, bringing procedural guarantees to asylum seekers, and improving all steps of the procedures pertaining to refugee children. The law’s practical impact on the asylum system could not be evaluated due to the short time it had been in effect.
In 2017 the government expanded its network of five official asylum centers (Krnjaca, Sjenica, Tutin, Banja Koviljaca, and Bogovadja) by opening 13 additional centers (Subotica, Principovac, Sid, Adasevci, Bujanovac, Vranje, Presevo, Dimitrovgrad, Pirot, Divljana, Bosilegrad, Sombor, and Kikinda) with capacity to accommodate approximately 6,000 persons. In September the government closed the Divljana, Presevo, and Dimitrovgrad centers due to a lower migrant population. These reception centers could be reopened quickly in the event that migrant flows increased. The government also erected three large tents in Adasevci, near the border with Croatia, during the year to accommodate asylum seekers waiting to cross the border.
NGOs and UN agencies reported that the Hungarian government continued the practice of “pushing back” irregular migrants into the territory of Serbia, including individuals who had not been previously present in the country and who entered Hungary from another country.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: International humanitarian organizations raised concerns about the government’s interpretation and use of the concept of a safe country of origin/transit. It was government policy to issue blanket denials of asylum to applicants from a “safe country of origin.” Asylum authorities dismissed the asylum applications of almost all the persons who entered the country from one of the countries on the list of safe third countries and declined jurisdiction. Court rulings in extradition proceedings extradited asylum seekers without a final decision on their asylum applications and without examining potential risks of persecution in their countries of origin, rigorously abiding by the provisions of the law. Competent authorities in both asylum procedures and extradition proceedings did not examine the risks of persecution in the countries of origin (the grounds on which these persons had requested asylum); in two cases authorities extradited asylum seekers to their countries of origin. In one case the Asylum Office established the jurisdiction of Montenegro (from where the asylum seeker had entered Serbia) by examining the individual’s asylum application, but authorities in charge of extradition proceedings deported him to Turkey, his country of origin.
The UNHCR claimed this policy and the list of “safe third countries” were not valid, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs determined them based solely on the country’s relations and affiliations with those countries and not on their actual safety with regard to humanitarian and human rights conditions. As a result all neighboring states recognized by the government were on its list of “safe third countries.” The new Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection introduced procedural guarantees to asylum seekers with the aim of limiting the application of the “safe third country” concept by obliging asylum authorities to examine its application in every individual case.
Employment: Asylum seekers do not have the right to employment until nine months after an asylum application is submitted if no decision has been taken on their case. 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 nationals, including access to basic services such as health 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. According to the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration’s official statistics, 26,502 refugees (18,232 refugees from Croatia and 8,270 from Bosnia and Herzegovina) resided in the country, while the government estimated that approximately 200,000 to 400,000 former refugees were naturalized but not socially or economically integrated into the country.
There are no remaining refugees displaced during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the country’s collective centers. The government directly funded 178 housing units for these refugees during the year.
Together with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro, Serbia participated in the Regional Housing Project (RHP) to provide housing for approximately 16,000 vulnerable refugee families who have decided to integrate into their countries of residence. Since inception RHP donors approved nine project proposals to provide housing to more than 7,000 refugee families living in the country. To date more than 2,000 housing units had been provided or were under construction. The total value of the nine projects was 152 million euros ($175 million), of which the government contributed 25.2 million euros ($29.0 million). During the year 772 housing units were provided in Serbia.
Temporary Protection: The government made no decisions on temporary protection during the year.
Poverty, social marginalization, lack of information, cumbersome and lengthy bureaucratic procedures, difficulty in obtaining documents, the lack of an officially recognized residence, and the lack of birth registration limited the ability of those at risk of statelessness to gain nationality.
According to UNHCR an estimated 2,200 persons, primarily Roma, Balkan Egyptians, and Ashkali, were at risk of statelessness in the country; approximately 300 of these remained without birth registration. The country has laws and procedures that afford the opportunity for late birth registration and residence registration as well as the opportunity to gain nationality. Children whose parents lacked personal documents (identification cards) could not, however, be registered into birth registry books immediately after birth, creating new cases of persons at risk of statelessness.
One example was the case of R.A. and her family, members of the Romani minority in the country who fled Kosovo after the conflict in 1999. In 2000 R.A. gave birth in a hospital to a girl, whom she named N. When her daughter was born, R.A. did not have an identification card and a birth certificate to prove her identity. When she came to the hospital to give birth, she presented herself under the last name of her common-law husband, although they were never formally married. Under the operative rules and regulations, to register the birth and name of a child immediately upon birth, the mother needs to possess both her birth certificates and identification. Since R.A. had neither, her child remained unregistered. It subsequently took an NGO that provided free legal aid five years to reregister N in the birth registry, and an additional procedure was required for determination of citizenship. In 2015 R.A. obtained an identification card for the first time. After she obtained her card, she initiated the procedure for registration of her daughter N. In this procedure it was necessary to correct all the mistakes that resulted from the erroneously entered data in the hospital records when N. was born. After the attempts to register N. before an administrative body failed, a procedure for determination of date and place of birth before the court was initiated and was still pending.
Due to existing regulations, children of undocumented parents can be without birth registration for upwards of a year. Until they are registered, children remain legally invisible, at risk of statelessness, and deprived of access to numerous rights, such as health care and social protection.