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. The Nations in Transit 2020 report from the watchdog organization Freedom House downgraded the country from a “semiconsolidated democracy” to a “transitional or hybrid regime,” citing deterioration of media freedoms as one of the country’s biggest problems. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the NGO Reporters without Borders noted, “Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate.” 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.
Freedom of 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 2,500 registered outlets, many of which were not profitable.
Television was the most influential media format due to concentration of viewership and popularity. There were five national terrestrial television-broadcasting licenses in Serbia, and television stations were heavily dependent on government advertising monies. 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. 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.
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 the stories defamed political leaders of opposition parties. These stories were often presented in a false or misleading headlines on the cover page. On January 21, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) published a report asserting that the four highest-circulation tabloids, Informer, Srpski Telegraf, Alo, and Kurir, published at least 945 false or unfounded claims on their front pages in 2019. Informer led with 317 such claims, followed by Alo (259), Srpski Telegraf (227), and Kurir (142). The report noted that these four publications negatively reported on the political opposition and its leaders while reporting positively on President Vucic and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
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 72 cases during the year in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure. The attacks included vandalism, intimidation, physical assaults, and frivolous lawsuits for reputational damage, which had a chilling effect on reporting. In July 2019 authorities detained Aleksandra Jankovic Aranitovic without bail for criticizing President Vucic on Twitter. In January the High Court of Belgrade sentenced her to six months of suspended imprisonment. According to the court verdict, the judge determined the tweet was a threat. Authorities released Aranitovic on the day of the verdict, since she had been imprisoned during the six-month procedure. In September, Internal Affairs Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic announced he was suing Danas for one million dinars ($10,000) for reporting eyewitness accounts of violence during antigovernment protests in July. In 2018, two assailants set fire to the home of Milan Jovanovic while he and his spouse slept inside. The couple narrowly escaped 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, the mayor of Grocka and an official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, was indicted for ordering the arson attack. As of September the assailants were yet to be convicted or released as the trial continued. In the meantime Simonovic filed 16 lawsuits against Jovanovic and another journalist for reputational damage based on their reporting about his activities.
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. Local news and Safe Journalists, a regional press freedom group, reported on July 7 and 8 that demonstrators and police attacked at least 10 journalists who were documenting protests in Belgrade against the government’s decision to reapply restrictions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 1, police arrested Ana Lalic, a reporter for news website Nova.rs, hours after she published a report on the chaotic conditions in a local COVID-19-designated hospital. Authorities held Lalic in custody overnight and charged her with publishing information that could incite panic.
In April 2019, 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. Curuvija, a vocal critic of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, was shot and killed outside his house in Belgrade in 1999. On September 7, the verdict sentencing the four officers for his murder was overturned on appeal. According to the Belgrade Appeals Court, the trial court verdict convicting the men was quashed “due to significant violations of the provisions of the criminal procedure.” A new trial started October 5.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: On March 15, the government imposed a state of emergency enabling it to introduce a range of restrictive measures aimed at halting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On March 29, the government adopted a decree, Conclusion on informing the population about the condition and consequences of the infectious disease COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The decree required all local crisis headquarters and medical institutions to send all COVID-19-related information to the Belgrade-based Pandemic Crisis Team, which would then provide information to the public. In support of government efforts to create a centralized flow of information, the decree warned of the “legal consequences for spreading misinformation during a state of emergency.” Civil society expressed concern regarding efforts to control the flow of information, noting the decision was not in line with the UN and EU recommendations that called for journalists to be allowed to work without obstacles to provide citizens with access to key information. The government ultimately rescinded the decree.
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.
Media outlets relied heavily on public funding to stay afloat. Direct government funding to media outlets was distributed in an opaque manner that appeared aimed at supporting entities loyal to the ruling party rather than bolstering independent journalism. In June the Press Council, an independent, self-regulatory body, issued a report, Cofinancing of Media that Violates Ethical Standards. The paper noted that during 2019 the state disbursed more than 2.1 billion dinars ($21.5 million) to media. The Press Council assessed that “local media [recipients], with rare exceptions…became the mouthpiece of officials and ruling parties.” The council stated that funds intended to support truthful reporting and impartiality in the media had become “a reward for obedience and praise of authorities.”
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 the law. Opposition leaders and civil society activists contended the 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 and thereby 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. 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.
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, including 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 may access this metadata without court permission, the law requires a court order to access the contents of these communications.
On April 2, Twitter announced that “toward the end of 2019, we identified clusters of accounts engaged in inauthentic coordinated activity that led to the removal of 8,558 accounts working to promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader.”
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
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. The platform Three Freedoms for Preserving the Space for Civil Society in Serbia continued to register and report cases of alleged violations of freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected the right. The law obliges protesters to apply to police for a permit, providing the exact date, time, and estimated number of demonstrators. Police generally issued a permit if a protest was not likely to disturb the public or public transportation; otherwise, police consulted with city authorities before issuing a permit. Higher-level government authorities decided whether to issue permits for gatherings assessed as posing high-security risks.
Large assemblies, including antigovernment protests, occurred throughout the year. On July 7, spontaneous protests broke out in downtown Belgrade in response to the announcement of possible COVID-19-related quarantines. Media and observers reported that some fringe individuals and groups among the larger group of protesters attempted to stoke violence and attack police, including by attempting to gain entry to parliament. At least one police action–caught on video and made viral on social media–showed police using disproportionate force on a protester who had fallen to the ground. Human Rights House stated the police response during the protest contained “elements of serious violations of freedom of assembly.” The law on public assembly was updated in 2016; civil society organizations (CSOs) opposed the law because it establishes penalties and fines for organizers of unauthorized assemblies to a point where organizations considered it overly restrictive of the right to free assembly established in the constitution. The law gives the government broad authority to identify organizers and impose misdemeanor sanctions or fines against individuals or organizations. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted that while the laws on freedom of assembly are generally in line with EU standards, the country lacked secondary legislation to implement fully the law on freedom of assembly.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
All companies continued to pay mandatory annual membership to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. In 2017 the Association for Protection of Constitutionality and Legality filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, asserting that mandatory membership was against the constitution. In 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that mandatory membership in the chamber was constitutional.
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.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The law provides protection to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, but implementation fell short in some areas. According to data from the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (SCRM), 196,995 displaced persons from Kosovo resided in the country during the year. These displaced persons were predominately Serbs, Montenegrins, Roma, Egyptians, Ashkali, Gorani, and Bosniaks who left Kosovo, then an autonomous province of Yugoslavia, because of the 1998-99 war. Of these displaced persons, SCRM considered more than 68,000 extremely vulnerable and in need of assistance, because they met one or more of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) vulnerability criteria. This included households that had income below the poverty line; persons living in undignified conditions; persons with mental or physical disabilities; single parents; and elderly persons, women, and children or adolescents at risk.
According to UNHCR research, the 20,000 displaced Roma were the most vulnerable and marginalized displaced population in the country. The most vulnerable lived in informal settlements without access to basic infrastructure, electricity, water, and sanitation and were in constant fear of forced evictions. Internally displaced Roma had a 74 percent unemployment rate, and 98 percent of displaced Romani households were unable to satisfy basic nutritional needs or pay for utilities, health care, hygiene, education, and local transport. According to UNHCR, almost 90 percent of displaced Roma lived in substandard housing, and the vast majority had not been able to integrate into society or return home. The 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 others in urban areas.
The situation of Romani communities worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s subsequent state of emergency. As of mid-March, vulnerable IDPs’ earnings, especially members of the Roma population, had almost completely dried up due to both limited freedom of movement during the state of emergency and the subsequent lack of work opportunities.
IDP children faced difficulty in accessing education when it switched to distance learning models such as television broadcasts and online platforms. This especially affected those who lived in informal settlements and collective centers and did not have access to internet or even electricity. According to UNICEF, less than 2 percent of IDP students had access to alternative modes of education, such as studying from printed materials. Of the 2 percent, approximately 25 percent were Roma, 20 percent were children with disabilities, and 13 percent were students from other vulnerable groups.
Over the past 21 years, the SCRM, with financial support from the international community, had been implementing measures to provide adequate living conditions to displaced persons from Kosovo. According to the SCRM, the government provided displaced persons from Kosovo 5,759 housing units, generally defined as living spaces for one family. The SCRM did not have records on how many of the units were given to displaced Romani families.
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, which was slated to continue through 2020. The strategy was not comprehensive and failed to provide the technical and financial capacity to ensure durable solutions for displaced persons.
During the year the government provided 194 housing units (153 building material packages and 41 village houses) to displaced persons. There were no income generation packages provided during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions of the government’s tendering during the state of emergency. Local NGOs and international organizations provided additional housing, economic 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 SCRM reported 68 displaced persons from Kosovo (all of whom were Roma) remained in the “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. According to the SCRM, an additional 600-800 displaced persons continued to live in 22 informal collective centers scattered throughout the country; these centers were not funded by the state. According to research by UNHCR’s local NGO partner, the A11 Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, living conditions of displaced persons in informal collective centers were extremely difficult due to the lack of or limited electricity, drinking water, and access to bathrooms, as well as health problems, lack of health care, and unemployment.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: Humanitarian organizations noted the government lacked the resources and expertise to provide sufficient protection against refoulement consistently. Various press and humanitarian reports indicated that authorities pushed back irregular migrants without screening them to see if they were seeking asylum, and in at least one case even expelled them from an asylum center into a neighboring country. The situation at the Belgrade International Airport had not materially changed since the 2018 report of the UN special rapporteur on torture, who noted several problems regarding the assessment of needs for international protection and risk of refoulement. There was no systematic monitoring of the situation at the airport; however, free legal aid providers were granted access to the transit zone for counselling of asylum seekers upon request. During the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring, the government closed Belgrade International Airport as part of its decision to close all borders.
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 refugee status or subsidiary protection, and the government has a system for giving protection to refugees. The Asylum Office within the Ministry of Interior (Border Police Department) is responsible for refugee status determination but lacked sufficient capacity, resources, and trained staff to do so effectively. In addition the law does not provide for a court assessment of appeals making the appeals procedure ineffective and cumbersome. A rejected asylum seeker can only file a lawsuit before the Administrative Court after an unsuccessful appeal before the Asylum Commission.
Through September 10, 2,084 persons expressed the intention to seek asylum and 72 submitted asylum applications initiating the formal asylum procedure. UNHCR estimated that most unaccompanied children did not have adequate protection services due to the government’s lack of capacity, especially regarding accommodation. UNHCR noted improvements regarding the provision of guardianship services, but appropriate models of alternative child care, including effective fostering arrangements, were not established. The Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Policy was responsible for overseeing three government institutions for unaccompanied migrant children with a total capacity of 45 beds and two NGO-run institutions with a combined capacity of 30 unaccompanied minor children. In August, 163 unaccompanied children were accommodated in two SCRM asylum centers and 21 in social protection institutions and NGO-run shelters. The SCRM asylum centers–Bogovadja and Sjenic–were located in remote areas without around-the-clock supervision or sufficient child protection staff. According to NGO reports, Bogovadja was especially problematic for children, due to social tensions and violence among the population in the centers. In June the government’s National Preventive Mechanism and NGOs submitted a criminal complaint and informed the ombudsperson about physical abuse of children in Bogovadja by the security staff. The staff were subsequently dismissed.
The government had the capacity to accommodate approximately 6,000 persons in the 18 state-run asylum and reception centers, where the population of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants was mixed. The number of asylum seekers and migrants fluctuated through the year from 5,350 in January to more than 9,000 during the state of emergency when they opened additional temporary centers to handle the increase. During the state of emergency, the government restricted movement for asylum seekers and migrants in the centers, allowing them to leave with special permits only.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: Under the asylum law adopted in 2018, UNHCR reported the Asylum Office had only applied the “first country of asylum” or “safe third country” concepts to reject two asylum cases. All other cases had been judged based on the merits of the individual claim.
For example, the Asylum Office granted international protection to a stateless Palestinian fleeing persecution from Hezbollah in Lebanon, despite the individual having unsuccessfully sought asylum in Hungary, which rejected his case on appeal. Rather than also rejecting the case based on the “first country of asylum” or “safe third country” concept, the Asylum Office granted the individual refugee status.
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. Serbia provided accommodation, food, and basic health assistance to all migrants and asylum seekers in need. These activities were mostly EU funded. Children had access to government-funded education except during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Refugees and asylum seekers generally needed support from NGOs to access these services.
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, Serbia participated in the Regional Housing Program (RHP) to provide housing for vulnerable refugee families who had decided to integrate into their countries of residence. During the year, 1,089 housing units were provided in Serbia (236 building material packages, five prefabricated houses, 39 village houses, and 809 apartments). A total of 5,103 houses were built through the RHP since its inception.
For refugees who originated from countries outside the former Yugoslavia, refugee status did not provide a pathway to citizenship. The government did not issue travel documents to recognized refugees, although it is provided for under the law. 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.
g. Stateless Persons
According to UNHCR, an estimated 1,950 persons, primarily Roma, 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.
Poverty, social marginalization, lack of information, cumbersome and lengthy bureaucratic procedures, difficulty in obtaining documents, lack of an officially recognized residence, and lack of birth registration limited the ability of those at risk of statelessness to gain nationality. The Romani population was in need of legal assistance in the civil registration procedure, obtaining documentation, and the procedures for acquisition of nationality needed to access basic socioeconomic benefits of citizenship and be fully included into society.
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. In October 2019, the Ministry for Public Administration and Local Self-Government, the Ombudsperson’s Office, and UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding to resolve problematic birth registration cases through a case-by-case approach as proposed by UNHCR and NGOs.
Persons at risk of statelessness do not have access to social protection rights such as cash assistance, child and parental allowances, or soup kitchen services. They also were excluded from COVID-19 response measures, since they were not included in the social protection records and lacked identification cards.