a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press and other media, 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 2021 report from the watchdog organization Freedom House labeled the country as a “transitional or hybrid regime” and assessed that “the state of fundamental freedoms and democratic institutions in Serbia continued to deteriorate, with no sign of improvement.”
The NGO Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym, RSF) in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index report stated, “Serbia is a country with weak institutions that is prey to fake news spread by government-backed sensational media” and that the government used the COVID pandemic to limit press freedoms.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution prohibits the expression of beliefs that provoke or incite religious, ethnic, or racial hatred. Those who provoke or incite this intolerance face various degrees of punishment, ranging from months to years in prison under the Criminal Code. Article 75 of the Law on Public Information and Media bans hate speech noting, “ideas, opinions, and information published in media must not incite discrimination, hatred or violence against individuals or groups based on their (non)belonging to a certain race, faith, nation, sex, due to their specific sexual preferences, or other personal quality, regardless of whether their publishing constituted criminal offence.”
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other 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. The largest distributors of paid media content were the United Group and Telekom Serbia, a majority state-owned firm. General regulations on the protection of competition were applied by government regulators, but they did not prevent the creation of a duopoly in media content distribution, with the United Group and Telekom Serbia fighting for audiences by limiting content availability on competing networks. Media dependence on government advertising revenue strongly benefited political incumbents, who observers noted could leverage this for their political gains, and made it difficult for opposition leaders, who lacked broad access to media outlets and finances, to reach potential voters.
Tabloids remained popular and powerful conduits of disinformation. Many of the targets of tabloid “hit pieces” were political leaders of opposition parties or civic activists and independent journalists. Such stories were often presented with false or misleading headlines on the front page. A detailed analysis published in April by the Belgrade-based fact-checking portal Raskrikavanje showed Belgrade’s five major tabloids published a total of 1,172 “fake, unfounded, and manipulative” news stories on their front pages in 2020. There were no effective sanctions for unprofessional journalism.
One new daily newspaper, Nova, owned by the United Group, began publishing during the year, despite being unable to find a printing press in the country willing to print its editions. Nova is printed in Croatia.
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 95 registered attacks on journalists during the year, of which one was a physical attack, one was an attack on journalists’ property, one was a threat to a journalist’s property, and the remaining were verbal or online threats or intimidation. In 2019, authorities detained Aleksandra Jankovic Aranitovic without bail for vulgar criticism of President Vucic on Twitter. In January 2020 the High Court of Belgrade gave her a suspended sentence of six months imprisonment. According to the court verdict, the judge determined the tweet constituted a threat. Authorities released Aranitovic on the day of the verdict since she had been held in detention during the six-month procedure. On March 16, the Appellate Court in Belgrade overruled the High Court’s conviction and issued a final judgment acquitting Aranitovic of the charges. Aranitovic was seeking damages for time spent in prison.
On February 23, the Second Basic Court in Belgrade sentenced former Grocka mayor Dragoljub Simonovic to four years and three months of prison for ordering an arson attack on journalist Milan Jovanovic’s house in 2018. The court also sentenced two of Simonovic’s associates to four years in prison. Simonovic appealed his conviction, and on December 24, the Court of Appeals in Belgrade overturned the verdict, and the case was expected to go to trial again.
On April 16, attackers pepper-sprayed radio host Dasko Milinovic while he was walking to work in the city of Novi Sad and knocked him to the ground and beat him with metal rods. Milinovic hosted a daily talk show, where he commented on local and national political issues. Police quickly arrested the perpetrators. The Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Novi Sad charged two individuals with violent behavior and one individual with incitement to violent behavior related to the attack.
In March, following a widespread smear campaign against the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) during which government-affiliated tabloid media accused KRIK journalists of cooperating with organized crime elements to endanger the country’s president, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, the Media Association, the Online Media Association, and the Association of Independent Local Media withdrew from the government’s Working Group on Security and Protection of Journalists. These associations accused the working group of ignoring serious attacks and endangering the safety of journalists and media in the country.
In 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 September 2020 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 in October 2020. On December 2, the Special Court in Belgrade again convicted and sentenced these individuals to 100 cumulative years in prison for their role in Curuvija’s murder.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports that the government actively sought to direct media reporting on several issues. Economic pressure sometimes led media outlets to practice self-censorship, refraining from publishing content critical of the government due to a fear of government harassment or economic consequences, according to media association representatives.
In part due to the saturation of the media environment, outlets continued to rely 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.
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 REM did not pursue its mandate effectively and continually sided with the ruling party, ensuring an unfair media environment. According to the NGO Bureau for Social Research media monitoring, most outlets were openly progovernment in their coverage, with President Vucic being presented positively in 85 percent of his appearances. In one five-month period, for example, Vucic received five hours of coverage on the main news program of Radio Television Serbia, while the nine largest opposition parties were given a total of nine minutes, according to analysts cited by independent daily Danas.
A member of REM resigned in December 2020 due to the way in which the new president of the council was elected, calling it a violation of democratic procedures in the council and emphasizing that analyses by both domestic experts and relevant international organizations indicated that REM was not performing its basic function.
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 that often mirrored or amplified rhetoric employed by public figures on social media. They were often targeted by distributed denial of service attacks against their websites.
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.
In August, Twitter labeled most major media outlets in the country as “media that cooperates with the Government of Serbia.” Twitter stated, “State-affiliated media are defined as outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.” The Ministry of Culture described Twitter’s decision to label certain media in the country in such a manner as “censorship.” Separately in 2020 Twitter deleted 8,558 “bot” accounts in the country that it said were engaged in “inauthentic coordinated activity.”
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.
The law on public assembly was updated in 2016; civil society organizations 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 2021 Report noted that while the laws on freedom of assembly are generally in line with EU standards, no progress was made to align them with the Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) or on the adoption of secondary legislation to fully implement the law on freedom of assembly.
On November 27, several thousand persons blocked roads and bridges in Belgrade and several other cities to draw attention to environmental issues. There were some reports of minor physical confrontations between police officers and protestors. These demonstrations continued December 4, as tens of thousands of persons blocked roads and bridges in Belgrade and approximately 50 other cities and towns throughout the country. The demonstrations were peaceful, and there were no reports of altercations between protesters and police. There were some reports that police visited potential protesters ahead of the December 4 demonstrations to discourage them from participating and warn that they could face criminal charges if they did. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported four incidents of police visiting journalists’ homes and verbally warning them not to report on or show up at the protests.
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.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
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), 196,140 displaced persons from Kosovo resided in the country during the year. These displaced persons were predominantly 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, the 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. The criteria 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. They 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. Vulnerable IDPs’ earnings, especially members of the Romani population, had almost completely disappeared due to 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.
During the past 21 years, the SCRM, with financial support from the international community, implemented measures to provide adequate living conditions to displaced persons from Kosovo. According to the SCRM, as of 2020 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 established a National Strategy on Refugees and Internally Displaced People, but it expired. The strategy was not comprehensive and failed to provide the technical and financial capacity to ensure durable solutions for displaced persons.
In 2020 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. 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. As of 2020, the last year that data was available, many of the more than 68,000 extremely vulnerable displaced persons from Kosovo lived in substandard private accommodation. In 2020 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 in 2020; 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.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status or subsidiary protection, and the government has established 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. Additionally, 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 a total of 1,326 persons expressed the intention to seek asylum, and 127 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 childcare, 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 2020, 163 unaccompanied children were accommodated in two SCRM asylum centers and 21 in social protection institutions and NGO-run shelters.
The government had the capacity to accommodate approximately 6,000 persons in the 19 state-run asylum and reception centers, where the population of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants was mixed, although only 13 centers were operational. The number of asylum seekers and migrants fluctuated through the year from as low as 4,700 in July to more than 7,100 in January.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: Under the asylum law, UNHCR reported the Asylum Office had only applied the “first country of asylum” or “safe third country” concepts to reject two asylum cases since 2018. 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, although the individual had 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.
Refoulement: Humanitarian organizations noted the government lacked the resources and expertise to consistently provide sufficient protection against refoulement. Various press and humanitarian reports indicated that authorities pushed back irregular migrants without screening them to determine whether 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. Providers of free legal aid, however, were at times granted access to the transit zone for counselling of asylum seekers upon request.
The government’s Mixed Migration Group met in March to adopt the group’s annual contingency plan.
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. The country 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. 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. In 2020, 1,089 housing units were provided in Serbia (236 building material packages, five prefabricated houses, 39 village houses, and 809 apartments). As of 2020 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 bylaws 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 2,141 persons, primarily Roma, Egyptians, and Ashkali, were at risk of statelessness in the country; several hundred 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 needed 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.
Under existing regulations, children of undocumented parents can be without birth registration for upwards of a year. Until they are registered, children remained legally invisible, at risk of statelessness, and deprived of access to numerous rights, such as health care and social protection. The Ministry for Public Administration and Local Self-Government, the Ombudsperson’s Office, and UNHCR have a memorandum of understanding to resolve problematic birth registration cases through a case-by-case approach 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.