SHARE Foundation, an organisation dedicated to protecting digital rights in Serbia, analysed the state of online media freedoms in the country. Examples of technical attacks on media websites, threats and insults to online journalists show a worrying trend of pressure in the digital environment.
During the devastating floods that hit Serbia and the region in May 2014, many cases were witnessed where freedom of expression and information online were endangered. Websites that published information criticising the actions of the Serbian government during the floods were attacked and the entire blog section on a popular daily newspaper website was taken down after a satirical post. Also, citizens were questioned by the police because they expressed their opinion on social media. In the following two months, the situation did not improve to an appreciable extent.
These issues caused reactions from the international community. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, expressed her concerns because of the incidents, while the Head of the European Union Delegation in Serbia, Michael Davenport, and the United States Ambassador to Serbia, Michael Kirby, called for the respect of the right to free speech on the Internet. Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake sent a letter to European Commissioner Stefan Füle regarding the media situation in Serbia.
Several Serbian media websites, as well as a blog written by two journalists, could not be accessed on multiple occasions due to offensive technical measures, such as distributed denial-of-service (DdoS) attacks. For example, pescanik.net, a web portal of an independent radio station promoting civil society values, was attacked during June 2014 after it published articles about the allegedly plagiarised PhD thesis of the Serbian Minister of Internal Affairs and the allegedly non-existent London PhD of the former rector of a well-known private university in Serbia. One of the authors of the articles about the PhD scandals claimed that her private email correspondence has been illegally accessed. Another example is the website of the daily newspaper Kurir, which was also attacked and made inaccessible several times, the most recent attack occurring on 10 August 2014. It should be noted that these are not the first cases of media websites being under attack. Last December, the website of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) was hacked after it published a story about self-censorship in the Serbian online media. They suffered technical attacks again this February.
Pressure on journalists has also become frequent in Serbia, especially on the local level. Natalija Miletic, a Serbian journalist working in Germany, asked Prime Minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic questions about alleged media censorship and plagiarism during a joint press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She did not receive answers. After the conference the Serbian Embassy in Berlin told her not to request press passes in the future. RTV journalist Mladenovac Dragan Nikolic was arrested because of a post on his Facebook profile about the recent floods – because he allegedly “damaged the reputation” of a high-ranking official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SPP).
These examples taken from the analysis by the SHARE Foundation show that the state of freedom of expression and media in the Serbian online sphere is of considerable concern. The great number of different cases that happened during the past two months highlights that state bodies need to be more active in solving problems and reacting to violations of digital rights and freedoms. Tendencies of different actors to discourage citizens and media to express themselves freely on the Internet create a “chilling effect” and we must continue our struggle for the Internet as a place of open access, as well as free and decentralised exchange of information. It is very important to openly speak about all problems that endanger freedom of speech and information on the Internet so they do not become “business as usual”.
To create awareness for freedom of speech and other digital civil rights issues in the region, EDRi, the SHARE Foundation and Wikimedia are organising an event “Energise! Network! Mobilise!” on 4-5 September in Belgrade, Serbia. The two-day event consisting of panels and workshops will gather activists, civil society organisations and citizens interested in learning more about these issues to exchange their experiences, share knowledge and network.
Analysis of Internet freedoms in Serbia
Energise! Network! Mobilise! in Belgrade, 4-5 September
Internet remembers everything
Government online censorship in Serbia worrying trend, says OSCE media freedom representative (27.05.2014)
Letter to Štefan Füle concerning censorship in Serbia (11.06.2014)
The big Serbian information shutdown (07.07.2014)
Online and citizen media on a turning point: if they wish, web platforms can be equalled with media (06.08.2014)
(Contribution by Bojan Perkov, SHARE Foundation, Serbia)