By Heini Järvinen

In late May 2014, the Balkans were hit by disastrous floods. Internet users began commenting and sharing information on social networks and blogs about the floods, but also criticised the government’s  response to the disaster and relief efforts in certain areas.

Social networks served as a channel quick sharing of information. They were in a key role in facilitating evacuations and rescue, and become even more important than the mainstream media as sources of information. According to the Serbian police, “tweeting and retweeting” helped in rescuing of over a thousand people who would have otherwise stayed trapped in their flooded homes, without means to communicate their location.

In Serbia, a state of emergency was declared by the government to enable the government to function more efficiently in dealing with the disaster. However, it also granted authorities the right to detain individuals for “inciting panic during a state of emergency”. As a result, some social media users were interrogated by the police on charges of “spreading panic”, and texts criticising the government’s efforts and describing the conditions in the flooded areas were removed from the Internet.

As a reaction, a petition against censorship of social media and media intimidation “In the face of censorship” was published on pescanik.net, a web portal of an independent radio station promoting values of civil society. The petition was signed by hundreds of individuals and organisations, supported among others by Serbian commissioner for information Rodoljub Sabic and ombudsman Sasa Jankovic. Bloggers, journalists and citizens reposted the petition on dozens of blogs in Serbia over less than a day, and the hashtag #uLiceCenzuri trended on Twitter.

“The state of emergency does not keep us from calling the state authorities to account, criticising them. Our right to “give lessons” through the human right of article 46 in the Constitution (freedom of opinion and expression), according to law, exists in a state of emergency to the same extent as in any ordinary situation,”

commented Vesna Rakic Vodinelic, professor at the University Union School of Law, Belgrade.

Flood backlash puts Serbian leader in a flap (29.05.2014)
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sasa-milosevic/aleksandar-vucic-serbia-flood_b_5406322.html

#Balkanfloods Online: The Impact of Social Media on Recent Reporting (28.05.2014)
http://www.balkanalysis.com/bosnia/2014/05/28/balkanfloods-online-the-impact-of-social-media-on-recent-reporting/

Serbia’s crisis is no excuse for net censorship (28.05.2014)
http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/serbia-s-crisis-is-no-excuse-for-net-censorship

Serbian bloggers censored for criticizing flood relief efforts (25.05.2014)
http://globalvoicesonline.org/2014/05/25/serbians-fight-online-censorship-of-flood-response-criticism/

In the face of censorship (only in Serbian, 24.05.2014)
http://pescanik.net/2014/05/u-lice-cenzuri/

Floods in Serbia: Twitter army in charge (18.05.2014)
http://inserbia.info/today/2014/05/floods-in-serbia-twitter-army-in-charge/