The head of a Serbian investigative news outlet being attacked for its work uncovering corruption says his country needs to do more to protect media.
During a visit to the U.S., Stevan Dojcinovic, editor in chief of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), met with journalist rights organizations and investigative outlets to discuss recent attacks on his news website and the overall situation for press freedom in Serbia.
KRIK has been subject to a smear campaign by pro-government media as well as some politicians in recent months, who falsely accuse it of having links to the head of an organized crime group.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his culture minister have both called for an end to the harassment, with Vucic saying "no one has the right to threaten journalists."
The attacks reflect a wider decline in Serbia's press freedom rankings. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country at 93 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, in its annual press freedom index. In its 2020 Freedom in the World Report, Freedom House said the government has "steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition and civil society organizations."
The "abusive language, intimidation and slandering campaigns" that seek to portray KRIK and others as being associated with criminal groups were also condemned by the European Parliament.
In an interview with VOA Serbian, the award-winning Dojcinovic discussed the challenges for Serbia's media and what he believes can be done to protect media freedoms in his country.
"It seems to me that, for the first time, clear and powerful messages have been sent that this must stop. The government has to respect the media," Dojčinović said, adding that it was a good sign that the "world is aware and wants to react" to what has been happening.
Following are excerpts from a VOA interview with Dojčinović. Questions and answers have been translated and edited for length and clarity.
VOA: On several occasions, President Vucic has called on members of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) to stop attacking KRIK in public. Have Vucic's calls helped stop the attacks?
Stevan Dojcinovic: I think that he can stop the pro-government media and members of the National Assembly from attacking us. The attacks continued, even after his calls, so it doesn't seem to really work. Immediately after the president's address, [Aleksandar] Martinović, [the head of SNS in Serbia's National Assembly] accused us of laundering money. They just keep going.
VOA: Why do you think that is the case?
SD: I don't think the pro-government media, tabloids and [members of Parliament] do anything that isn't approved from the top — by the president or the people close to him. That's how things work in Serbia. I think they are allowed to attack us. The reason for it is because of our job. Because we are engaged in investigative journalism. We investigate corruption, alleged links by state officials to crime and corruption, which the authorities do not like. That's why they use pro-government media to incriminate us. It is not how things should work.
VOA: You have said those behind the campaign against KRIK are being allowed to attack the outlet. Who do you believe provides that approval?
SD: I think it is clear that pro-government media in Serbia is releasing content that the government orders them to publish. I suppose that the president does not have to do it personally. Influential associates around him have the power to delegate topics that pro-government media and tabloid press may or may not publish. And I think this is very clear.
VOA: In 2020, KRIK's fact-checking portal Raskrinkavanje found that five of Serbia's daily papers published 1,172 headlines containing false news. The majority of Serbians consume media from these sources. What can be done to prevent the spread of false news?
SD: The audience should not be held responsible. The problem is in the establishing and financing of tabloid newspapers and magazines. These papers are cheap to buy, which is why they can reach a huge number of people. The papers can sell for low prices because they receive large amounts of money through the state financing media projects.
Raskrinkavanje has found that the tabloid newspapers producing the most fake news get the most money through financing by the state, or advertising from state-owned companies. In my opinion, this is what needs to be changed about Serbia's media scene.
VOA: How can this issue be resolved?
SD: The government is the only party capable of doing that. But it won't because the pro-government media are in its service. The European Union, which is interested in resolving issues around Serbia's judiciary and media scene, could have influence. I hope that more pressure will be put on it.
One of the major concerns is media ownership: the significant presence of the government in the ownership structure of many media, and the influence ruling parties have on both state and private-owned media outlets.
Political influence and concentration distort the media market. The lack of plurality can be detected in television and radio, but also with the printed press. An investigative project by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Reporters Without Borders reached the same conclusion.
This article originated in VOA's Serbian Service.