Cenzolovka, Serbian portal dedicated to media freedom

Cenzolovka, Serbian portal dedicated to media freedom

t is a decidedly agitated post-election period in Serbia, despite the fact that the month of January is generally considered a calm month given the numerous holidays on the calendar. This year, the heated post-election climate is being reflected in debates on social media and is resulting in actual cases of online violence, which have targeted both the independent press and civil society.

Hatred, threats and insults towards journalists

The first targets were Vanja Đurić and Zeljko Veljković, journalists from N1 and Nova television respectively, often critical of the government. The two journalists , on X, had commented critically on the fact that a fourteen-year-old girl had sung patriotic songs dedicated to Kosovo before a Red Star Belgrade match.

Both were immediately overwhelmed by a wave of comments, insults and threats. Vladimir Đukanović, a leading member of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and very active on X, commented  how the journalists had lost their honour, but as a true believer he felt the dutiy to forgive them, light candles for them and hope that "the absurd hatred they carry in their souls" would one day abandon them.

In his tweet, Đukanović says he is convinced that one day the two journalists will repent and confess the bad actions they have committed. He was joined by other politicians from the extra-parliamentary right. The following tweets by trolls and ordinary people, who instigated further insults  and threats, were much less mystical. Pro-government tabloids  soon joined in accusing Đurić and Veljković of attacking  the 14-year-old.

In the end the two journalists were subjected to an actual media pillory, which led Vanja Đurić to delete her account on X after her telephone number had also been made public.

Cenzolovka , the media freedom portal of the Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation , denounced the incident and the treatment of Đurić and Veljković. Cenzolovka's intent was to draw attention to the "verbal torture" suffered by journalists, who explain that they did not attack the fourteen-year-old.

From here on, attention shifted to Cenzolovka which in turn was made the target of insults and threats. The article collected more than 500 comments, 90% of which with offensive content towards the portal and journalists, accused of being enemies of the Serbian people, who consequently should be deported, tried or even impaled...

It is as if someone had given the signal from above, writes the Cenzolovka editorial team. Among other things, this is the second case of threats received by Cenzolovka in less than a month. At the end of December, commenting  on an article, another X user had threatened the portal's editorial staff by claiming that journalists and left-wing sympathisers should all be summarily executed. The tweets were then deleted, but the case was still reported to the prosecutor's office, just as the latest episodes relating to Đurić and Veljković and to Cenzolovka itself were reported to the prosecutor's office.

The impact on journalists

These attacks on journalists and media freedom are not rare. As Perica Gunjić, editor-in-chief of Cenzolovka, states, “almost every day the country's leaders refer to independent journalists as foreign agents or traitors to the country. These definitions are dangerous and quickly become threats that journalists regularly face, both on social media and during fieldwork”.

The Cenzolovka portal remains determined to continue its work, but there is clearly concern about the state of independent journalism in Serbia which, after the change in management at NIN, sees independent voices progressively dying out.

“In Serbia, many journalists cannot work in such conditions and throw in the towel because they are subjected to enormous stress every day. As for Cenzolovka, there will be no self-censorship, we will not be scared and we will continue to work professionally. But all this has a negative impact on the entire journalistic profession which increasingly becomes a form of propaganda for political leaders and deals less and less with investigative and critical journalism".

A multi-pronged attack

In addition to independent journalism, civil society voices critical of the government were also subjected to attacks and threats on social media, including the Crta organisation, which during the electoral round played a key role in observing the elections and harshly questioned  their regularity. Crta immediately became a target of criticism by the aforementioned Đukanović, who said that they should be arrested, and Nebojša Bakarec , another member of the presidency of the Serbian Progressive Party.

Diplomatic representations in Serbia have mobilised in support of Crta and even the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, has expressed her concern .

Together with Crta, judge Majić was also threatened via Telegram by a person who speaks on behalf of the self-proclaimed "president's wolves", who are threatening to take to the streets and clean up all the trash from Serbia . Miodrag Majić, judge of the Belgrade Court of Appeal, is one of the founders of the civic movement Proglas, which before the elections had led a campaign to encourage citizens to participate in the vote. The attacks on Crta and Judge Majić were virtually simultaneous with the Cenzolovka affair.

Troll farms in Serbia

Numerous trolls, or bots as they are more commonly called in Serbia, also participated in the attacks against journalists. The presence of trolls in Serbia, at the service of the SNS, was already documented almost seven years ago, when an insider reported the existence of a small army of trolls who managed a few thousand profiles and who acted in a coordinated manner following well-defined instructions. Last summer, a list of around 14,500 fake social media profiles , managed by around 3,000 people, became public knowledge.

The operating methods were very similar to those reported, with very specific orders given to the various profiles. SNS itself had proudly confirmed that being a troll for SNS was in fact an act of patriotism . Troll factories are not illegal in themselves, but become very problematic if there are threats, insults and acts aimed at intimidating those who think differently.

The word to the prosecutor...maybe

In light of the above, it seems that the attacks on the two journalists and then on Cenzolovka, as well as the attacks on other representatives of civil society, are the result of coordinated activity initiated by political representatives and then relaunched by tabloids and trolls. The cases have been reported to the relevant authorities, in this case the Cyber Crimes Prosecutor's Office, but the judicial system in Serbia has great difficulties in systematically investigating and prosecuting such cases, unless the person threatened is president Vučić .

The risk is that the lack of an adequate response by institutions to such attacks could substantially promote impunity and encourage further online violence, which often precedes physical violence. And this must be an additional element of concern in Serbia, where too many cases of violence against journalists remain unsolved.

Tags: mediafreedom safety

This content is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response  (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.