Despite already holding a general election just over 18 months ago in April 2022, Serbia is getting ready for snap elections scheduled for 17 December 2023. If you are new to Balkan politics and ways of staying in power, the first lesson is to keep everything in a state of perpetual electoral campaign.
Since coming to power in 2012 as deputy prime minister, and prime minister, now president Aleksandar Vucic has mastered the art of permanent election with parliament’s tenure usually lasting between two and three years. There was no government since 2012 that held onto power for the full four-year term.
Already known for fiery rhetoric and labelling opposition figures as national traitors, Vucic is also recognisable as a minister of information during the infamous regime of Slobodan Milosevic, one of the key architects of the conflicts in the 1990s. Vucic’s tenure as a minister of information was marked by the most famous unsolved crime – the murder of Slavko Curuvija, a leading voice of the opposition media.
To this day, the media landscape in Serbia is muddled with tabloid-style outlets, more concerned with supporting the regime from which they benefit rather than reporting accurate information. The bias is clearly visible. According to some reports, the president spoke almost 250 times on media with national coverage just in the first 10 months of this year. Aggressive pro-government rhetoric is additionally supported by aggressive language, profanities and negative reports on media nominally in private ownership but either with a government-friendly ownership structure or directly supported by public institutions.
Officially, the Serbian government is a pro-EU one, even aspiring to become a member of the bloc and somewhat of an integrative leader in the region. In 2020, Serbia adopted its media strategy with one of the goals to minimise the state’s stake in media ownership and control. Despite this goal, and the legal provisions at the time the government is heavily involved in media ownership and operation, indirectly through public companies such as Telecom Serbia, which controls Arena Channels Group, which operates close to 20 news and sports channels broadcasting across the region.
In October 2023, the changes in the media legislation were adopted in the Serbian parliament, effectively legalising this kind of state interference and control. Further, the new changes do not take into account ethical reporting and do not set standards for reporters or media outlets, at the same time giving the state’s regulatory body (REM) effectively a green light for political decision-making and favouritism. In a country already burdened by a partially free regime, the control over media exemplifies the dangers to the freedom of speech we must all rise against.
Free and independent media is crucial for improving citizens’ participation in democratic processes such as elections and is the key to an inclusive government that has access to different opinions, ideas, thoughts and concerns. Voices of all need to be heard, regardless of their support or opposition to the government, and journalists need to be guaranteed that their reporting will not be sanctioned, censored, or even worse, cause a threat to their lives.
Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, we call upon the politicians and civil society in Serbia to employ additional efforts in creating an open, free, and safe environment for journalists, media outlets and citizens alike.