During recent weeks, politicians and pro-government media have been conducing a slander campaign against leading civil society organizations and independent media in Serbia.
Organizations targeted with high profile slander campaign include CRTA (Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability), which runs the oversight initiative Open Parliament and the fact-checking outlet Istinomer, and investigative reporting outlet KRIK, which runs anti-disinformation site Raskrikavanje.
In early March, two Members of Parliament from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Aleksandar Martinović i Vladimir Orlić, verbally attacked CRTA after the organization submitted a complaint to the relevant parliamentary board against Orlić, on account of violating the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament by promoting discrimination, animosity and violence against newsrooms of certain media outlets.
On March 13, in response to the slanderous accusations, CRTA filed a request to the state prosecutors office to initiate investigation about the claims of the MPs Martinović and Orlić about supposed involvement in an attempted coup d’état and assassination of the president. The prosecutors are yet to respond to this demand and initiate a process in which the MPs would publicly testify (as witnesses) and explain the accusations against the organization as an accomplice in a conspiracy against the state.
These grave accusations against CRTA and KRIK are but one form within the trend of institutional attacks against civil society and independent media which raise public interest issues of accountability of state officials and institutions through evidence-based advocacy and professional journalism.
As pro-government tabloids and irresponsible politicians continue to increase tension in Serbian society, many observers fear that the witch-hunt initiated in the parliament can spread on the streets and endanger the safety of journalists, civil society activists and all other critics labeled as ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘enemies of state’.
Since the MPs enjoy immunity from criminal and civil responsibility for claims issued within parliament chamber, an investigation of their claims about supposed conspiracy is the only way that institutions can ask of them to go on the record and substantiate their claims.
CRTA noted that if Orlić and Martinović have any incriminating evidence about supposed high crimes, they must immediately cooperate with the prosecutors. Otherwise it would be clear that they can use the parliamentary immunity to continue to spread hate speech, as well as irresponsibly and without a shred of evidence incite lynching of individuals and organizations.
In practice, the attacks continued with increased intensity, as reported by investigative outlet Insajder. At the parliament session of March 17, MP Martinović again issued a range of accusations against independent media and CSOs claiming that they are “criminal organizations which don’t pay taxes in Serbia and run nontransparent projects” on behalf of foreign governments. That time, the MP also issued a range of accusations and implied threats against CRTA Program Director Raša Nedeljkov and CRTA Director Vukosava Crnjanski, including claims about knowing where she lives, how her apartment looks like and what kind of automobile she drives.
Without providing any evidence, MP Martinović also claimed that CRTA and KRIK editor Stevan Dojčinović are involved in money laundering of millions of dollars.
CRTA reacted to the implied threats, which can also serve as incitement of violence by ruling party supporters or other people who are egged to deal street justice to citizens labeled traitors and criminal profiteers.
In a tweet they noted “The counting of square meters of the apartment of our Director Vuka Crnjanski by Aleksandar Martinović from SNS today in parliament pales in comparison with the bullying message – ‘We know where you live.’
— CRTA (@CRTArs) March 17, 2021
International organization Civil Rights Defenders issued a demand to members of Serbia’s ruling party to refrain from threatening civil society organizations and called upon the Public Prosecutor to investigate recent threats against our partner CRTA at the National Assembly.
The slander campaign also attracted the attention of the European Parliament, which adopted an amendment to the European Parliament resolution of 25 March 2021 on the 2019-2020 Commission reports on Serbia (2019/2175(INI)) condemning the attacks of MPs and tabloid media against KRIK, the Open Parliament initiative and CRTA. This condemnation become an integral part of the official European Parliament resolution on Serbia, which…
39. Stresses that abusive language, intimidation and slandering campaigns against political opponents and representatives of the media carried out by MPs in the plenary of the National Assembly represent a breach of democratic practice and fundamental democratic values that should be strongly condemned and sanctioned in line with the rules of procedure; is appalled by the recent orchestrated attacks carried out by several MPs and pro-government tabloids against investigative journalists and members of civil society, including those from the independent media network KRIK and NGOs such as CRTA and the Open Parliament, portraying them as associates of organised criminal groups and as coup plotters, which is in gross violation of their own recently adopted Code of Conduct for MPs;
The representatives of international community in Serbia also condemned the slander campaign at a number of meetings with civil society representatives.
Highest public official in Serbia commented on the European Parliament resolution, disputing its veracity. President Aleksandar Vučić said that he will tell his party supporters to cease issuing threats and to cease publicly revealing addresses or phone numbers of CRTA and KRIK staff, but that he retains very negative opinion about their work. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stated that the claims from the EP resolution are completely false.
At the opening of the conference “Citizens have the power” on April 8, CRTA Director Vukosava Crnjanski responded to a question by the moderator about whether they have expected attacks of such brutality from the forces that had performed ‘state capture,’ Serbin daily Danas reported.
“The reaction by the European Parliament and the international community showed that there are limits which they would not allow to be crossed [by the regime], even though we, the activists, cannot afford to rely on their support only. The issue here is the right to activism and the right of citizens and activists to fight corruption,” Crnjanski noted.
She said that CRTA’s peril is less important than the threats against whistleblowers like Aleksandar Obradović and Marija Lukić, as well as against local activist organizations like the Red Badges from Smederevo and Defend Tesla from Pančevo.
„It is important to show that we are not afraid and that we stand by the citizens,” Crnjanski concluded.