After more than twenty years of investigative reporting, one of the most popular and trusted local weeklies in Serbia, Vranjske Novine, was forced to shut down. It’s founder and editor-in-chief, Vukasin Obradovic, went in hunger strike a day later. He stressed that the fight for media freedom in Serbia was becoming meaningless, and that his move was one of a desperate journalist. The shut down of Vranjske is not a story of print media struggling in the new digital landscape. Something much more sinister appeared to be afoot.
Vranjske Novine was a local newspaper in the southern town of Vranje, but it was considered a paper of national importance.
“Vransjke wasn’t shut down because they didn’t have readers,” Andjela Milivojevic from the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) told Index on Censorship. “They were shut down because the state did everything in their power to shut them down.”
Vranjske didn’t have it easy for years. It was facing threats, political pressure, financial difficulties and its journalists were often labelled as foreign mercenaries by pro-government media. In recent months Vranjske was subjected to investigations by the country’s tax authority and Obradovic received threats saying that they would continue to find something that would discredit the paper. It left him with no other choice than to stop his life’s work.
Three months earlier the paper had published an interview with a former director of the local tax inspection agency, a whistle blower, who revealed corruption. “We think this was the trigger,” said Milivojevic. Obradovic had to stop his hunger strike a few days later because of health problems. He planned to keep the Vranjske website open, but in early December he was forced to close that down as well due to a lack of financing.
Vranjske struggled for years. Their applications for government funds, specially allocated for journalistic productions of public interest, were consistently denied. Instead, subsidies went to pro-government media, Milivojevic explained. “For example, the money would go to a TV station owned by the son of a local politician”.
To Milivojevic and other independent journalists, the Vranjske case stands for everything that is wrong in the Serbian media landscape. And the moment Vukasin Obradovic announced his hunger strike was crucial.
“That was the trigger that moved all of us, because we just couldn’t accept that a journalist who had survived Milosevic, is forced to go in hunger strike in 2017,” she said.
Obradovic is a prominent journalist in Serbia and the former president of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (NUNS). As founder and chief-editor of Vranjske his career dates back to the 1990’s when Slobodan Milosevic ruled the country, then Yugoslavia. “They did stories that were important for the whole country, from war crimes during the 1990s to issues we have today,” said Milivojevic. “Stories that were awarded, stories that we all talked about.”
That same night about a hundred journalists and activists gathered in front of the parliament building in Belgrade, to show their support to Obradovic and his Vranjske. They carried banners reading ‘I stand with Vranjske’. It was the birth of the Group For Media Freedom, aimed to address the lack of media freedom in Serbia.
“We need to do something that will wake up citizens,” Milivojevic, who is one of the initiators, explained. She emphasised that it is not just an issue for journalists, but for all the Serbian citizens. “This is a fight for freedom of speech, and at the end of the day this concerns every single citizen,” she said. “We are fighting for a free democratic society in which we all can do our jobs normally.”
According to Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index media freedom in Serbia has suffered “ever since Alexandar Vucic, Slobodan Milosevic’s former information minister, became Prime Minister in May 2014.” Serbia was ranked 66th, seven places down compared to 2015.
Vucic was elected president of Serbia in April 2017. During a protest outside the presidential building in Belgrade, several journalists faced violence by government security guards, but to date no one has been held responsible. “The public prosecutor said that there was no violence,” says Milivojevic. “But we have pictures showing a big man holding journalists, pushing them, holding them by the throat. We could see it with our own eyes.”
The Group for Media Freedom has compiled a list of demands that they’ve sent to government officials including the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic.
The group has so far organised panels and debates. There was a 24 hour media blackout during which several independent media organisations and NGOs blacked out their websites to show what it would look like if there was no free media at all. But most importantly, they are going around the country, to smaller cities, to reach ordinary citizens. Handing out flyers and talking to people about what free media means for them, Milivojevic explained.
“People will never hear about these problems in mainstream media because they are all controlled by the ruling party,” Milivojevic said. “So we have to go on foot to the citizens and tell them what is happening. If they would know how much money is spent on corruption, how many people are employed without public competition or that the mayor of Belgrade has problematic assets, they would never vote for the ruling party.”