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News 17 Jun 16

Vojvodina's New Rulers Use ‘Phantom’ NGOs to Silence Protests

Journalists in the Serbian province say the new ruling bloc has established pet NGOs to muzzle their own protests against purges at the provincial broadcaster, RTV.

Maja Zivanovic
BIRN
Novi Sad
Protest in Novi Sad. Photo: Balkan Insight

A group of newly established NGOs was due to stage protests in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina on Friday, demonstrating against the recent protests by local activists and journalists in support of freedom of the media.

The counter-protest, set to take place in front of the building of Radio Television Vojvodina, RTV, has organized by seven little known organizations, including “Patku daj tati“ [“Give the duck to daddy”] and “Odbrana izborne volje“ [“Defence of electoral will”], which were registered only this Monday.

Promoters of the counter-protest include former or actual members of Treca Srbija (Third Serbia) a political party close to Serbia’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party, SNS.

An SNS senior official - and future head of the provincial government - Igor Mirovic, has also confirmed his participation.

Civil activists and journalists believe Serbia’s ruling party is setting up its own NGOs mainly with a view to undermining and stifling their own protests in support of freedom of the media.

These started after the board of directors of RTV, following the recent elections in which the SNS won a majority in the Vojvodina assembly, reshuffled RTV’s editorial team.

The purges started in May with the dismissal of the RTV program director, Slobodan Arezina, and the general director, Srdjan Mihajlov.

That was followed by the resignation of the editor of the First TV program, Marjana Jovic, and ten the replacement of 14 RTV editors on May 18.

In protest, 101 RTV journalists signed a public letter calling for the resignation of the new board of directors and for conditions for free journalism on RTV to be restored.

The campaigning initiative, Podrži RTV [Support RTV], organized three rounds of protests and announced new actions focusing on violations of freedom of speech.

One of the organizers of the counter-protests, Milorad Vukasinovic, a journalist and former member of Third Serbia, told BIRN that the protests were clearly political, noting that opposition party officials had been present at those gatherings.

He said the counter-protests were in support of those RTV journalists who had continued working “professionally and responsibly” and who had “diametrically opposite” positions to the 101 journalists behind Podrži RTV.

Sanja Kljajic, from Podrži RTV, told BIRN that no one disputed anyone's right to protests, but added that journalists had a right to wonder who was behind these new “phantom” organizations.

“We also wonder against whom they are protesting and for what,” she said.
Nemanja Nenadic, program director of the watchdog organisation Transparency Serbia, also expressed concerns about the new organizations, adding that one of them, the Institute for Fight against Corruption, had copied parts of the TS statute into its own.

“As much as I was glad that other associations proclaim the same goals as TS, I would expect someone who wants to deal with corruption, or any other area, to have some original ideas about what he wants to achieve,” Nenadic said.

The head of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, Nedim Sejdinovic, called the counter-protest a blatant attempt by the SNS to use “phantom” NGOs to do its “dirty work” and mitigate the public criticism caused by the political purges on RTV.

He said that the authorities had not expected such a strong reaction from domestic and international public to the dismissals of editors and journalists on RTV.

“The authorities are obviously terrified of civil insurgency, which has happened simultaneously in many parts of Serbia and has a tendency towards constant growth. The authorities are beginning to make irrational moves and repeat the mistakes made during the Nineties and the era of Slobodan Milosevic,” he added.

“It is good that that the public has realized that political violence against media freedom affects their freedom, too,” he added.

“I just wish that people had been more active earlier in the protection of their rights, because perhaps then we would not have met the darkness,” he concluded.

In a joint statement, the EU and OSCE missions in Serbia have voiced concern about the situation in RTV, which they said they were following closely.

“The public service broadcaster is a guarantor of quality and diversity of programming content and unbiased editorial policy, in accordance with the principles of independence secured by the Law on Public Service Broadcasting,” the joint statement said.

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