Flood Stirs New Wave of Censorship in Serbia

By Uhrra June 17, 2014 10:43

Flood Stirs New Wave of Censorship in Serbia

In the aftermath of the worst floods in Serbia’s history that left 30,000 citizens homeless,  the government has continued its crackdown of free speech in the media. As soon as the worst wave of the crisis has passed, serious accusations arose from citizens about the government’s inadequate response, both on the local and national level. Quickly thereafter, an online revolt emerged against Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić’s opportunistic behaviour in the media, using the emergency for self-promotion.

Vučić is well-known for not letting a crisis go to waste. In a major snowstorm earlier this year, Vučić was helicoptered in to rescue children while being broadcasted on public television. Serbian activists saw through the propaganda and started criticizing the government’s inadequate response to the snowstorm in Obrenovac, a town near Belgrade that was one of the worst hit.

The government quickly responded by censoring online media outlets that dared to post oppositional views. First, two blogs critical of the government, Druga Strana and Teleprompter, were temporarily disabled. Quickly thereafter, another blog by Dragan Todorović, a journalist for the Vreme magazine known for his criticism of Vučić, was deleted. Only a couple of days later, the whole blogging platform one of the largest and most popular dailies in Serbia, Blic, was removed without any explanation provided to the public.

As a result, Serbians have started to mobilize online against these blatant infringements of free speech. A group of bloggers drafted up a petition calling for the government to respect free speech and be transparent in releasing information about the flood, including providing names of those who died during the floods.

The bloggers also began trending the hashtag #uLiceCenzuri (#InTheFaceOfCensorship) on Twitter. As the initiative started creating significant buzz, Vučić rejected the online community’s claims as well as similar criticisms made by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, demanding an apology from the Vienna-based organization. In addition, three people were arrested and detained for “spreading online panic“ by making posts on their Facebook profiles allegedly exaggerating the number of deaths during the floods. A dozen more were later summoned on the accusations.

Following this wave of criticisms coming from journalists, activists, bloggers and intellectuals, another story developed that stirred public outrage just last Sunday. A group Serbian academics analyzed the doctoral dissertation of the Minister of Internal Affairs and former National Assembly President Nebojša Stefanović. Their analysis, first published on the website Peščanik, demonstrated not only that he plagiarized many parts of doctoral thesis but that it also failed to fulfill even the most basic standards for an academic work of such degree. As the story exploded all over Serbia’s social networks, government attacks on the website began. Using the combination of Slowloris and denial-of-service attacks, Peščanik’s website was brought down shortly after the article was first published,.

It was clear from the beginning that the website was undergoing attacks, but what was really fascinating was that it was later discovered that the attacks were coming from the very same servers of the university where Minister Stefanović acquired his doctoral degree.

Both the university and the government officials rejected these claims, while Vučić called it “the dumbest explanation he ever heard” and summoned experts to give their opinion on the matter. In the meantime, Minister Stefanović’s thesis was made public.

While Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party still holds a majority in parliament after winning 48.35% percent in the March elections, the Prime Minister’s recent wave of controversies may soon hurt his image. Besides the censorship and poor response to the flood, Vučić is also dealing with huge financial problems and staggering unemployment.

New protests are planned in the upcoming days calling for less media control and respect for the freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution. However, Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party’s popularity is stable despite the heated atmosphere in the online community. In fact, One recent polls show that their support has grown 2% since the last election held in March. This can only be explained by the tight grip the government has over the media. Since most popular dailies widely read outside Serbian cities are tied very closely to the establishment, the internet is currently the only true voice of the opposition. Meanwhile, the opposition is unorganized and without a real representative in the parliament after a divisive election that lead to much infighting.

The opposition needs someone who could unite them, but no clear leaders look promising in the near future. In the meantime, it’s up to a handful of journalists, bloggers and activists to stand on the frontier of free press and speech in Serbia.

Written by Aleksander Kokotović

Mr. Kokotović is Young Voices Adcocate and International Outreach Director for Libek, a Serbian think tank. Aleksander is pursuing a Bachelors degree in Political Science at the University of Belgrade. A native of Serbia, Aleksander speaks regularly at events across the globe.

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By Uhrra June 17, 2014 10:43

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