Serbia Prepares to Elect a President Amid a Murky Media Landscape
BELGRADE, Serbia — When he was Serbia’s information minister in the late 1990s, Aleksandar Vucic censored journalists, forced media critics out of business and served as chief propagandist for the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman reviled for the atrocities that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Today Mr. Vucic is the prime minister of Serbia, having been elected in 2014 as a reformer on promises to lead Serbia into a democratic future and membership in the European Union. He has renounced the extreme nationalist views of his past.
Western leaders rely on him as a partner to maintain calm within the Serbian minorities in Kosovo and Bosnia, to support their migration policies and to keep sufficient distance from Russia — even though Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has professed his support for Mr. Vucic.
However, Serbian journalists who have reported critically on Mr. Vucic say that little has really changed. They say that tactics of harassment and intimidation have made it almost impossible to do fair-minded journalism.
Stevan Dojcinovic is the editor of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, a nonprofit organization that does online investigative journalism. He is 31, with a steely personality, a short scruffy beard and metal piercings.
He was investigating the undeclared assets of Mr. Vucic’s family last year when his picture appeared on the front page of The Informer, a popular pro-Vucic tabloid in Serbia, five times in one month. Some of the photographs and personal information could only have been obtained from government surveillance, Mr. Dojcinovic says.
“S&M French Spy?” was the lead headline in one issue.
Other articles accused Mr. Dojcinovic of working alternately for organized crime, the businessman and philanthropist George Soros and Western intelligence agencies, without explaining how he managed to juggle working for all three at the same time.
“You can’t hold democratic elections in an undemocratic environment,” Mr. Dojcinovic said.
The repressive news media environment is one reason there is little coverage of Mr. Vucic’s latest gambit: He is seeking Serbia’s presidency and will face 10 other candidates on the ballot this Sunday. He is widely expected to win, but hopes to avoid a runoff. If the front-runner does not receive a majority of all votes, a runoff will be held on April 16, and the results of that head-to-head matchup might be less predictable.
Mr. Vucic says he will resign as prime minister if he is elected. Although the president’s job is mostly ceremonial on paper, it would give Mr. Vucic the ability to consolidate his power over all of Serbia’s institutions: the ruling party, the Parliament, the government and now the presidency, which is supposed to be above politics.
(The incumbent, Tomislav Nikolic, decided not to seek a second five-year term.)
An opposition candidate, Vuk Jeremic, says the Serbian media landscape has become more murky, dangerous and even lawless, with journalists facing economic pressures and media owners facing threats and intimidation, smear campaigns by pro-government media and personal attacks from Mr. Vucic and his allies.
“It has never been like this before, this kind of disbalance and inequity,” says Mr. Jeremic, a former foreign minister, who says he almost exclusively uses social media to reach voters. “In this abnormal situation, you can’t even start talking about freedom of expression.”
Dejan Anastasijevic, 55, a reporter at Vreme, a weekly newsmagazine, said Serbia has “never had a really free and fair election for all candidates,” but this election even surpasses past ones in the absence of a real fight.
“There’s no real debate anywhere,” Mr. Anastasijevic said. The range in commentary is no more diverse than “pro-Vucic” and “extremely pro-Vucic” views, he said.
Mr. Anastasijevic said the situation was in some ways even worse than during the time of Mr. Milosevic, who focused his propaganda on the state media while allowing a robust if small opposition press to operate “as a fig leaf to show that he was not a dictator.”
“Today there is less freedom of speech and more risk if you criticize Vucic or his associates,” Mr. Anastasijevic said. “His inner circle controls most of the economy of Serbia, not just state companies but the private sector as well.”
Mr. Vucic has gotten 120 times more news coverage on Serbian broadcast media than the two leading opposition candidates combined, according to BIRODI, an independent research group.
About 10 percent of front-page newspaper stories about Mr. Vucic over the last month were negative, according to a study by the nongovernmental monitoring organization CRTA, compared with 53 percent and 61 percent for the leading opposition candidates.
A spokesman said Mr. Vucic was campaigning and unavailable for comment.
One of Mr. Vucic’s most vocal supporters is Dragan Vucicevic, the editor and owner of The Informer, which is known for salacious and sordid cover articles, many of them targeting Mr. Vucic’s critics.
“Every newspaper must have an attitude and in this newspaper Serbia and Serbian national interests always come first,” Mr. Vucicevic said in an interview at an office where a portrait of Mr. Putin in a black fur cap looked down from the wall.
While Mr. Vucicevic freely admits to being “old friends” with Mr. Vucic, he rejects accusations that The Informer is a political attack dog.
“We are the only independent media in Serbia,” Mr. Vucicevic says. “Independent from the U.S. government, George Soros, the evil European Union, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Democratic Institute,” he added, referring to Western entities that support press freedom but are often portrayed in right-wing media as henchmen for Washington.
The State Department’s most recent annual human rights report noted multiple problems with freedom of expression in Serbia: harassment of journalists; pressure that leads to self-censorship; and even accusations of treason against critics.
Since Mr. Milosevic left power, “what little democratic gains we have made over the last 15 years are now going down the drain,” said Jelena Milic, director of the liberal Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade. “There is no government, no state, no institutions and no separation of powers in Serbia. There is only Vucic.”