CEAS press release regarding the systemic criminalization of citizens' associations conducted by Serbian national frequency television stations, MPs and tabloids

The Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS) welcomes the financial control of media workers and citizens' associations (CA) to be carried out by the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML). At present time, we do not perceive it as an undue pressure, but we hope that certain concerns regarding the procedure will be resolved as soon as possible, as it is in the mutual interest. We emphasize that the recently published list is incomplete, as we are informed by the journalists who published it, so it’s not quite clear how it is determined who exactly is under pressure. Contrary to many on the list, CEAS is not of the opinion that the APML criminalized us by putting our name on it, since it did not publish the list, nor did it put us in that context later, in the statements made by its representatives.

We find it interesting that the so-called investigative portals and media (European Western Balkans, BIRN, Nova S, for example) did not cite our position, although we are mentioned several times on that list.

CEAS still has suspicions about the intentions of those who published the list, especially after the statement made by the lawyer Vladimir Todorić, which exposed the antagonism of the self-proclaimed democratic opposition, that used this case to provide, in our opinion, disingenuous support for the CAs who recognize and support positive trends, or identify the objective circumstances in which the Serbian government operates. Their arbitrariness is obvious, while when it comes to APML, we are yet to decide.

On the other hand, CEAS has for years been carried out by national frequency televisions (considered public good), tabloids that receive different types of state assistance, and MPs like Vojislav Šešelj, who wrote a book about CEAS director entitled Jelena Milić NATO’s Crabs, which he freely promoted on televisions with national frequencies, such as TV Happy and Studio B (MPs are generally financed from the budget that we regularly pay into through various taxes and contributions).

We note with regret that state actors have never referred to it, let alone condemned it, although such satanization of NGOs also poses a security risk, as evidenced by the countless threats we receive, and makes it difficult to carry out our regular activities. Unfortunately, the relevant international actors also rush to point out that the bad relations with citizens 'associations damage the reputation of the Republic of Serbia (RS), but they rarely refer to the operational difficulties CAs suffer because of it.

CEAS warns that the Commissioner for Equality, Brankica Janković, has repeatedly refused to act upon our motions in the case of Vojislav Šešelj, wrongly reasoning that it is the same procedure that we initiated earlier. At the same time, she spoke out in the cases that were not as black and white as this one.

One of the systemic attempts to discredit is constant repetition of the phrase that it is "the high time for the state to have an insight into the finances of CAs ...", which has been reiterated several times lately by the tabloid Informer and on TV Pink.

CEAS would like to call attention to the fact that, according to the national legislation, Serbian CAs are taxpayers just like everyone else, and that we are obliged to submit annual financial reports which, we must emphasize, are publicly available.

Another perfidious manner to discredit CAs is the way in which the project funds they receive are presented - in practice, at least 80% of the funds are spent on the project implementation costs, taxes and contributions, which are mostly paid in Serbia, and running costs.

Several years ago, CEAS pointed out to the fact that the new CAs, many among them pro-Kremlin-minded, are financed mainly through membership fees, which is a kind of bookkeeping black hole, as well as the fact that organizations registered in the Serbian Business Registers Agency (SBRA) operate in northern Kosovo, but without the financial oversight of the tax authorities from Belgrade or Pristina.

Toxic statements, such as the one made to Informer by Ratko Dmitrović, future MP on the Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS) list, in which he called the NGO sector "the hissing suckling snakes" are another indicator of systemic defamation campaigns aimed at discrediting organizations, associations and individuals, making their work extremely difficult and putting them under pressure. The lack of a reaction to scandalous assertion that everyone who "spit on Serbia, the Serbs, RS, Vučić, the patriarch, SANU ..." should be sanctioned, creates grounds for suspicion regarding the manner in which the NGOs are monitored in Serbia. In the same vein are the recent statements of Goran Petronijević and Nebojša Čović, made on TV Happy and the Sputnik portal.

CEAS is project-funded and rarely has any funds that it can set aside to conduct numerous litigations, which we, in the absence of other options, are forced to conduct. In addition to finances, they also draining us in terms of human resources and time spent. It seems that this exactly is the strategy of certain social actors, i.e. the exhaustion of NGOs to the point when they give up on their work.

We remind you that the Council of Europe calls on member states, including Serbia, to respect the right to freedom of association, which is determined by the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe 226/2018. By respecting the resolution, Serbia is obliged to provide civil society with an environment in which it can work unhindered, which includes enabling the civil society to seek, receive and use transparent financial assets and other resources, either domestic or foreign, and to work without any interference or intimidation campaigns against NGOs.

Due to all of the above, CEAS believes that it would be very beneficial if the authorities from the APML and others from the Ministry of Finance, SBRA and other state bodies related to the work of CAs, but above all influential government politicians, would take a position regarding the tabloid satanization of CAs, which is often carried out thanks to our tax payments. This is not "making fuss" for the sake of obtaining funds, but a request for the Serbian CAs to be treated as legitimate actors of public life, in the manner that is expected by the relevant international organizations, of which Serbia is a full member.

PS. This press release is an invitation to Informer to publish it in its entirety.

Belgrade, 30 July 2020