Since the constitutional coup against the western-leaning Serbian President Alexander Vucic in late May 2023, in which he was forced to resign as President of the ruling party with over a 50% majority in Serbia’s Parliament by a cabal of drug dealers he was on the precipice of arresting and removing from power, Serbia has suffered from a general descent into political chaos. The first thing that occurred was that the country’s de facto new ruler, the Minister of Defence, started stoking civil unrest in North Kosovo, a centre for the European drugs trade, in a series of events we have already described.
Now a new set of laws and regulations have been proposed that will drastically curb freedom of speech in the Republic of Serbia. The measures proposed include:
The entire board of the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) be dismissed. The REM is a quasi-autonomous independent entity responsible for granting and revoking broadcasting licences. Under its current composition it is relatively moderate, granting licences to legitimate media organisations and seldom if ever revoking them. In other words, the organisation upholds the European values of free speech. The suggestion that the entire board of the REM be dismissed is therefore highly alarming.
The REM's members are appointed by a broad church of religious leaders, politicians of various hues, civil society organisations, and various academic and professional people. The organisation is therefore independent of government for all practical purposes. It is one of the few examples in Serbia of effective participation of civil society in the process of government. The attack upon it is therefore something that should be of concern to the international community.
There is a call for close two popular Serbia TV stations, TV Pink and TV Happy. These television stations could not really be described as processors of high-quality objective news; but they are reasonably popular and the greater majority of their content is light-hearted news. The idea that these two popular Serbian TV stations should be peremptorily closed is profoundly disturbing.
There is also a call that print media should be closed down that distribute fake news or falsehoods. However there is no jurisdiction, whether on the part of the ERM or otherwise, to do this under Serbian law, just as there is not in most western countries. Print journalists do not require licences from the government to exercise their professions.
These demands are being made by so-called "citizens' societies", which are very complex organisations. Parts of them are legitimate civil activists; parts of them are fronts for the Russian-funded opposition; parts of them are fronts for the drug cartels and indeed for those people's representatives in the Serbian National Parliament that recently forced President Vucic to resign from leadership of the principal party in Parliament. It is not immediately clear to this author which parts of the "citizens' societies" are calling for these dramatically regressive measures.
The same citizens' societies are calling for a series of amendments to the law governing the REM to introduce new qualifications for membership of the Board of the REM, the purpose of which amendments is not entirely clear but has the potential at least to be insidious by excluding specific individuals from membership that the citizens' societies do not like because those people have liberal attitudes towards freedom of speech that the citizens' societies seek to curtail.
The citizens' societies are calling upon government to stop advertising or engaging in other public procurement exercises with certain media organisations, without specifying which ones and without explaining with any clarity the criteria upon which such decisions should be made. Now it is true that Serbia has a history of political influence over the media by funding advertising and other projects with newspapers that publish content favourable to them. Indeed it may be said that the Serbian government has bought such newspapers in some (but not all) instances. However this is not the solution. It is impossible in practice to say that governments should not be allowed to advertise or to use the media. But an independent regulator controlling the way that they do this is the appropriate way of addressing this problem.
It is true that Serbia has had a series of problems with freedom of the press in the past. But requiring the Serbian government to pull funding from newspapers would exacerbate those problems, not alleviate them, because a number of Serbian newspapers (that generally express a diverse range of political views) are reliant (probably too reliant) upon government funding at this time and were such a measure to be instigated, several of those newspapers, including several very good ones, would be at risk of collapse.
The citizens' associations in question have filed lawsuits seeking the revocation of all electronic media licences, a draconian measure that the courts are surely rightly ignoring. The success of such a lawsuit would close down electronic media in Serbia in its entirety in a single stroke. It would be a catastrophe for freedom of speech in the country.
The citizens' associations are also calling for the intervention of the Prosecutor's Office to prosecute violations committed by journalists. This is quite reprehensible. It is a European standard, affirmed by the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, that absent the most extreme circumstances (for example, an immediate call for the immediate use of unlawful violence, the US Constitution's First Amendment standard) it is wholly inappropriate for the criminal law to intervene in the activities of journalists.
The European Union has been talking about access to the Union of the countries of the Western Balkans since at least 2000 - well over 20 years. To date, only Slovenia and Croatia have joined: Slovenia in 2004 and Croatia in 2013. The European Union has committed itself repeatedly to undertaking all the measures of institution-building and investment in the region necessary to achieve this, and yet the vast majority of the region remains outside the European Union and in profound trouble as a result. A new approach is needed, in which things like backsliding in Serbia's freedom of expression legislation are not possible because EU institutions of oversight can act to supervise such measures - with Serbia, and all the other countries of the region - inside the European Union.
Dramatically new policies are needed on the part of the European Union and the international community more generally if we are to succeed in the Western Balkans in the face of decades of failure. This author believes he has some fresh ideas on how to succeed, that might not necessarily cost a lot more money (large amounts of money are already being spent in the region). We shall see, in time, whether his ideas succeed.