“See, there is no censorship in Serbia!”
That was supposed to be the message of an exhibition that opened last week in Belgrade.
An exhibition in a gallery in the Serbian capital’s downtown displayed 2,500 items from the local press and social networks, including editorials, front-page articles, and tweets critical of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Articles and cartoons from the website of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service are among the exhibited items.
The reason? The communications department of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) have said that the media is constantly crying foul over government censorship. With this exhibition, the party wanted to prove the opposite -- and show that Serbia is a shining beacon of press freedom. Yet the title of the exhibition, Uncensored Lies, makes sure to label all of its content -- all critical coverage of the prime minister -- as lies.
RFE/RL cartoonist Predrag “Corax” Koraksic, who is well represented in the exhibition, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that the SNS “concocted” this exhibition. “But it seems that they failed to anticipate how it would appear to others or what its effect would be. I think it’s a clear own goal,” said Koraksic.
Belgrade-based journalist Olja Beckovic is not amused. Her current affairs TV show, Impressions Of The Week, was taken off the B92 channel without any explanation in 2014. The program Beckovic moderated and produced for almost 20 years was Belgrade’s version of speakers' corner.
Once a bastion of media freedom in Serbia under Milosevic, B92 has come under increasing pressure in recent years from the government. In a number of interviews, Beckovic has claimed that B92 was acting on orders from Vucic, and she compared media freedom in Serbia to its nadir under Milosevic. “I think it’s truly insulting and humiliating that in 2014 we seem to have turned the clock back to 14 of 20 years ago, and that the only way to change things is to once again take to the streets,” Beckovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
“I think everyone has had enough and everyone feels humiliated. We’d all hoped that the day would come when we would fight for our basic rights in some other way,” she said.
Despite being the most popular TV program on B92, the management decided to move Impressions Of The Week to a cable channel, which was unacceptable for Beckovic. The station did not reverse its decision, even after public demonstrations in front of B92 requesting the return of the popular show.
“What is really on display here is the prime minister’s obsession with himself,” Beckovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service on July 19. “And the fact is that he clearly keeps a careful record of everything that anyone has ever dared to say to him, including tweets, apparently.”
Back in 2014, the shutdown attracted some international attention. The Brussels-based European Federation of Journalists joined its Serbian branch in protesting B92’s decision to drop the program, saying it “has the unmistakable odor of censorship.”
The government, however, stood firm. The Serbian defense minister and SNS vice president at the time, Bratislav Gasic, was quoted as saying: “Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic isn’t afraid of any TV show and is not in any way connected to this.” He was responding to a claim by a member of parliament that the show had been taken off the air on the prime minister’s instructions.
And in 2016, responding to claims that the censorship exhibition was actually yet another form of pressure on the media, prominent SNS member Maja Gojkovic responded: “It’s not pressure. My party’s Communications Department has simply gathered some articles, cartoons, programs, in which Aleksandar Vucic, his family, and his allies have been portrayed in the most negative way. It’s not meant as criticism, but those are just lies.”
Many, however, are not convinced. To those Serbs concerned about the survival of an independent media, an exhibition purportedly celebrating media freedom seems more like the government’s brazen attempt to give notice to its critics that it is keeping an eye on them.