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Serbian Deals With China On Extradition, Media Cooperation Could Have Lasting Impact

Chinese leader Xi Jinping (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic exchange agreements during a signing ceremony on May 8 in Belgrade.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic exchange agreements during a signing ceremony on May 8 in Belgrade.

BELGRADE -- Though the fanfare from Chinese leader Xi Jinping's stop in Serbia has subsided, deals signed during his recent visit could limit press freedom in the country and expand China's extrajudicial reach, warn experts and activists who spoke to RFE/RL.

"I think anyone who is considered by Beijing to be a critic of the regime should think twice before traveling to Serbia," Laura Harth, campaign director for the rights group Safeguard Defenders, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in reference to an extradition agreement inked in Belgrade on Xi's May 7-8 state visit.

That contract is one of 28 agreements signed between Beijing and Belgrade during the Chinese leader's trip that ranged from infrastructure to energy. But the extradition deal has set off alarm bells among human rights activists focused on China and Serbia who say the Balkan country's lack of judicial independence could open the door to abuse by Chinese officials.

"The signing of an extradition treaty with China is not in itself controversial, but the question is how it will be implemented," Petar Vidosavljevic from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Similar concerns have been raised by independent journalists and media advocacy groups in Serbia about media cooperation and dissemination agreements signed by Serbia's three main pro-government media outlets and the press service of President Aleksandar Vucic with China Media Group, the main entity that oversees China's state-run radio and television broadcasting.

While the text of the agreements have not been made fully public and will have to be ratified by the Serbian parliament to come into force, activists warn that the deal -- when combined with the deterioration of Serbia's media environment -- could further decrease the already shrinking space for independent information in the country.

"The fear is that this will lead to an increase in anti-European narratives across the Balkans," Antoinette Nikolova, director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative, told RFE/RL. "The Serbian information environment is already saturated with Russian propaganda and now it will become an echo chamber for Chinese narratives, too."

"And it's not just that it's coming from Chinese sources. It will be inserted into the media ecosystem and repackaged through its local infrastructure," she added.

Slippery Slope To Extradition

Serbia has signed extradition treaties with numerous countries, such as the United States, Germany, Belarus, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But in the last five years, courts in more than a dozen European Union member states have stopped adhering to extradition requests from China, due to suspicions that the person whose extradition is sought would face repression, abuse, and extrajudicial retaliation back home.

According to Safeguard Defenders, China has thus far signed more than 60 bilateral extradition treaties with countries around the world and more than 40 of them have been ratified by national parliaments.

Since Xi came to power in late 2012, Safeguard Defenders has recorded nearly 70 attempts by the Chinese government to return 400 people to China through the extradition procedure. Most of them were in Europe and the extradition requests were deemed to be on tenuous legal grounds.

Chinese police officers stand on Belgrade's Republic Square during a joint patrol with Serbian police officers in 2019.
Chinese police officers stand on Belgrade's Republic Square during a joint patrol with Serbian police officers in 2019.

The new extradition deal would also deepen a broader web of security and legal arrangements that Belgrade has inked with Beijing in recent years.

Serbia and China signed a 2019 agreement that allowed for joint police patrols between the two countries, permitting Chinese officers to work alongside their Serbian counterparts to deal with an influx of tourists and workers from China into the country.

Belgrade was also the site of one of 54 Chinese overseas "police stations" operated by Chinese authorities to pressure citizens to return home, including through pressure on family members in China.

While most of the cases documented by the overseas police stations appear to be suspects in crimes such as telecommunications fraud or corruption, dissidents have also reported that the stations have been used to monitor and threaten them.

Safeguard Defenders, which first documented the stations, said the Chinese station in Belgrade was used for a case of forced return. Citing Chinese government documents, the NGO says that in 2018 a Chinese national who lived in Belgrade and is identified only as Xia was accused of theft in China and "persuaded to return."

According to the rights group, he was identified by the Belgrade station and contacted over the Chinese messaging platform WeChat, where he was eventually "convinced" to return to China after initially being reluctant to leave Serbia.

While extradition agreements are common around the world, international law stipulates that they follow the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits a country from returning someone to a country where there is a risk of being subjected to persecution, torture, or other human rights violations.

Vidosavljevic says the new deal is worrying given Belgrade's willingness to adhere to extradition requests regardless of whether they meet the non-refoulement requirements or not, citing past examples with Turkey.

Safeguard Defenders' Harth says the agreement also sends a worrying message to Chinese citizens abroad. "All of this leads to a heightened sense of fear in the Chinese diaspora communities who are getting the message from Beijing that they can be reached anywhere," she said.

Media Cooperation

Since Xi's signature foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was launched a decade ago, it has focused on funding and building infrastructure projects around the world. But expanding the reach of Chinese media has also been a centerpiece.

At the BRI Forum in October 2023, the China Media Group -- an umbrella company that oversees state media entities like the Xinhua News Agency, the Global Television Network (CGTN), and China Radio International -- noted that it had signed contracts with 682 media organizations in 151 countries and has broadcasts in more than 40 languages.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping looks on as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks from the Palace of Serbia during a two-day state visit to Belgrade on May 8.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping looks on as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks from the Palace of Serbia during a two-day state visit to Belgrade on May 8.

The agreements signed on May 8 in Belgrade set up cooperation deals with China Media Group and three pro-government Serbian media companies, the public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia, the daily newspaper Politika, and the Tanjug news agency.

Tamara Skrozza, a journalist and member of the Press Council, an independent regulatory body that monitors journalism ethics in the Serbian media, says the deals with the Serbian media entities highlights the lack of transparency surrounding the proposed collaboration.

"We're uncertain about its scope, as well as what limitations these media outlets may face due to such agreements, whether they influence their editorial stance or if it's merely a straightforward exchange of content," she told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Skrozza also emphasized that existing pro-Chinese narratives in Serbia are set to become "even more pronounced after the signing of agreements and memoranda" when combined with the country's declining press freedom situation.

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The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has placed Serbia 98th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index for 2024, marking the Balkan country's lowest standing since the creation of the ranking in 2002.

Tanjug and Politika did not respond to RFE/RL's requests for comment, but Radio Television Serbia said they have been engaged in various types of partnerships with Chinese media companies since 2013. The company's channels have also consistently featured a dedicated slot for airing Chinese documentaries since 2017.

"So far we have aired more than 200 Chinese documentaries covering various aspects such as [China's] history, customs, cuisine, culture, specific crafts, landmarks, and everyday life," a spokesperson told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

The spokesperson added that the new deal was centered upon ways to "facilitate the exchange of content and foster co-productions," and that the company has similar arrangements with broadcasters from Bulgaria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Hungary.

Skrozza says exchanging content on cultural topics isn't problematic, but that the agreement is worrisome because it could lead to a censored and distorted view of life and politics inside China and Beijing's policies around the globe.

"The problem isn't what they will feature in their programming, but what they won't," she said. "If we only show images of Chinese folklore and nature, we're not actually informing the citizens of Serbia about the real situation."

Written by Reid Standish in Prague with reporting by Dusan Komarcevic, Jovana Krstic, and Nevena Bogdanovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Belgrade

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China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

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