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Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at the Belgrade exhibition Uncensored Lies

“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.

From the Uncensored Lies exhibition
From the Uncensored Lies exhibition

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.”

Uncensored Lies exhibit
Uncensored Lies exhibit

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.

A Gulen school in Sarajevo.

As if Bosnia did not have enough of its own problems, it is at risk of becoming embroiled in the increasingly fraught domestic struggles of Turkey. The country’s friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is certain to come under strain because of the extensive network of Fethullah Gulen’s schools scattered across the country.

In January 2015, Erdogan had asked for the closure of the entire network of Gulen’s schools in Bosnia, according to the Bosnian daily Avaz. Apart from the capital Sarajevo, they are present in all the major centers in the Muslim-Croat Federation -- Bihac, Zenica, Tuzla, and Mostar. The request was not sent through regular diplomatic channels, but directly to the ruling Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) run by Bakir Izetbegovic.

Gulen schools have been active in Bosnia since 1997. Several hundred flats, kindergartens, high schools, and universities are part of the network. The most prominent are the International Burch University in Sarajevo and the Una-Sana college in northern Bosnia.

The Gulen movement is dedicated to investing in education for the lower and middle classes. The movement states its purpose is to impart the moral values of Islam, as well as subjects such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry, with a view to forming a new Turkish elite and eradicating the secular ideas of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

Postwar Bosnia has been an important playground for Turkish politicians. With Erdogan keen to revive memories of his country’s imperial heritage, the former Ottoman province could be an ideal stage for Turkey to flex its muscles as a regional power.

There is a new geopolitical context, as well. Since the war (1992-1995), Bosnian Serbs have been looking to Serbia as their “motherland,” and Bosnia as a kind of “temporary home.” It is similar with the Bosnian Croats. Croatia is the “homeland” and their presence in Bosnia seen as merely accidental. Squeezed between the two, many Bosnian Muslims have turned to Turkey. Turkish flags are often waved by young fans in the streets of Bosnian cities following sporting victories.

However, Turkey’s patronage of Bosnia’s Muslim community is more apparent than real. It is a myth that Turkey is the biggest investor in Bosnia. In fact, Austria tops the list and Turkey is not even among the top 10 investors in the country. But Turkey did help with the restoration of the famous Old Bridge in Mostar. It was also involved in the latter stages of another landmark project, the reconstruction of Banja Luka’s Ferhadija mosque, opened on May 7, 2016.

In other words, Turkish investments in Bosnia are token by comparison with other countries, but they are focused on the rebuilding of highly symbolic structures from the Ottoman period, which were destroyed in the war. Such perceived expressions of “brotherly love” between Turkey and the Bosnian Muslims are viewed askance by Belgrade -- even though Turkish investments are far higher in Serbia and Croatia.

In terms of foreign education, however, Turkey dominates -- for now, at least. A few months ago, the official line from Sarajevo’s International Burch University was that as an institution of higher education it was founded and run in accordance with local regulations, and was subject to oversight by the Bosnian authorities. There has been no comment since the ongoing crisis in Turkey began to unfold, with the government’s crackdown on alleged Gulenist supporters including thousands of teachers and university deans.

The Turkish Embassy in Sarajevo has previously disowned the Gulenist educational network in Bosnia, stating that “the Turkish state has no link with Bosna Sema [a Gulen school],” and asking Bosnian citizens to be wary.

The same appeal for caution was issued by Salmir Kaplan, the former culture and sports minister in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the country’s two constituent entities. Kaplan had first-hand experience of the Gulen schools and has said he was struck by their cult-like aspects. Others, like Slavo Kukic, a professor in Mostar, have pointed to the absence of any educational standards. It is too easy for anyone to open a university in Bosnia, Kukic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service:

“The first universities and schools [after the war] were started in gas stations. They did not have space. Now they are producing PhDs. The way it seems to work is -- enroll on Thursday and graduate by Saturday, metaphorically speaking. We will pay for this [laxity] in the next decade.”

For Bosnia, the proliferation of foreign educational institutions, in the form of Gulenist schools, has thus far seemed more benign than the parallel invasion of Saudi-style mosques preaching a severe form of political Islam. But with events in Turkey escalating dramatically, Bosnia may find itself no longer a showcase for Turkish power and largesse, however token or symbolic, but a new battlefront in a suddenly furious domestic dispute.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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