“Give me proof of censorship”, to paraphrase the famous statement made by European Commissioner Johannes Hahn in February 2015 at a press conference in Belgrade. Right before he called the then Serbian prime minister „my friend Aleksandar“.
One of the highest officials of the European Union demanded “evidence, not rumour” about censorship and pressure on the media in Serbia. The only thing more meaningless than that would be if he asked for evidence of self-censorship.
In the 1990s, the dictatorial government led by Slobodan Milosevic severely punished disobedient media, plundered their property, extinguished them, all in accordance with the Law on information which was being implemented by the young minister of information, Aleksandar Vucic. Journalists were killed and beaten, while prosecutors remained silent because there was “no evidence”. Nevertheless, it was a time when Europe had already forgotten about the image of Slobodan Milosevic as “a guarantor of peace and stability in the Balkans,” and only saw him as “the Balkan butcher” surrounded by several associates who were forbidden from travelling to the EU and the US.
Traditionally slow Europe seems to be lagging behind progressive Serbia. Its leaders, who were once upon a time blacklisted for European visas, who are extreme right-wingers, war agitators, and criminals – are now hailed by that same Europe as new guarantors of peace and stability in the Balkans.
Using whitewashed biographies, forgiven sins, and lessons learned from the nineties, the students have far surpassed the teachers. The firearms and cold weapons were replaced by incomparably more lethal – administrative weapons. A bullet kills, a stick breaks bones, while the state apparatus crushes its victims, ever so slooowly – this team knows that far too well.
When tax inspectors audit the work of a media outlet for five years in a row, with each audit lasting for several months, so that they spend almost two years, added up, in the editorial office, without finding the slightest irregularity, it is clear that this is not an inspection representing the public interest and looking for possible fraud and tax evasion, but an administrative weapon.
Without the necessary official warrant, the inspectors started visiting companies which advertise in Juzne vesti, intimidate, threaten, shout at and insult them and their clients.
The stubbornness of some companies which continue to advertise in or cooperate with Juzne vesti has only inspired the tax authorities further.
This time, two teams of inspectors were sent. They worked in parallel for months, auditing the operations of a company with about 20 employees. The highlight of creativity is the scenario in which the inspector first copies the contracts that the outlet has with international institutions like the EU, OSCE, the UN, and then, in the form of “well-meaning advice” shows them to family members of the owners of companies which cooperate with the outlet: Look at these contracts. Your husband’s company works for an outlet that operates on the orders of foreign intelligence services.
After that, the outlet has two choices:
1. To keep quiet and lose part of the money, as the advertisers pull out pressured by the authorities.
2. To inform the citizens of these events and thus lose not only the money of those that the tax inspectors have already chased away, but also to say to anyone who might consider advertising in the future “Do not cooperate with us, the tax administration will ruin you.” And so the outlet is left without money completely.
This scenario, rehearsed with Vranjske novine, also includes a statement by the Prime Minister saying that the outlet simply failed to survive on the market. It was prone to failure.
The outlet gets patted on the shoulder by colleagues, friends, citizens who understand the problem. The state authorities, however, do not see it that way but, rather like Vucic’s friend from Austria, they say “prove your claims”, naively expecting the owners of small companies, hair salons, grocery stores, etc. to stand before the judges and testify against the tax authorities.
By perfidious moves, the government comes to an ideal scenario, almost like from a movie: the victim is dead, there is no evidence of the murder, and the motive is obvious. So, suicide.
I am sure that many citizens are not aware that the extinction of local media, independent of the influence of the authorities, means that the mayor will be able to throw out all the mirrors from his home and office, because he will look much better in the media that remain.
Someone looking at all this from the outside could wonder if European leaders have mirrors too. Maybe they’ve just stopped looking at them, to avoid having to look themselves in the eye.
The author is an editor in chief of Juzne vesti
Translated by Marijana Simic