How to contribute to the public debate

Belgrade Waterfront

Photo: Pescanik

According to Danas and Insajder, the Appellate court in Belgrade has upheld the verdict of the High Court, in which Vesna Pesic and the editors of Pescanik were found guilty of a violation of honor and reputation of the minister of police. What constitutes this injury? Allegedly, the statements made by Vesna Pesic in the article “Desolation”, saying that “the stupidity of the minister of police is unmatched and unpredictable,” and that he was “assigned the role of the biggest fool.”

Let us now leave aside domestic and European laws and the judicial practice that require holders of public functions to be more tolerant of critical statements, even when those statements use strong and bombastic expressions – lawyers who are experts in these issues have already dealt and will be dealing with this. Let’s turn instead to the sentence from the explanation of the verdict, which says that the statements made by Pesic in her article “do not contribute to the public debate and are not aimed at solving the problem.”

The problem in question is the unlawful demolition in Hercegovacka Street, whose background has not been solved to this day, and whose perpetrators have not been brought to justice. However, this problem cannot be solved by articles on Pescanik or any other medium – its resolution is the exclusive duty of the competent authorities, that is, the police and the prosecution. If this problem is not solved, then this is certainly a question for the authorities mentioned, and not for the authors of critical articles, such as Vesna Pesic. Namely, the article in question is not (nor should it be) “aimed at solving the problem” of the nighttime demolition in Hercegovacka, but at criticizing those whose duty is to solve the problem and who are obviously avoiding doing so.

And how about a lack of “contribution to the public debate?” First of all, it should be noted that not only is the minister of police not stupid, but he seems to be extremely smart. Being actively and successfully engaged in politics while, at the same time, writing and finishing a doctorate at the prestigious Megatrend University is a feat that could only be accomplished by a highly gifted individual. Since these achievements of the minister are well known to the entire Serbian public, including Vesna Pesic, it is clear that her assessment of the minister’s “stupidity” can only be interpreted as ironic. This was confirmed by Pesic herself, when she claimed that the stupid behavior of the minister of the police is a consequence of the role assigned to him, not his personal lack of intelligence. Her claims can therefore be read as a question: what could possibly compel an undoubtedly supremely intelligent and gifted young man like Stefanovic to act so stupidly and make stupid claims publically? When asked why the police did not do their job in Hercegovacka, the demonstrably intelligent minister is saying very stupid things – why?

This seems to be a relevant question and could be considered an important contribution to the public debate on the demolition in Hercegovacka, under one condition – that such a public debate really existed. However, if we omit a handful of independent media like Pescanik, there was actually no public debate on this issue – neither in the representative bodies, nor in the mainstream media. The fact that the verifiably intelligent minister was able to say such nonsense, and that no journalist of the most watched and read media concluded that it was nonsense, best speaks about the nature of the public discussion on the demolition in Hercegovacka, and the state of the public sphere in Serbia in general.

More than two and a half years have passed since the aforementioned stupid statements by the very smart minister of police and the article in which Vesna Pesic criticized them. During this time, the situation in the Serbian society has worsened. Parliament – an institution that should play a central role in the articulation of public arguments – is completely blocked by the obstruction of the parliamentary majority. The activity of the mainstream media has been completely reduced to the uncritical transmission of the increasingly pointless statements of public officials (any statement by the current prime minister of Serbia can serve as an illustration of this practice). Any public criticism of the work of government institutions and officials is met with intimidation, pressure, and attacks in the tabloids. Marcuse’s words written more than 50 years ago perfectly describe the situation in Serbia in 2018: “The political locus of tolerance has changed: while it is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition, it is made compulsory behavior with respect to established policies.”

The only way to “contribute to the public debate” in this situation, is to call things as they are, loud and clear. Which is exactly what Vesna Pesic does in her articles.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 26.11.2018.