Beneath the thin veneer of "change", the current regime in Serbia continues to repress the media, NGOs, and civil society.

Wait, the Serbs are now the good guys?

Over the past couple of months, we’ve witnessed something strange. Amidst the turmoil, political infighting, and general disarray wrought by the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe, Serbia has experienced somewhat of a PR revival, shedding its quasi-pariah status and adopting the mantle of champion of human rights and protector of the helpless. A far cry from its image as the chief aggressor in the tragic Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s, the Serbia of 2015 is being internationally lauded as a highly responsible actor in the ongoing migrant crisis; recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself praised Serbia for its handling of the migrant crisis, and dealing with it as effectively as it did despite limited resources and an economy that continues to underperform.

But beneath the thin veneer of “change” with respect to human rights and basic freedoms, and regardless of whatever the current regime in Serbia is doing for the migrants, the government of former dictator Slobodan Milošević’s ex-henchman Aleksandar Vučić is up to its same old shenanigans when it comes to repressing the media, non-governmental organizations, and civil society at large.

Recently, the European Commission released a report that cited tremendous progress in 33 out of 34 analyzed chapters. Included in the report were noticeable gains made in the areas of achieving a functioning market economy, better political stability, and steadily improving relations with its neighbors. While the report did mention weaknesses in the rule of law as well as economic underperformance, what it failed to address in its entirety (although it was briefly mentioned) was the ever-present issue of state-led repression and silencing of non-governmental organizations, the media, and civil society at large.

On November 8, media tycoon and owner of 18 of Serbia’s largest publications Aleksandar Rodić, publicly apologized for producing overly and unrealistically favorable coverage of the current Serbian government and the overall political, economic, and social situation in the country. In a stunning (yet undeniably rare) moment of unfiltered honesty, Rodić described how threats, both direct and indirect, from the Vučić regime to damage his company’s reputation, as well as its legal and financial standing created an overbearing atmosphere of self-censorship among journalists in Serbia. It should come as no surprise then, that for the sixth year in a row, Serbia declined in Freedom House’s annual report on Freedom of the Press, achieving a resoundingly mediocre 74th out 196 countries and a ranking of “partly free” when it comes to having an unrestricted media.

The situation on the ground for the average independent journalist in Serbia is strikingly different from the official legal and constitutional protection the press is guaranteed under Serbian law. Significant state control and ownership of public media, a lack of clearly-defined ownership structures for Serbian media companies, and direct and indirect forms of pressure exerted by political parties and the government itself has stifled the press in Serbia and made it exceedingly difficult for journalists to express themselves freely.

A report published recently by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers entitled “Media reform stalled in the slow lane: Soft censorship in Serbia” explained in detail, the disturbing presence of soft censorship in Vučić’s supposedly EU-ready Serbia, stating that despite the fact that most media outlets were subsidized by the Serbian taxpayers, “public monies are deployed with partisan intent.”

While EU states supportive of Serbia’s alignment with the Union’s policy towards the migrant crisis are busy lauding the Vučić administration with praise, a decades long tradition of stifling free speech and freedom of the press continues to grow unabated. Subsidies are awarded on a partisan basis, licenses and regulations are applied selectively, and there exists a general atmosphere of fear of reprisal among Serbia’s dwindling class of independent journalists. What’s worse is that the superficially positive press that the EU and the West at large is giving to Serbia will only serve as a thin veil to further expedite the degradation of independent Serbian media.

Given Vučić’s past as the Minister of Information for the dictatorial regime of strongman Slobodan Milošević, it should come as no surprise that the “reformed” Prime Minister of Serbia has no qualms about suppressing the media. It was, after all, during his tenure that Slavko Curuvija, a prominent independent journalist, was murdered in a state-sponsored assassination , not long before Vučić vowed revenge on the journalist and his family for defying him publicly.

But this “creeping authoritarianism,” as Florian Beiber, a specialist on Balkan Affairs at the University of Graz, put it isn’t just evident in the sphere of media and the free press; Vučić’s heavy hand is now hitting non-governmental organizations and civil society at large as well.

Several weeks ago, old ethnic sentiments in the Balkans were reignited as the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo applied for membership in UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency. Kosovo, determined to legitimize its unilateral declaration of independence by ascending to prominent international organizations like UNESCO vowed that “Kosovo’s UNESCO membership will better preserve and reconfirm Serb cultural and historical heritage.” Serbia, and the global Serbian diaspora disagreed vehemently, citing 140 destroyed Serbian Orthodox Churches since 1999 as proof positive of Kosovo’s inability and unwillingness to protect Serbian cultural heritage.

What followed was an unprecedented international campaign, conducted mostly in the digital arena and mostly by non-governmental actors from across the globe. Eventually, UNESCO narrowly voted to deny Kosovo membership on Monday, 9 November, 2015.

The failure of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo to attain membership in UNESCO was being touted as a victory by many. Chief among those celebrating that day were members of a Canadian youth-based non-governmental organization (of which, in the interest of full disclosure, we are both active members of), named 28. Jun. It, in conjunction with Serbian-Canadian filmmaker Boris Malagurski, led a successful grassroots social media campaign under the banner of the #nokosovounesco hashtag, creating an online petition which, at its zenith, garnered over 140,000 signatures, and was the driving force behind the UNESCO decision to decline the Republic of Kosovo membership.

In contrast to the dynamic campaign led by 28. Jun that inspired action among hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe and represented the principal reason for Kosovo’s failure to enter UNESCO, the Serbian government ran a rather limp-wristed campaign, only publicly supporting 28. Jun’s efforts mere days before the UNESCO decision was to be made. It played a minor role (at best) in the decision, and the vast majority of the legwork was undertaken by 28. Jun.

Despite this, the Vučić administration audaciously claimed full credit for the victory, even going as far as to claim responsibility for the Twitter hashtag that 28. Jun created. Making no mention of the tireless efforts of 28. Jun and the active participation of the Serbian diaspora, the Vučić regime and President Tomislav Nikolić had no qualms about showering themselves with praise while effectively silencing the NGO’s and grassroots organizers that worked day-in and day-out to make the campaign succeed.

The Serbian government’s active marginalization and suppression of independent media, non-governmental organizations such as 28. Jun, and civil society at large, is an endemic problem in the fledgling Balkan state. What is most frightening is the veneer of transparency under which it is operating. As the Republic of Serbia is being lauded in the international sphere, its continued actions domestically against media, NGOs, and the like are a stark reminder of the regime of Slobodan Milošević twenty years prior. In order for Serbia to experience a full renaissance, it must undertake measures to free the press and provide non-governmental actors with the liberty they need to go about conducting their work. Until this occurs, Serbia will be unable to completely shed the international stigma it has held globally for the past two decades.

[Correction (December 2, 2015): As originally published, this article contained the statement: “On November 8, media tycoon and owner of 18 of Serbia’s largest publications Andrija Rodić, publicly apologized for producing overly and unrealistically favorable coverage of the current Serbian government and the overall political, economic, and social situation in the country.” The owner’s name is Aleksandar Rodić, not Andrija.]