In late May 2014, Serbia was hit hard by flooding in what became the largest natural disaster the region has seen in the past century. The catastrophic floods not only have taken a yet unknown number of lives and homes, but have also brought to light the pressure and censorship the current government, led by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has been placing on media.
Bloggers, journalists and rights-conscious Internet users have banded together in the aftermath of the massive floods with a flood of their own – a unified blog post [sr] speaking out against censorship and media intimidation that was posted and reposted on dozens of blogs [sr] in Serbia over less than a day.
As flooding surged in the region, leaving several cities in Serbia under three or more meters of water, the Serbian government instated a state of emergency. Apart from aiding in the evacuation of flooded areas and supposedly allowing for more efficient government functioning, the state of emergency also gives authorities certain liberties, such as detaining individuals for “inciting panic during a state of emergency.”
As Internet users began commenting and sharing information on social networks and blogs about the floods, many of them also criticized the government's lack of due warning for a natural disaster of this size and its poor response in some areas.
With the state of emergency in place, some social media users were brought in for questioning by police forces under the suspicion of “inciting panic” for criticizing government relief efforts.
Originally written and posted by what seems to be a small group of organized local bloggers who intentionally began spreading it across the web, the post first appeared on May 24, 2014. At the time of this post's publication, it has spread rapidly among social media users throughout the region and carries a now widely popular hashtag on Twitter – #ulicecenzuri (“in the face of censorship”). A Facebook page for the movement created on May 24 has already garnered nearly 800 likes.
The viral post, titled “In the Face of Censorship” and with a subtitle containing a clear message to authorities – “Because you can't arrest us all or proclaim us crazy” – begins:
U danima kada, usled nemara, nesposobnosti i neodgovornosti vlasti, hrabri i humani građani preuzimaju funkcije države i pomažu unesrećenima iz poplavljenih i ugroženih područja – vlast troši vreme i energiju na kršenje slobode izražavanja, napadajući i gaseći internet stranice koje pozivaju na odgovornost.[...]
U nedostatku snažne parlamentarne opozicije, uz mali broj štampanih i elektronskih medija koji kritikuju vlast, vlada Aleksandra Vučića i njeni pomagači napadaju kritičku misao na internetu, gušeći slobodu izražavanja. Suočena s neugodnim pitanjima i činjenicama koje joj ne idu naruku, vlast pribegava sili, čime dokazuje da nema argumente kojima bi odbranila svoje postupke.
In the days when amid the negligence, ineptitude, and irresponsibility of government, brave and humane citizens took on the functions of state and are helping the victims from flooded and endangered areas, the government is wasting time and energy on abusing freedom of expression, attacking and shutting down Internet sites that are demanding accountability…
In the absence of a strong parliamentary opposition, with a small number of print and electronic media criticizing the government, the government of Aleksandar Vucic and its accessories are attacking critical thinking on the Internet, stifling freedom of expression. Faced with unpleasant questions and facts that aren't in agreement with it, the government has resorted to force, thus proving that it has no arguments to defend its actions.
The post also mentions some of the web pages and articles that were taken down before its publishing and adds that bloggers and journalists “cannot help but assume that more will be taken down.” An English translation of the post is available on the Balkanist.net website.
Some larger group blogs or websites by independent users, such as that of Serbian daily Blic, have taken down the reproduced posts or are burying them deep within the sites, perhaps hoping the issue will blow over and be forgotten. One user of the blog portion of privately-owned news and media network B92 reproduced the post on his blog and tweeted:
— Ray (@Ray__Day) May 24, 2014
Many bloggers and journalists have added their names to a long list of signatures at the end of the post, and others like Sandra Kravic Simonovic also added a few words of their own to the blog post upon republishing it on their personal blogs. Kravic Simonovic introduced the reproduced blog post by saying:
Ovo nije prvi put da se na ovom blogu piše o cenzuri. Nažalost, moram dodati. Prvi put, povod je bio brisanje odgovora novinara BBC-a novinarki Kurira, koji je volšebno nestao sa blog platforme sajta B92. S obzirom da je moj blog nezavisni medij koji ne finansira niti jedna politička partija, imam punu slobodnu da samustupim prostor odgovoru i objavim ga u celosti.
Šest meseci kasnije, stanje po pitanju cenzure medija u Srbiji ne da se nije promenilo, nego je, rekla bih, postalo sve gore. Kao da svakog dana nestane po jedan tekst, pažljivo se biraju komentari koji će biti objavljeni po mainstream medijima, a u poslednjih nekoliko dana za vreme trajanja vanredne situacije u Srbiji stvari su otišle još dalje.
Ljudi su pozivani na saslušanja u policiju zbog svojih tekstova na društvenim mrežama. Povod za saslušanja bilo je “širenje panike na društvenim mrežama”, što je regulisano Krivičnim zakonikom Srbije (Glava 31, KRIVIČNA DELA PROTIV JAVNOG REDA I MIRA, član 343, stav 1 i 2), za šta je zaprećena kazna zatvora od 3 meseca do 3 godine i novčanom kaznom (stav 1), odnosno od 6 meseci do 5 godina i novčanom kaznom (stav 2).
This is not the first time that censorship has been a topic on this blog. Unfortunately, I have to add [to that]. The first time, the reason was the response [sr] of a BBC journalist [Dusan Masic] to a Kurir [Serbian daily] journalist that mysteriously vanished from the blog platform of the B92 website. Considering that my blog is an independent medium that is not financed by any political party, I have the full freedom to give [my] space to this response and publish it in its entirety.
Six months later, the state of media censorship in Serbia has not only not changed, but has I would say gotten worse. It seems as if a text disappears every day, comments that are published on mainstream media sites are carefully screened, and in the last few days during the state of emergency, things have gone even farther in Serbia.
People have been called in for questioning by police due to their writings on social media. The reason for questioning was “inciting panic on social networks”, which is regulated by the Criminal Code of Serbia (Chapter 31, CRIMINAL ACTS AGAINST PUBLIC ORDER AND PEACE, article 343, points 1 and 2), which carries a possible prison sentence from three months up to three years and a fine (point 1), or six months to five years and a fine (point 2).
Newly-elected Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, the country's former deputy prime minister, is know for using repressive measures against media. During the February 2014 election campaign, Vucic's team reacted to a parody video of him by requesting that several copies of it be taken down from YouTube. They allegedly also took down several personal websites that made the video available for download to other Internet users.
Another popular hashtag accompanying #uLiceCenzuri is #ZatvorUp, which translates to #PrisonUp. Apparently, in spite of Serbia's notoriously slow judicial system and overcrowded prisons, people are saying that they are willing to be jailed to defend their freedom of expression in a country that is desperate for reforms, rule of law and much needed recovery.