Nineteen years after the fall of Milosevic, Serbia is still fighting for press freedoms, as though it is Groundhog Day. The Serbian government controls the media and does not let any news that deviates from the official narrative get out. Gathered around ‘1 of 5 Million’ protest in Belgrade, Serbs continue to demand free press. While the world is watching.

June 13, 1990—Under the slogan “Serbia Demands Freedom” the first rally of the opposition parties in Belgrade for liberation from state control of the Serbian Public Service Broadcaster (RTS)  took place. In response, Slobodan Milosevic sent the police to the streets of Belgrade to intervene and dispel the protestors. Over one hundred people were injured in clashes with the police. That was twenty-nine years ago.

March 9, 1991 —A rally against the government monopoly of the news disseminated through the Serbian Public Service Broadcaster (RTS) at the Republic Square in Belgrade, made one hundred thousand Serbs get out on the streets, unarmed, pressing press freedoms. Without any hesitation, Slobodan Milosevic sent the police to beat up the protestors, the majority of them students and ordinary citizens. At the order of Borisav Jovic, at that time the President of the Presidency of  SFRY, army tanks were sent to assist the police against the protestors who wanted to live in the country with free press. 2 people were killed that day, 203 were injured and 108 people were arrested.

October 5, 2000 — tens of thousands of citizens gathered in protest in front of that same Serbian Public Service Broadcaster (RTS), repeating their demands for media freedoms and democracy. Realizing that they had no other option, they stormed the building of the state-controlled media and sequestered the director. That day, nineteen years ago, Slobodan Milosevic was removed from power.

March 16, 2019— during the ‘1 of 5 Million’ rally, four hundred people stormed the Serbian Public Service Broadcaster (RTS) demanding to go live on air. Like in the 90s, cordons of police showed up quickly and 18 people were arrested including a high school student.

It’s  2019 and Serbia still does not have free press

Since 1990,  Serbs have been giving all they have to a long-fought struggle against the state control of free press. Nineteen years after the fall of Milosevic, people still cannot criticize the government without fear of repercussions. On November 23, 2018, a member of the Serbian opposition and a strong critic of president Vucic was attacked and beaten up in Krusevac, a town in the Serbian south. Violence against him catapulted the opposition led by former Belgrade mayor Dragan Djilas, to organize and form the  “Alliance for Serbia” that would initiate the first public rally in protests of suppression of democratic freedoms.

Since then, the protest entitled “ 1 of 5 million” attracted hundreds of thousands of Serbs who are regularly taking to the street to voice their dissatisfaction with President Aleksandar Vucic’s regime. Initially, the protests were held only in Belgrade. But since January 2019, people in more than 100 Serbian cities and towns joined to create their own protest under the same banner of “1 of 5 million”.

Media freedom indicators in Serbia do not fit into the definition of democracy

The state of media freedoms in Serbia was marked as one of the lowest democracy indicators. Media freedoms, one of the basic human rights and the foundation of every democratic and law-abiding country, is imperiled in Serbia.

Hate speech and political abuse of the media is fast evolving, while the number of attacks on journalists is on the rise. In 2017,  92 attacks were reported. In the first eight months of 2018, there have been 57 assaults against journalists. In December, the house of an independent journalist,  Milan Jovanovic, editor of Zig Info,  was burned down to the ground in the suburb of  Belgrade.

What do the protestors what?

What  “1 of 5 million” protestors demand are a free and fair election and deliberation of Public broadcasting service. The protest has been going on for the past 16 weeks and during this period nobody from the organized was invited to be interviewed or go live on air at  Serbian Public Service Broadcaster (RTS).

The only reason why the protestors entered the  Serbian Public Service Broadcaster (RTS) on the evening of March 16, 2019  is the state induced control of the media that prohibits any kind of criticism to be aired on national television.

After the police intervened, president Aleksandar Vucic posted a photo of him playing a game of chess with a Minister of the Interior – projecting onto the world an image of political leisure. The opposition has called for snap general elections and announced a mass protest on April 13, 2019, if their demands are not met by the Vucic government.

For free and fair elections to happen in Serbia, citizens need the help of the international community as was the case with the Przno Agreement in the Republic of Macedonia where the European Union mediated among political parties. The U.S. administration could also assist in the process. With this kind of a guarantee, the Serbian opposition parties would have the chance to change the government through a fair and democratic vote.

Milos Djajic

President of the Steering Committee of the Center of Modern Skills, Belgrade, Serbia.