My way of working has not changed for 20 years, despite the political and social changes that Serbia has gone through during that period
In her interview for Diplomacy&Commerce, the Nova S journalist, Ana Lalić, talks about the safety of journalists in Serbia, her arrest in 2020, the violation of media freedom and the direction in which the Serbian media is going.
According to the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) platform, the safety of journalists in Serbia is a cause for serious concern. What are the reasons for such concern?
The concern of the MFRR and other European institutions dealing with media freedom is more than justified. Persecution of journalists is legitimized in Serbia today. Our profession is considered risky in every society, but Serbia is one of the very few countries where individual media workers and media are publicly targeted by the highest state authorities. If you have a society in which the president, the prime minister and members of parliament publicly call journalists “traitors and foreign mercenaries” and “haters of Serbia”, it is quite expected that this narrative will be adopted by the average population as well. Also, when the highest state authorities call you a traitor in your own country, it is understandable that the citizens start to treat you that way as well. The logical continuation of such persecution is that individuals give themselves the right to insult journalists, threaten them or even physically harm them. Therefore, we are put in a situation where anyone who presents a critical or analytical position and allows themselves to have their own opinion, which differs from the opinion of the ruling majority, carries a target on his back and a sticker “Hit me!”, personally ‘signed’ by state leaders.
Two years ago, you were arrested for reporting on a hospital in Novi Sad using inadequate medical equipment. Looking back, what do you think now of your arrest and were you happy with how it all ended?
The very fact that in the 21st century in Europe a journalist is arrested because they presented information that is relevant to public health excludes the possibility of any personal satisfaction. The proceedings against me were suspended after a month, but that was not the end. To this day, I receive threats and am branded as “that journalist who was arrested”. Possible satisfaction can only be found in the fact that, even in Serbia, it is not possible to imprison people for freedom of speech, without suffering consequences.
How much help in practice can journalists get from international media organizations or groups? Is their support only declarative?
I honestly believe that it was precisely the strong reactions from international media organizations and human rights activists that got me out of prison, and as a result of their uproar, the news of my arrest reached the political power centres who then proceeded to dish out figurative slaps on the wrist to our authorities, which was crucial for the procedure against me to be suspended. The United States has the Committee to Protect Journalists, whose lawyers offer free legal aid to all journalists who are arrested while doing their jobs worldwide. Also, numerous professional associations cooperate at the European level on this matter too.
The safety of journalists is sometimes more jeopardized outside Belgrade, Novi Sad and Niš, i.e. in smaller towns. What do you think would give them a higher level of security?
Journalists in smaller communities work in drastically more difficult conditions than their colleagues in larger cities. In the last twenty years, Serbia has almost completely lost its independent local media, which I consider to be the beginning of the censorship which we are experiencing and working in now. The very few local media that were still functioning have been taken over by powerful local people, close to the authorities, while independent media have been extinguished due to the lack of funds or lawsuits that have exhausted them to the point of shutting down. Also, there is the problem of working in a small environment where people know each other personally, and therefore the pressure on journalists is greater.
Even in Serbia, it is not possible to imprison people for freedom of speech, without suffering consequences
For the most part, journalists in Belgrade and Novi Sad are backed by entire newsrooms, that are, in a way, their protection and security, while reporters from smaller communities are mostly left to fend for themselves. They can eventually receive help and support through professional associations, such as the Independent Journalists Association of Vojvodina and the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (NUNS). However, oftentimes, that support is insufficient, because the associations themselves are marginalized.
Where do you see the biggest violation of media freedom in our country? Is it pressure on journalists or maybe self-censorship?
In Serbia, it is no longer necessary to put pressure on the media, because the majority has slipped into complete self-censorship. The very fact that more than 80 percent of the media space is filled by tabloids and pro-regime media just shows that there is no objective journalism here, but pure propaganda. Almost every day you can read/hear nearly identical news in three dailies and four television morning programmes that spew out the same things because that kind of “news” is created in political cabinets.
The very fact that I allow myself to point out society’s anomalies gives me the greatest protection
The allocation of national broadcasting frequencies exclusively to politically eligible media, i.e. to the copyists of the dispatches from the seat of the Serbian government, is the most flagrant example of media freedom violation. The journalist’s job is to point out the problem and to be a corrective factor in society. In Serbia, only those media outlets that serve to convince citizens that the problem does not exist and that Serbian society does not need any correction “because we are the best in the region” on all grounds are welcome.
On the other hand, what gives you security and freedom of work?
That would be my integrity and unwillingness to make any compromises with anyone. My way of working has not changed for 20 years, despite the political and social changes that Serbia has gone through during that period. Simply put, I am guided by the fundamentals and code of our profession – truthful reporting and independence from pressure. Furthermore, I have always been mindful of sharing the same values with the media I work for, which include fighting for human rights, supporting all marginalized groups, and having absolute respect for diversity.
What will the Serbian media be like in five years? Is there room for improvement?
In five years, the media will be in the same position as Serbia. It is impossible to talk about freedom of speech and independent media in a country of false promises and even more false doctorates and privatized institutions, in a country where all dialogue has been abolished. There are always opportunities for improvement. The question is whether there is the will.