In Serbia, attacks on credibility of journalists undermine media

washington — A Serbian journalist is being harassed and threatened after a fake video circulated online in which he appears to make an offhand comment praising a war criminal. 

Dinko Gruhonjic, a media professor and a journalist for the local news website Autonomija, had participated in a regional festival in Dubrovnik, Croatia, last year.  

Then last month, a manipulated video of that appearance circulated online. In it, Gruhonjic appears to say that he is pleased to share a name with Dinko Sakic — a commander imprisoned for his role overseeing a World War II concentration camp.  

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, or IPI, says that Gruhonjic “has been the target of a public lynching campaign including threats of physical violence” since the doctored video was shared online.  

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also commented on the video, Gruhonjic told VOA.  

“Vucic addressed my case: in his own style, holding a knife in one hand and a flower in the other, claiming that no one should harm me. But, on the other hand, saying I should be ashamed of the statements I made. Which, in fact, I did not make,” said Gruhonjic.  

36 attacks this year

The threats reflect a wider trend in Serbia. The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia or NUNS has documented 36 attacks on journalists so far this year. These include four physical attacks, one attack on property, 17 cases of journalists being pressured and 14 instances of verbal threats.  

So far, three people have been arrested on suspicion of threatening Gruhonjic and a second journalist — Ana Lalic-Hegedis — who appeared at the same festival.  

An arrest also was made in the case of Vojin Radovanovic, a journalist at the daily newspaper Danas, who received death threats via Instagram in 2023.  

“When I received a death threat, in which it was said that I should be killed as an example, I realized that such people should be prosecuted as an example to others who think it is OK to make death threats to someone only because you don’t like the way they work,” Radovanovic told VOA.  

The journalist, who covers politics and media issues, said authorities should take all threats seriously.  

Just a few months after police arrested the person suspected of sending the death threat, a different individual made threats against Radovanovic’s media outlet, saying it should be set on fire.  

Radovanovic said the threats come from an “environment in which critically oriented journalists are considered as someone who gets in the way.” 

Neither the Serbian Ministry of Information and Telecommunications, the Ministry of Internal Affairs nor the Prosecutor’s Office for High-Tech Crime responded to VOA’s requests for comment about the harassment of Gruhonjic and other journalists.  

Threats cause suffering

Serbia ranks among the Council of Europe member states with the highest number of attacks on journalists, according to an annual report by partner organizations to the Council of Europe’s platform that promotes the protection of journalism and safety of journalists.  

Referring to the wider trends across Europe, Teresa Ribeiro, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, told VOA, “Threats and attacks on journalists are not only causing suffering, destruction and in the worst case loss of life, they also lead to self-censorship and undermine the credibility of public authorities and public trust in the media.” 

Ribeiro said that media freedom is possible only in an environment where journalists are able to work without fear of reprisal. 

“Without this, there can be no quality and independent journalism, nor can there be a lasting and well-functioning democracy and informed citizenry,” said Ribeiro.  

She added that OSCE states have an obligation to ensure media freedom. To ensure that it is upheld, she said, all attacks — both physical and online — must be “swiftly and effectively investigated and prosecuted.” 

Attila Mong, from the nonprofit the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, said a lack of accountability for attacks makes the situation worse.  

“Despite some efforts, such as the establishment of working groups for the safety of journalists, it is evident that more needs to be done to comprehensively address these issues,” Mong told VOA.  

Mong cited a court decision in February to acquit four former secret police who had been convicted of the 1999 murder of journalist Slavko Curuvija.

At the time, the CPJ called the acquittal a “huge blow to justice.” 

The rise in attacks is resulting in a decline in Serbia’s ranking on media and human rights indexes. The country registered the biggest drop in the EU-Balkans region on the World Press Freedom Index last year. Serbia fell 12 places, to 91 out of 180 countries, where 1 shows the best media environment.  

The watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index, notes that Serbia has a solid legal framework but that journalists are under political pressure and face threats. 

This article originated in VOA’s Serbian service.

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