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Beware, Crusading Newspapers: Punishment Comes

The closing of a newspaper does not attract much attention these days. Economics are unforgiving, weve learned. And no media platform can escape. There are other pressures, equally powerful, ready to crush.

the eyes have itOptimisim for the Serbian media sector has all but disappeared. “Grim,” said the 2017 IREX Media Sustainability Index report. “In the last 24 months, around 50 serious independent analyses of different aspects of the Serbian media sector were prepared; all point to an unsustainable media situation.” It should come as no surprise that difficulties continue.

Serbian regional newspaper Vranjske closed this past week. Early in the month tax authorities presented a demand for payment. Vranjske was first published in 1994 serving Vranje and environs in southern Serbia. Regional journalism groups questioned how the newspaper could be under “such intense and disturbing financial control” just two weeks after notification of a tax arrears. A recent and unflattering interview with the local tax administrator raised suspicions of retribution.

The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) and the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina (NDNV) said the shutting down of the weekly, which they said was “among the best and the best-regarded local papers in Serbia” was “a direct consequence of long-term political pressure on media freedom and terrifying news for media professionals.” Founder, publisher and editor-in-chief Vukasin Obradovic went on a brief hunger strike after the closure, relenting after his health rapidly failed.

Mr. Obradovic was formerly a long-serving president of NUNS, adding to the attention the closure of Vranjske received from journalism supporters far and wide. “We are treated as a political opponent, not a medium that holds the city government accountable to its citizens," he said. In 2009 he received a “person of the year” honor for independent reporting from the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE).

Virtually all news outlets in Serbia survive on direct government subsidies and government-controlled advertising, estimated at between 20% and 40% of the total. "The state has turned local budget funding into one bitter, and organized criminal enterprise," said NDNV program editor DinkoGruhonjic, quoted by the NUNS website (September 20).

The Serbian government vociferously defended charges that it had a hand in its closure. “The Serbian government did not crush Vranjske,” said prime minister Ana Brnabic, quoted by national tabloid Blic (September 21). “Although Vranjska, we will all agree, they are not a medium that supports the Serbian government and its politics, they have received significant sums through the Ministry of Culture in various competitions. It is incredibly indicative to me that in 2017 alone Vranjske received 1.7 million dinars (roughly €14,000), and from 2008 to 2012, when it was said there was a much better situation in the media, greater freedom, free speech, in those five years, Vranjske received 1.6 million dinars.”

Mr. Obradovic disputes this, saying the recent funding was much less and only for operating the newspaper’s website. He denied illegally occupying office space due to lapse in the lease agreement. And he noted that local television station Vranjska Plus owned by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) received much more and operates at a loss. "It's about television that was formed a little over a year ago, for the needs of the election campaign and reporting on SNS activities at the local level," he said, quoted by news portal insadajer.net (September 20).

The NUNS organization asked the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) (September 22) to send a delegation to investigate. “Vranjska has been a target of political and economic pressures since its inception in 1994,” said the letter, quoted by insadajer.net (September 22). “Widely known, Vranjska bothered all the authorities in Serbia from Slobodan Milosevic's regime to the present day precisely because they reported abuses - mostly corruption and organized crime.”

Other Serbian media brands known for independence have slipped away. B92 TV is to re-brand as O2, reported Balkan Insight (August 28). The B92 radio channel, a “renowned beacon of resistance” to former dictator Milosevic, noted by Reuters (May 3), was re-branded as Play Radio in 2015. Both are owned by Greek broadcaster Antenne Group. Former B92 reporter Dusan Masic suggested the possibility of an eventual exit.


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