CPJ concerned by media restrictions

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is concerned about your government’s enforcement of media restrictions under a state of emergency that has been in effect since the March 12 assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic.

Natasa Micic, president of the Serbian National Assembly and currently acting president of Serbia, declared a state of emergency on the afternoon of March 12 after a sniper fatally shot Djindjic in the center of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. Article 9 of Micic’s executive order, which established the state of emergency, states that, “Public information, distribution of press and other information about the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergency is prohibited, excluding carrying the official statements of competent government agencies.” The order requires the Ministry of Culture and Public Information to enforce the media restrictions in cooperation with the Interior Ministry but does not specify sanctions for media outlets that violate Article 9.

According to local press reports, Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac and several other senior government officials met with the editors-in-chief of Belgrade-based media outlets on the evening of March 12 to provide recommendations on how news should be reported during the state of emergency. The authorities asked editors to report only on official announcements from government agencies, representatives of political parties, or press conferences. The government also requested that the media refrain from reporting on “the reactions of those who will be arrested, their lawyers, and analysts who could complicate the arrests,” said the Belgrade-based Association for Independent Electronic Media.

Minister of Culture and Public Information Branislav Lecic and several senior officials held a second meeting with editors on March 17 to inform them that the government had tolerated a number of violations of the media restrictions, but that authorities would tolerate no further violations, according to local press reports. The government also announced that it will establish a special switchboard for editors to call and check the accuracy of information prior to publication or broadcast.

That same day, the government published an edition of the Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia containing an executive decree signed by Acting President Natasa Micic outlining sanctions for media outlets that violate state of emergency regulations, said local press reports. Media companies violating the regulations face temporary closure and fines of 50,000 to 500,000 dinars (US$830 to US$8,300), and individuals can be fined between 10,000 to 100,000 dinars (US$160 to US$1,600). There is no procedure to appeal decisions or sanctions, Belgrade’s independent Radio B92 reported.

During the last week, the Ministry of Culture and Public Information has punished a number of media outlets for violating the government’s vaguely defined restrictions or for being linked to Prime Minister Djindjic’s alleged assassins.

  • On March 16, the ministry closed the Belgrade weekly Identitet and fined its senior staff. Police officers and government officials arrived at the magazine’s office in the evening and sealed the premises to prevent the publication of the March 18 edition, according to local press reports. The ministry fined the magazine’s publisher 500,000 dinars (US$8,300), while the director, editor-in-chief, and deputy editor were each fined 100,000 dinars (US$1,600). Government officials believe the magazine is linked to the alleged assassins and has been inciting violence, pointing to the magazine’s cover story that ran the day before Djindjic’s was murdered with the headline: “Djindjic a Target for Free-lance Assassin—Murder Ordered by Serbs from the Hague.”
  • On March 17, the ministry shuttered the independent television station RTV Mars, which is based in the central Serbian city of Valjevo, because it broadcast films during the three-day mourning period following Djindjic’s assassination. The station was fined 500,000 dinars (US$ 8,300), and the station’s director was fined 100,000 dinars (US$1,600).
  • On March 18, the ministry banned the printing and distribution of the Belgrade daily Nacional because it published “several articles on the reasons for the introduction of a state of emergency and the implementation of special measures,” and because, officials claim, it was linked to some of the alleged assassins, according to local press reports. The ministry also fined Nacional‘s publisher 500,000 dinars (US$ 8,300) and its director and editor-in-chief 100,000 dinars (US$ 1,600) each.
  • On March 18, the ministry banned the distribution of Dan, a daily based in Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, and fined its distributor 200,000 dinars (US$ 3,200) and its director 30,000 dinars (US$ 500) because the March 17 edition questioned the government’s decision to declare a state of emergency.
  • On March 18, the ministry banned distribution of that day’s edition of the independent Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti in reprisal for an article titled “Small Village, Big Rat,” which praised one of the individuals arrested for alleged involvement in Djindjic’s killing. We recognize that Serbia is going through a national crisis. However, during the state of emergency, the government should realize that maximizing the flow of information allows citizens to better understand these events and make more informed decisions.

    As an organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide, we believe that even during a state of emergency, media restrictions are unwarranted unless they address an immediate threat to public safety. The temporary closure of RTV Mars and the financial penalties leveled against the station and its director for broadcasting films during the three-day mourning period following Djindjic’s assassination clearly fails to meet this standard. Media restrictions should be enforced as narrowly as possible and should not be used to curb information or to suppress criticism of government policies or the expression of opinion.

    Currently, Serbian journalists are working in a confusing environment in which the Ministry of Culture and Public Information has promulgated contradictory regulations and guidelines. The ministry has failed to provide specific information about the sanctions provided under the restrictions, heightening uncertainty within the media about what type of information may be reported and encouraging self-censorship at a time when the press can help stabilize the country by informing citizens about important political developments.

    In addition, we are concerned that the government has told the media to report only on information provided by official government sources and has mandated exorbitant penalties for those who fail to comply. At the same time, authorities have failed to provide the media with adequate information from government sources. This inconsistent policy inhibits the flow of information to the public.

    We urge you, Your Excellency, to ensure that any restrictions imposed on media during the state of emergency are narrowly tailored to address specific threats to public safety. Journalists must be able to report non-official information, and it is the responsibility of the Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry to provide journalists with greater access to official information on a daily basis during this time of crisis.

    Since government officials have stated publicly that the state of emergency may remain in force until the end of April, we encourage you to take these steps as soon as possible to facilitate the free flow of information.

    Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.


    Joel Simon
    Acting Director