Antonije Kovačević raised his voice against the president and the ruling Democratic Party. He pointed out an obvious lack of media freedom and wrote about the dire economic situation in Serbia. A couple of days later, he was fired.
Jelena Spasic, a journalist for Nacionalni gradjanski daily, was given a copy of a report about Serbia's national defense by an anonymous source from the government. When she wrote an article based on that report for her newspaper, government ministers immediately asked for prosecution against her and her newspaper.
These are not the stories from a third world country run by an authoritarian dictator. These are stories from Serbia, one of the countries striving to become a full fledged EU member.
Antonije Kovačević was not an unknown journalist. Before he was fired, he had been the editor-in-chief of Belgrade's Alo daily, a newspaper known for its outspoken criticism of the Serbian government and President Boris Tadic.
In one of his most controversial articles, Kovacevic claimed that Tadic wanted to have all media “under the paw of his Democratic Party” and was preparing a clampdown on “insubordinate” media in Serbia.
Next to the article, readers found a caricature of President Tadic incarnating an evil sorcerer from the Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy. Three days later, the newspaper's owners removed Kovacevic from his post.
The Mladic controversy
His colleagues and Serbian media remained silent. A controversy only emerged after the Union of Journalists of Serbia (UNS) called his sacking "politically motivated" and an "act of intimidation".
Ringier Axel Springer Media company - the newspaper's Swiss and German owners - denied that Kovacevic's removal had anything to do with the Tadic issue, but refused our interview requests.
The company's director Florian Fels said in an official statement that Kovacevic had been relieved of his duty because of his coverage of the arrest of Ratko Mladic, arguing that he had "portrayed Mladic as a human being" and had downplayed his involvement in war crimes.
For the head of UNS, Ljiljana Smajlovic, this is a "fake excuse" by those wanting uniform Serbian media. “The government is enforcing their kind of democracy under the credo: There is no freedom for the enemies of their freedom and there is no democracy for the enemies of democracy”, Smajlovic told us last week.
We also tried to talk to Antonije Kovacevic, but after initially agreeing, he eventually decided not to talk to us, fearing that it could jeopardize his chances of finding a new job in the media business.
“The government decided to cover up Antonije Kovacevic's story”, says Ljiljana Smajlovic. “And it is successful in doing so, because of it's strong influence on privately owned media and its close ties with their owners.”
A fall that didn't happen
One of the most revealing examples of how the government is controlling the information flow is rather amusing: When the Croatian President Ivo Josipovic came to visit Boris Tadic in July 2010, numerous Serbian and Croatian TV reporters were following each and every step of the two Presidents.
They also captured the moment the Croatian President fell down the stairs in the Serbian town of Subotica. While the footage made an instant YouTube hit and Croatian media extensively reported the story, the fall simply didn't happen for Serbian media. No footage was released, no information given.
“The President’s media advisors were very active on their phones. They called all the news editors and media bosses in Serbia and asked them not to talk about that incident or air the footage”, recalls Smajlovic. She says the official reason given was the importance of “maintaining dignity of President Tadic’s guest”.
Serbian veteran journalist Novica Andric confirms that “phones of news editors were red hot after the calls from Tadic's office”. The underlying problem, he says, is that news editors are appointed on the basis of their political connections rather than their professional competence.
“In our news agency, ruling political parties directly influenced the choice of editorial staff, based on personal relations,” says Andric. “Those who dare to openly question and criticize the government or the President’s actions are living with the fear of being fired any time. All media in today’s so called democratic society are controlled by the political and economical elite.“
Andric has first hand experience of that kind of pressure. After working for Tanjug news agency for more than two decades, he was forced to resign. He was told that he was „an obstacle in developing a new and modern news agency“, but says the main reason was his refusal to do biased reporting: “I didn't want to play that game”.
Very soon he was replaced by a young and inexperienced journalist eager to obey all requests editors had for him.
The difficulty of finding a job
Replacing experienced journalists with beginners is a widespread trend in Serbian media, says Ljiljana Smajlovic. “It is much easier to manipulate young, rookie journalists. They have no credibility, no journalistic knowledge and nobody from whom they can learn the tricks and tools of the trade. They will write and cover the stories as they're told rather than as it happened.”
According to official figures, Serbia is the country with highest unemployment rate in the Europe. If this trend continues, more than 55% of working population would be unemployed by the end of 2011. For many, finding a job is almost mission impossible.
The lucky few young journalists who do receive a job offer quickly face the grim reality of missing paychecks. Many work for long hours, with valid contracts in their hands, but still end up with nothing.
Within five years in the media business, 28 year old Ana Adzic faced that problem twice. In 2007, she worked as a radio host for one Serbian station with nation-wide coverage. Even though there was no contract and no record of her employment, Ana thought her dream of working as a journalist has become reality.
“It was great to have a job and the beginning, the paycheck arrived in time and everything seemed fine,” she says. Soon, however, paychecks started arriving with delays of several weeks and then months.
“If I wanted to be paid at least some of the money I had earned, I needed to call my bosses every day for a couple of times! I had to beg for my money and explain that I don’t have other means of income,” Adzic says.
The (non)payment pattern
After leaving the radio station in 2009, she found another job in a major TV production company in Belgrade, producing some of the most popular reality shows in Serbia. The (non)payment pattern repeated. In early June, Adzic decided to leave that job as well.
By now, calling her former bosses asking for six month's of pending salaries has become a daily routine. “Unfortunately my case is not unique,” Adzic says. “Many of my colleagues spend a couple of years waiting for their salaries and at the end never got their money! And if one of us tries to ask for the justice at the court, he can be sure that he’ll never find a job in the Serbian media again! We journalists are humiliated in Serbia in so many ways, and this is one of them.”
Most Serbian journalists agree: The problem in the country is not a restrictive media law or an institution that pre-censors everything that goes to print. It is the difficulty of finding a job, the low wages which often aren't paid and political pressures that make independent journalism almost impossible.
Censorship in Serbia may be invisible, but it's impact can be felt by any journalist. Many, however, prefer not to talk about it. In the current situation, most journalists care more about a chance to pay their bills rather than about their professional ideals.
Aljosa Milenkovic used to be a reporter and anchor for Serbian BKTV. He is now a Belgrade based freelance journalist working mainly for Al Jazeera English.