In Serbia today, President Aleksander Vucic is continuing Serbia’s plunge into the pool of eroding democracy by conducting soft censorship of the media. Aleksander Vucic began his political journey as the minister of information of Serbia during the Yugoslav wars, in which his role was to censor media that opposed the regime, including fining journalists and banning TV networks.
Today, his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has consolidated power throughout Serbia’s governmental institutions, and has been classified as “Partly Free” by Freedom House, an organization dedicated to drawing attention to the deterioration of democratic values in countries across the world. This means that although Serbia is still a democracy in terms of hosting free and fair elections with political opposition, Vucic has exercised aggressive influence over the media. Only one independent media channel still exists, N1, which is also affiliated with CNN. Through advertising agencies owned by a few Vucic loyalists, immensely Vucic-favorable coverage is broadcasted to Serbians. Over a 3 month period, Vucic received 87% of positive feedback consolidated in 44 hours of coverage on Telekom Srbija sponsored channels, a state-controlled telecommunications company.
Through this media censorship, we can see how there is democratic erosion happening right now in Serbia. Aspiring autocrats such as Vucic want to shape the public’s opinion of their regime, in order to cover up the corruption and attacks on democratic culture they are executing. As is common in eroding democracies, there is private ownership of many of the media outlets in Serbia, but there have been buyouts by Vucic-loyalists in order to regulate opposition press. In order to keep his tight grasp on control in Serbia, Vucic relies on censoring the media in order to silence his opposition in any way he can.
Vucic has settled on a system of partial media control, using economic pressure and surrogates to stay in line. Between 2014 and 2016, Serbia’s biggest private broadcaster RTV Pink received at least 7 million euros in government loans, and as a result, during the 2017 election, RTV Pink broadcasted 267 times more coverage devoted to Vucic’s campaign than to all the opponents combined. Here, Vucic enacts authoritarian actions against the media in order to keep his image squeaky clean: this is still an instance of democratic erosion, even if Vucic is not taking the stealth authoritarianism route. Where journalists do not face physical or corporal punishment, the system of control is still very much alive and now, only able to censor negative coverage through ‘peaceful’ means. Although there are very few opposition-friendly media sources, Vucic has expanded media control to reach even further than he imposed during his time as minister of information in the 1990s.
Instances of techniques used to consolidate power by an aspiring autocrat are incredibly common in Vucic’s Serbia. Government loyalists run Serbia’s main TV channels, including the allegedly neutral public broadcaster RTS. Vucic has demanded censorship of neutral media sources that report on anything other than his regime’s campaign and successes of the administration. Furthermore, there has been a recent spike in the number of civil lawsuits against journalists and media organizations in Serbia. Where Vucic and SNS hold strong control over Serbia’s judiciary, these cases will usually turn in the favor of the plaintiff, as those who are hit with lawsuits are unprepared to defend themselves. These strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, result in other independent journalists or news organizations pulling back their investigations into corruption or abuses of power. The Serbian courts allow people not only to sue if they feel that their reputation was damaged, even if there is no evidence of reputational harm. The courts can be satisfied with evidence that the plaintiff has suffered mental distress due to the ‘offensive speech,’ resulting in myriad of the court cases being ruled in the favor of the politician.
Serbia faces a scary future, in which Vucic continues to consolidate his iron grip over the citizens and government. Media censorship through buyouts and civil lawsuits against reporters show that Vucic and the SNS will do whatever they can in order to keep their control over the government, including limiting the freedom of information in Serbia. Unfortunately, this only looks to be the beginning of even worse measures in Serbia. In the future, we may see more censorship or other actions similar taken in Serbia, worsening the erosion of democracy in this Balkan country. Scott Gehlbach, “Reflections on Putin and the Media,” Post-Soviet Affairs 2010  Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 2015
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