Press freedom and the safety of journalists remain serious concerns in Serbia. Journalists, media outlets and activists are facing abusive lawsuits (SLAPPs) for investigating corruption or exposing abuse of power and links between political elites and criminal groups. The recent wave of lawsuits against several media outlets, including investigative platform KRIK and Novi Sad Voice, is emblematic of growing pressure on independent journalism in the country. In light of the upcoming parliamentary elections in April, it is crucial that politicians acknowledge the dire consequences of legal harassment against journalists and openly denounce any attempt to impede their work. Given the growing phenomenon of SLAPPs targeting journalists and watchdogs in Serbia, ARTICLE 19, ABA Center for Human Rights, and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) issued a report that analyses the domestic legal framework, draws attention to international freedom of expression standards, discusses case studies and suggests recommendations.
SLAPPs are abusive lawsuits used by rich and powerful individuals to stifle public debate by dragging their critics into time-consuming and costly legal proceedings. Journalists in Serbia work in an increasingly hostile environment where they are often labelled as ‘enemies that spread lies’ due to their investigative reporting into issues of public importance.
In this report, ARTICLE 19, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights,
and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) assess whether and to what extent Serbian laws and judicial practice comply with international standards on freedom of expression and analyse provisions that are most commonly misused to file SLAPPs. In addition, we discuss common patterns in multiple examples of cases brought against journalists and activists by public officials and other powerful individuals in the past 10 years. Finally, we provide recommendations to the Government of Serbia and the Judiciary to align key legislation with international freedom of expression standards.
Zamira Djabarova, Senior Legal Advisor on Labor Rights and Corporate Accountability at the ABA Center for Human Rights, said “SLAPPs are a form of meritless litigation aimed at suppressing speech on matters of public concern. They are brought not to vindicate rights but to harass and intimidate and to divert attention and resources from the
underlying civic issue. Such lawsuits turn the justice system into a weapon, and have a serious chilling effect on the free speech that is so vital to the public interest. It is imperative that steps are taken to reduce the incidence of SLAPP suits in Serbia and this report gives insight into what practical changes need to be made to do so.”
Roberta Taveri, Programme Officer at ARTICLE 19, said “SLAPPs are one of the many forms of intimidation that journalists face in Serbia for independently conducting their public interest work, exposing wrongdoings or holding public officials to account. These tactics take a huge toll on journalists’ mental health and financial sustainability, ultimately impacting on citizens’ ability to access reliable and diverse information”
Tamara Filipovic, Secretary General at NUNS, said “This report comes at the right time because SLAPP lawsuits have increased in Serbia since last year, at least when it comes to journalists. NUNS recorded 30 SLAPP lawsuits in 2021 and that is just what was reported to us, and there are probably many more. Those who are victims of SLAPP lawsuits are primarily investigative journalists or those journalists who cover important topics for our society, such as sexual violence against women committed by celebrities.”
This report is part of a ARTICLE 19’s extensive project analysing trends in SLAPP cases in key European countries and which outlines the consequences for media and democracy. In December 2021, ARTICLE 19 published a report on SLAPPs in Spain. Key findings and recommendations from each of the country reports will contribute to a comprehensive regional report on SLAPPs in Europe, forthcoming in March 2022.
The report in English you can read here.
The report in Serbian you can read here.