Dozens of Serbian media outlets and non-government organisations on Thursday have darkened their web pages for several minutes to protest pressure on free press.

Pressroom workers pack the first edition of the newspaper Danas with a white inscription warning: This is what it looks like when there is no free press!, in Belgrade, Serbia. September 27, 2017.
Pressroom workers pack the first edition of the newspaper Danas with a white inscription warning: This is what it looks like when there is no free press!, in Belgrade, Serbia. September 27, 2017. (AP)

Serbia's embattled independent media outlets have staged a blackout to warn against what they say is Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic's muzzling of free press by intimidation, threats, and financial pressure.

The initiative was prompted by the recent closure of an independent newspaper in southern Serbia and public attacks on journalists by a ruling party.

"These latest incidents are just a symbol of the media darkness in Serbia, which did not begin yesterday," Slavisa Lekic, head of Serbia's independent journalists association said.

"We have decided to open the eyes of the public and ask them to show solidarity with the journalists."

Dozens of Serbian media outlets and non-government organisations darkened their web pages for several minutes at noon on Thursday, with a white inscription warning: "This is what it looks like when there is no free press!"

The campaign aimed to alert the public "that the media freedom in our country is dying, and that we all must fight to preserve it," protest organisers said in a statement.

Some newspapers appeared on newsstands with a black ribbon printed on front pages as part of the action dubbed "STOP media darkness in Serbia."

Vucic, a former extreme nationalist who now calls himself a reformist, has dismissed the accusations of the media crackdown as attempts to discredit his government.

Thursday's action was boycotted by mainstream media and the official journalists' association, which said the protest was aimed at dividing the press into "ours and theirs."

EU-Serbia relations

In a 2016 report, the EU said Serbia has "achieved some level of preparation" but still needs to "create an enabling environment in which freedom of expression can be exercised without hindrance."

The media situation has been worsening in the past years despite the country's proclaimed goal of joining the EU, say journalists in Serbia.

Lekic said recorded cases of press intimidation have more than doubled in the past five years since Vucic's populist coalition came to power, adding critical journalism has disappeared from mainstream media and prominent journalists have been sidelined. 

Economic pressure on the media, he said, included preventing companies from advertising in non-government media, constant financial and tax inspections for independent media and open favouring of pro-government media outlets.

The large number of registered media in Serbia — some 1,800 outlets — only serve to create a false image of pluralism, Lekic insisted.

The Serbian government views critical media as "enemies", said  Draza Petrovic, the editor-in-chief of the liberal Danas daily.

He expressed hope that Thursday's action will prompt EU and other international officials to "see what is really going on here."

A technician from newspaper Danas checks the Instagram edition of the newspaper with a white inscription warning: This is what it looks like when there is no free press!, in Belgrade, Serbia. September 28, 2017.
A technician from newspaper Danas checks the Instagram edition of the newspaper with a white inscription warning: This is what it looks like when there is no free press!, in Belgrade, Serbia. September 28, 2017. (AP)

Oppression

Thursday's edition of the Danas daily came out with an addition dedicated to the Vranjske newspaper from the southern town of Vranje, which was known for investigating crime and corruption. 

The paper was forced to close down last week after 23 years.

The newspaper's manager, Vukasin Obradovic, said the decision was made after journalists and even family members, including his, received threats and the paper endured repeated financial inspections. 

The International and European Federations of Journalists this week expressed solidarity with Obradovic and denounced "the oppression many media and journalists are currently experiencing in the country."

"It was a wide range of very primitive forms of pressure that had only one aim — to stop us from publishing," Obradovic said.

"This wasn't only because we stood in the way of the ruling party, but because they don't want information to reach the citizens."

Source: AP