February 23, 2021
Only one in every ten reported case of threats and attacks against journalists culminates with a final court verdict in Serbia, according to research conducted jointly by the Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation and the Centre for Judicial Research (CEPRIS).
At the same time, media disputes related to cases of hate speech, the protection of minors, ensuring the dignity of victims of violence and protecting character and reputation last an average of around two years, even despite the urgent status of such cases envisaged by the Law on Public Information and Media. The excessive length of these proceedings makes it impossible to protect plaintiffs or defendants.
The report “Protection of Freedom of Speech in the Judicial System of Serbia” includes analysis of 305 cases of so-called media disputes in the 2017‒2019 period brought against five media outlets that have been confirmed by the Press Council as those that most often violate the Code of Journalists of Serbia. These media outlets are: Kurir, Informer, Blic, Alo and Medijska mreža [Media Network] – publisher of daily newspaper Srpski telegraf and the Republika portal.
When it comes to the legal protection of journalists against threats and attacks, 20 legally concluded proceedings in the 2017-2020 period were identified and analysed. Data of the prosecution service regarding reported threats and attacks on journalists was also collected.
The analysis showed that courts have a tendency to impose lenient criminal sanctions: of 20 criminal convictions, only one prison sentence was imposed, which was supposed to be served in the Department for the Enforcement of Criminal Sanctions, for a six-month period. The most severe sentence was a one-year house arrest, but to be served without electronic surveillance. Suspended sentences were handed down in eight cases. Of the total number of proceedings, nine concluded with a guilty plea agreement and four resulted in acquittals or decisions that rejected or dismissed the filed indictments.
Over the previous four years, all public prosecutor’s offices in Serbia recorded 204 reported cases of crimes committed against journalists and media workers. Of that total, 99 cases have yet to be resolved. In almost half of the active cases – a total of 49 – the perpetrators remain anonymous. The largest number of reported attacks against journalists and media workers end with the prosecution service, with the rejecting of criminal charges – in 69 per cent of finally resolved cases. Furthermore, six per cent of cases were resolved by applying the institute of postponing criminal prosecution, also with the prosecution.
When it comes to litigation proceedings initiated against the five analysed media outlets on the basis of the Law on Public Information and Media, in the 2017-2019 period, the span of compensatory damages awarded ranged from 40,000 to 420,000 dinars. The average amount of damages paid in 2017 was 75,000 dinars, while in 2018 that amount was 85,000 dinars and in 2019 it totalled 88,000 dinars.
The noted amounts impose a need to conduct serious analysis to determine whether the court contributes to the increasingly unprofessional work of the media by awarding damages in amounts that cannot bring adequate satisfaction to the prosecutor. It is recommended that the amount of damages awarded be dependent on the regularity and recurrence of violations of rights by the same defendants related to the same plaintiff. This criterion should be enshrined in law in order to combat intimidation campaigns, the discrediting of individuals and hate speech.
A total of 22 journalists filed lawsuits against these media outlets during this period. Of this number, requests were rejected through a final judgement in four cases. The most lawsuits were filed against daily newspaper Kurir.
Analysis of appeal proceedings showed that the practise was harmonised successfully by the second instance court. Only 4.76% of overturned verdicts indicates that the work of first instance courts is satisfactory.
Protection of freedom of speech in the judical system of Serbia (PDF)