Cry Wolf

I distinctly remeber, two years or so ago, that I was complaining about Peščanik (a recently disrupted indipendent editorial portal) to a friend of mine. I found their commentary on the state of Serbia out of touch with reality, esentially a, crying wolf. They saw Serbia under DS (the main democratic, liberal Party) as if it were still under Milošević – a land of contolled media, full of ethnically intolerant corrupt politicians just waiting to clamp down on them, while I found the situation quite a bit different. Although the media was massively influenced by either the government or opposition money, there was a reasonably large spectrum of opinion (if not of quality), with one a few popular tabloids spacialising in smear campaigns about the Government. The politicians were corrupt, but the issue of “not dealing with the past” (meaning war crimes against Bosniaks, Croats and Kosovo Albanians and independence of Kosovo) was overblown – there was a decade long process of pubilcally dealing with these weight issues which gave a good majority of Serbs at least an understaning that there were many contentious and criminal points in Milošević’s version of events. Another issue was the site was abounding in a particularly wet type of quasi intellectual commentary where much sorrow and disgust was expressed, with little explanation of what is to be done, or even the high moral standards that the issues were judged against. Finally and most importantly, I thought that the worries of their articles were simply paranoid as I could not imagine Serbia returning to the “dark age” of press censorship and journalist trials (let alone belligerence) like during the last years of Milošević and the Minister of Information, Aleksandar Vučić. I thought that the civil society in Serbia was powerful enough to fight that type of extreme encroachment, and that the potentates of the EU would come down strongly (using their various funding sticks) on any government that would attempt it.
Now, Peščanik’s site is down probably because of a well researched article about the dubious PhD of the Minister of the Interior and Vučić’s right-hand man Nebojša Stefanović, and I now know I that I was very wrong about the last point. A cynic would say that a large part of the then-vocal civil society only does something for foreign funding or is co-opted into SNS government (Minister of Culture whose remit covers the media is a liberal public intellectual Ivan Tasovac), while the small valiant part (notably mostly not employed by NGOs) writes blogs and shares news as a part-time job. The EU seems the happiest that it has ever been with a Serbian government probably because Vučić’s control of the parliament and essentially pragmatic (if authoritarian) approach to Serbia’s tangled politics. For those less in the loop, this is also not the first instance of (shadow) censorship – many (tragi)comical Putinesque PR stunts of Vučić have been removed for YouTube and many minor blogs blaming the government for bad response to the recent floods have been removed.
Attack on Peščanik, warts and all, is the first major attack on a well known media outlet which is worrying as the only non self censoring mainstream medium is Danas, which sadly does not have a large reach. Even if Peščanik is restored, which I hope and think it will, this should be a catalyst for the minority that cares to start shoreing up the defences of free speech and democracy in Serbia, not only on the Internet but in public. It should also teach us a lesson that democracy and freedom can only be protected from within and that foreign funding are concern truly fleeting. Finally I hope that this will also make us realise that the liberal civil society needs to adapt to its governments and fight for its rights in different ways. We should start kickstarting media outlets and creating own shows. We should start writing well researched analyses explaining problems in Serbia rather than bemoan our sad fates. None of these would be enough, but would be a good training in becoming better citizens.

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