Pressure on Truthful Reporting: Decline in Media Freedom in Serbia

Since the Media Ownership Monitor last researched Serbia four years ago, media freedom, pluralism and information quality in the country have continued to decline.

Problems include threats and negative campaigns against independent media and journalists, weak institutions and regulatory systems for protection, lack of transparency in media ownership and financing, favouring of pro-government media in the market, and state control over sources of funding.

These negative trends have also been found by other international organizations and institutions, where Serbia’s media is often described as "captured" and "partially free". Annual reports from the EU, and from the independent watchdogs Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, note no significant progress in aligning with EU standards, which entails an independent and pluralistic media sector and vibrant media market. These reports found systematic intimidation, pressure, and harassment are part of a broader effort to silence critical voices and "reshape" public debate.

These have led to lower-quality reporting and a general crisis in journalism. Watchdog civil society organizations in the country warn that independent critical reporting, and open and inclusive public debate on government policies are largely absent in the media. Mainstream reporting is dominated by pro-government tabloids and media spreading propaganda narratives, disinformation, and content shaped by political and economic influences rather than the public interest.

Journalists in independent media in Serbia work under constant verbal or physical pressure. Research by the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) show that various types of attacks and pressures on the media and journalists are so widespread that they are considered a "normal" part of the profession. These include attacks against the media infrastructure, websites and communication channels, as well as the verbal ones, including smear campaigns, trolling online etc.

Their research also shows that a rise in the number of such attacks, threats and pressures has been contributed to by a widening polarisation in society and an authoritarian system in which investigative and independent media outlets are considered as targets. Crises (such as the COVID-19 pandemic or protest) also bring increased threats to journalists. The laws to protect journalists are inadequate and even those there are not properly enforced. Furthermore, journalists often do not know how to protect themselves or  their work in these situations, while public support is sporadic.

The Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (IJAS) recorded 146 different types of attacks and pressures on journalists in the first nine months of 2023. IJAS online database contains records of physical and verbal attacks on media and journalists, pressures and attacks on their property. This is a significant increase, concerning that for the entire 2022, IJAS recorded 137 of such attacks and pressures. They are usually directed from the government officials, pro-government media or anonymous persons online.

As an additional form of pressure on the media, Serbia has seen an increasing number of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPS. These aim to scare journalists off from any critical coverage of powerful business people or politicians by suing publications and individuals for libel and demanding high levels of compensation.

Serbia, despite its relatively small population, is in Europe’s top ten for the number of SLAPPs filed against the media, according to research by the independent watchdog organization, CASE Coalition. In the past four years, politicians and business figures close to the government have filed 28 SLAPPs.

In addition to political pressure, Serbian media struggle to survive financially. For many of them the business has not been profitable for many years. Only a few larger media houses can operate commercially and make a profit. Others, especially local ones, can only earn a fraction of their revenue from advertising. Most rely on state aid, particularly grants for specific projects, and even some of their advertising money comes from state-owned enterprises, giving the state considerable influence.

Research by BIRN on public grants shows that in 2019-2023, various levels of government provided 8.6 billion dinars (around $78 million) through co-financing to support over 10,000 individual media projects from over 1,800 applicants.

Distortions in the media market are further exacerbated by the insufficiently transparent investments of the state telecommunications operator, Telekom Srbija, which owns several cable TV channels directly (Arena Sport, Euronews, Bloomberg) or indirectly.

The internet and social media continue to transform Serbia’s media landscape. It has helped to democratise public debate but brought many problems.

Accommodating to the algorithms of the leading social media and internet platforms (before all to Meta and Google), some media houses base their business models on the overproduction of low-quality content without informative value and the use of “clickbait” headlines to manipulate readers.

BIRN's research shows that in Serbia, most media are basing their plans to stay solvent on adapting in this way. Media outlets are increasingly turning into factories for low-quality commodified content.

All the problems mentioned above have eroded trust in the media as protectors of the public interest and in their ability to inform and engage the audience on important issues for society.

According to the latest academic research, people in Serbia have less trust in the media than any other European nation, with only around 20 percent expressing trust in them.

  • Project by
    Global Media Registry
    Funded by European Union