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Campaign against Human Rights House Belgrade is ordered by government

Human rights defenders in Serbia warn about a governmental campaign against Human Rights House - Belgrade.

Human Rights House - Belgrade was told by representatives of several newspapers in Serbia that they received an order from the Government to “dig up information” and write articles against the House. It was obviously in accordance with this that the article “Award for Nongovernmental Frontlines Attackers” was published on 12 April 2014 and signed by R.Dragovic, in the print edition of the daily newspaper “Vecernje Novosti”, whereby 30 percent are owned by the state. The same text appeared in the electronic edition of the newspaper with the title “Nongovernmental Organizations Viciously Criticize Serbia and Have Privileges”. This article treats human rights organizations as enemies and traitors, using the terminology and methodology that was previously used by “Vecernje Novosti” and similar media during the ‘90s in their war propaganda.

This article was published at the time of the completion of the second, final phase of the renovation of the office space in question, where five nongovernmental organizations should move during the summer. City of Belgrade’s Agency for European Integration and Cooperation with Associations gave the office space to these organizations to use, in accordance with legal procedures. Mayor of Belgrade at the time was Dragan Djilas, President of the Democratic Party, which just lost the elections. Renovation of the house is financed by the Government of the Kingdom of Norway.

It is also written in the article that “not only do organizations, known for their harsh criticism of Serbia and its official policies, use various sources of financing in the state budget, but they also have a series of privileges in this society, which are not available to other associations.” In addition, it is written that “one such example is 500 square meters of exclusive office space in the center of Belgrade, which the Assembly of the City of Belgrade gave them to use in 2011.” Moreover, it is stated in the article that “recent testimony of Sonja Biserko, President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, in relation to the dispute between Croatia and Serbia in a case of mutual charges of genocide before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which was even more harsh than the arguments of the opposing party, opened up questions in the public about public resources and finances used by the nongovernmental sector.”

For several months an intense campaign is being waged against the President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, Sonja Biserko, because of her testimony before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Former Mayor of Belgrade, Dragan Djilas, is also accused in the article for giving this office space to nongovernmental organizations to use: “Although these organizations still have not moved into this space located in the center of the city, they have the documents that allow them to use it, and the then-Mayor Dragan Djilas signed them. He thus allowed these organizations to use for free the public space whose rent in the free market would be at least EUR 100,000. Belgrade authorities then said that they are giving their contribution to the ‘battle for human rights and providing those who spent most of their lives in this battle with the opportunity to work in better conditions’. According to Vecernje Novosti, “financing from abroad (of these organizations) is very problematic, which is why these organizations are particularly stigmatized in the Serbian society.”

It is important to point out that the House used its own resources in 2012 to renovate one part of the office space, which was used for joint activities of numerous organizations, conferences, roundtable discussions, public debates and art exhibitions. The second, final phase of finishing works of the space which was in extremely bad condition began in January 2014. Therefore, statements in the article that organizations have not moved into the office space which is “exclusive” are incorrect as well.

Statement of the docent at the state owned Faculty of Law in Belgrade, Milos Jovanovic, is particularly worrisome. Namely, he demands a ban on the funding of NGOs from abroad and says that “financing of the nongovernmental sector by the foreign governments and organizations is more dangerous than using national resources” because they “become promoters of foreign countries’ interests instead of working for the benefit of their own society.” “We succumbed to the modern trend of including nongovernmental organizations into the state institutions and thus they became the proof for the existence of a democratic society. Although they can help the state in certain fields of work, this is not natural. The big question is who they represent because only the state has legitimacy in the society.”

In the afore mentioned article in “Vecernje Novosti”, an alleged statement of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia was also published, even though no one from the newspaper contacted members of the Committee, nor did the members of the Committee give a statement about this topic.

The House warns that freedom of the media in Serbia is drastically deteriorating, which was also concluded in the research on the writing of print media during the election campaign and in the Ombudsman’s Annual Report 2013. One of the reasons for the collapse of the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Serbia is certainly the pressure on journalists to write articles ordered by the Government.

 

Civic Initiatives

Belgrade Center for Human Rights

Policy Center

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights – YUCOM

Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia