The director of Serbian public broadcaster RTV Vojvodina has suspended journalist Svetlana Bozic-Kraincanic and reduced her pay by 20% for three months after she posed a controversial question about the “Greater Serbia” political project to prime minister Aleksandar Vucic.
Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is expected to increase its majority in Serbia’s April 24 general election, has previously been accused of clamping down on independent journalism. However, he intervened in the dispute, which he implied was politically motivated, telling Bozic-Kraincanic’s boss to let the journalist do her job.
At a press conference on April 1, Bozic-Kraincanic asked Vucic for his thoughts on Greater Serbia, and whether he was renouncing the policy he held during the 1990s when he was a member of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS).
The Greater Serbia concept stipulates that all Serbs in former Yugoslavia should live in a single state. The idea was initiated by nationalistic politician Vojislav Seselj, who was acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on March 31.
Seselj is the founder and leader of the SRS, of which Vucic was a member until 2008. However, after splitting from the SRS to found the SNS, Vucic claims he is the strongest opponent to Seselj’s ideas.
In response to Bozic-Kraincanic’s question, Vucic said that the politics of Greater Serbia are not the politics of the Serbian government and never were - a statement he has given before in answer to similar questions.
After hearing that the director of the regional broadcaster, Srdjan Mihajlovic had punished Bozic-Kraincanic for her question, Vucic contacted Mihajlovic and told him to let the journalist do her job.
“Shame on you,” Vucic said on April 13, B92 reported. "Do punish anyone on my behalf and do it deliberately ten days before elections, to make it look as if I ordered it.”
Vucic implied there could have been political motives behind Mihajlovic’s decision, pointing out that RTV Vojvodina’s director is close to Democratic Party leader Bojan Pajtic and Nenad Canak, president of the League of Social-democrats of Vojvodina, Pajtic’s coalition partner in the Vojvodina regional government. This was echoed in a party statement on April 13.
The April 24 general election will coincide with local elections and regional elections in Vojvodina. Vucic’s SNS has not so far participated in Vojvodina’s government, and gaining power in the region is one of the party’s main goals for the upcoming elections.
The Democratic Party commented on the situation, saying that punishing the RTV Vojvodina journalist was further evidence of media intimidation by the SNS.
“Fake protector of media freedoms Aleksandar Vucic goes a step forward in humiliating citizens, blaming the Democratic Party, because editors and journalists are scared of his revenge or anger,” said the party’s spokesperson Aleksandra Jerkov. She added that a “false apology” was not enough.
Mihajlovic has denied political pressure, saying he punished Bozic-Kraincanic to discourage her from making the same “violation of duty” again, and as a warning to other employees, media freedoms website Cenzolovka reported on April 13.
“The director told me ... that the decision was his and that he didn’t make it under pressure. I’m not going to go into that and I can believe in his word,” Bozic-Kraincanic said according to regional broadcaster N1. However, she added that the decision could have been a result of self-censorship.
The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) and the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina (NDNV) both said that Bozic-Kraincanic did not violate any legal, ethical or professional standard when she posed the question, according to B92.
Freedom House's 2015 Freedom of the Press report said there had been a "serious deterioration" in press freedom in Serbia over the last five years. The report said that Vucic’s administration “directed increasingly hostile rhetoric and harassment at independent journalists”.