Freedom of information and access to information in Southeastern Europe - Experiences from practical daily work Drucken

Freedom of information and access to information in Southeastern Europe - Experiences from practical daily work


It was expected that the political changes in Serbia, which occurred with the downfall of Milo�evic in October 2000, would lead to the adjustment of media legislation with international standards. Despite the promises, the government has done very little about free access to information, which means that the citizens of Serbia are legally still not entitled to exercise that right. Apart from Macedonia, Serbia is the only country in the region of Southeast Europe which does not have a law on free access to information.

What we are talking about here is a law which guarantees that the work of the government is open for the public, which is one of the important mechanisms in fighting corruption. Such a law would undoubtedly also contribute to the beginning of the process of slow break-apart of the "culture of secrecy", which has so far characterised the Serbian society. In other words, people would be finally getting accustomed to the fact that power is not untouchable and that the government is not unapproachable for citizens.


One of the many bills introduced states that: "A government body must not favour any journalist or media institution, when more than one of them have submitted a request, by telling the journalist alone or before other journalists whether the body is in possession of a public piece of information, i.e. whether the information is available to the body at any time or by providing access to the document containing the public information or by providing a copy of the document".

One cannot help noticing that the legislator is thus actually "admitting" what we all know in Serbia: certain journalists or media companies have easier access to information than others. The criterion is, naturally, whether the political orientation and interest of the media in question are in line with the current political climate.

The lack of a law on free access to information in Serbia has led to a "flood" of so-called tabloids, particularly among the dailies. Still, such media have nothing to do with the original notion of tabloids. We should rather talk about the media which have certain political, business or even mafia-related interests. Hiding behind the notion of "investigative reporting", they can hardly boast any investigative reporting. The "investigation" is actually a one-sided "presentation" of information to the media. The "presentation" is, of course, done by special interest groups in order to disqualify competition and position themselves in public. The media are fed with false information, and the selection of information is conducted by that very same interest group. The media accept to play that "game", since corruption is deeply rooted in Serbia and the media are not immune to it either.

The result of this type of "investigation" is the so-called "affair journalism", which has saturated the market in Serbia. All kinds of things are published, just to achieve the desired effects: deposition of government, bringing someone else to power, labelling business competitors, positioning among the Serbian underground� The worst example of this kind of journalism was a peculiar media preparation for the assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran �indic, when several tabloids spent months meticulously undermining the government led by �indic and anathematising the Prime Minister himself. Among the attributes used, the most common were "corrupted government", "government of liars", "government of traitors" (with reference to the fact that the �indic administration cooperated with the Hague Tribunal)...

A logical question imposes itself: How is it possible that such media exist and are not sanctioned for the texts they publish? The answer is not simple and would require a much longer analysis, but for the time being, I will only explore the legislation factor. Unfavourable media legislation (above all the Law on Information), the fact that certain existing laws are not applied (the Law on Radio-diffusion) and the lack of key laws (the Law on Free Access to Information) are all creating an atmosphere in which one can write whatever they wish, without ever having to bear possible consequences. Certainly, one of the basic reasons for this state is more than inefficient judiciary in Serbia, but that is a topic which deserves much more space and a special analysis.


Although we were originally being assured that the Law on Free Access to Information would allow a shorter deadline for journalists to obtain the information, due to the nature of our job, it was decided that we, just like other citizens, would have to wait 20 days for a response from government bodies, as stipulated in the Law. The state administration, thus, has a legal right to postpone providing information to media, even in cases when they should be made public immediately.

Passing of the Law on Free Access to Information in Serbia would have its importance, but, like everything else in the country I come from, would have to be confirmed in practice. And that is another problem. Namely, no legal act in Serbia can change subservience of citizens, or journalists for that matter, over night. Neither can it change the mentality of bureaucrats, who often resort to the "key" argument: "You can't get that information, because I won't give it to you". Or: "You can get that information, but you have to pay for it".

Like in all other fields, the old slogan that freedom needs to be conquered is true in this case, as well. Particularly for the journalists in Serbia. Even when all modern laws regulating the media in Serbia have been passed, it would not mean that the media situation would change, at least not as long as journalists are afraid of the pressure coming from politicians, while it should be the other way round.

However, we must not be too critical towards media and journalists. After all, they have been brought up in a society which cannot boast long democratic traditions. A 50-year tradition of servile communist media, followed by the tradition of warmongering journalism during Milo�evic's reign, have led to the fact that many journalists in Serbia today are, first and foremost, afraid and, hence, prone to self-censorship.

On the other hand, politicians and other interest groups are still very interested in exploring the possibility to manipulate through media. Although progress has been made, in comparison with the time of Milo�evic's reign, it is still not enough. Eventually, the politicians succumbed to the pressure, primarily from the international community, and accepted to pass the Law on Free Access to Information. Nevertheless, they will definitely strive to postpone its application as much as possible. This means, to remain in power as long as possible, in their favourite world of mystification and stories about the untouchable nature of power, so deeply rooted in the conscious of the authoritarian Serbian society.

Dinko Gruhonjic
Beta News Agency
Novi Sad/Belgrade