Letter from Serbia: we are drowning in a flood of censorship

Serbia has been battered by two storms: first there were mass floods; then a wave of terrifying Internet censorship, which has included denial-of-service attacks, arrests over Facebook discussions of the flood casualties, and ISPs mysteriously shuttering websites critical of the government. We're proud to present an open letter from BlogOpen-BlogClosed, announcing a netcast strategy conference on Tuesday, June 10 at 1PM CET.

[Ed: the following letter comes from a source with the Serbian BlogOpen-BlogClosed collective. The group will be webcasting its live event on the issue on Tuesday, June 10 at 1PM CET, at the Blogopen.rs site.]

Fellow citizens of the free world,

We need your support, solidarity, and help to spread the word about endangered civil rights and free speech in Serbia.

For the past few months the Serbian Internet -- blogs, media and social networks -- has suffered under apparent censorship, especially when it comes to material that is of great public interest. Newspaper articles criticizing the government and its members have disappeared, blogs have suffered DDoS attacks, and entire critical portals have disappeared for several days (one of them was removed permanently by its hosting company, who had no good explanation for this).

There is no solid evidence as to who is censoring the media, but it's matter of simple deduction. The outcomes are indisputable: media sites and blog posts are being removed and hacked, and they all have only one thing in common – they are critical of the government's and the PM's actions.

All Serbian citizens have a Constitutional right to free speech and free expression. The government of Serbia is responsible for protecting this rights, and even if you don't believe that they are behind the censorship, we're concerned that not doing enough to protect those rights or to discourage visible signs of censorship. The question isn't what the government is doing to censor or encourage self-censorship, but what the government of Serbia is not doing to prevent online censorship and to protect democratic anchors of the society in general.

The recent, dramatic floods in Serbia provoked loud civil criticism of the government, especially over the plight of vulnerable people. The response was repression: three people were imprisoned for nine days, and around 20 people have been taken in the police for an interview for allegedly "spreading panic" (on Twitter and Facebook) with respect to the number of floods victims, which was the major issue of public concern (and still is).

An atmosphere of fear and insecurity now reigns. At this very moment, three people have been called to a police station for interviews for "ruining the reputation" of the ruling party, Ovoga Nema. One of the people detained for "spreading panic" was an 18 year old flood volunteer who spent nine days in prison, sharing a cell with a drug dealer and an accused murderer. He came out of it saying "I will never use Facebook again".

How did he "spread panic?" He posted on his personal wall, after a hard day of volunteer work in the flooded areas: "Unfortunately, there are 300 hundred drowned in the city of Obrenovac." This private Facebook post costs him nine days of freedom. By way of contrast, there were no sanctions for tabloids splashing sensational headlines on their cover pages ('Dead bodies floating in Obrenovac', 'Water worse than bombs', 'Flood is threatening Belgrade')

We fear that these are abridgements of right to free expression. As a result, we are experiencing the "chilling effect" and a palpable sense of self-censorship.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe quickly released a public announcement criticizing the Serbian government and expressing concerns about censorship, but Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić's swift reply was dismissive of international critics: "I will never let anyone attack Serbia, not even OSCE!" He labelled his critics within Serbia as "unwanted" and "enemies within": "In many different ways Serbia begins to upset others, especially some in our country..."

The Internet community in Serbia loudly and forcefully responded with a campaign against censorship, called #ulicecenzuri (#InTheFaceofCensorship), signed by hundreds of bloggers, online media and individuals.

This latest civil rights issues in Serbia was well covered by international media, institutions and NGOs:

  1. OSCE: Government online censorship in Serbia worrying trend, says OSCE media freedom representative
  2. Deutsche Welle - Vučićev šou i gušenje kritike
  3. London School of Economics - Serbia: is the freedom of the press endangered?
  4. Taz.de: Ein Virus namens Zensur
  5. DerStandard.at - Hochwasser: In Serbien ermittelt Justiz
  6. Die Presse - Serbien: Massengrab entdeckt
  7. Huffington post: Flood Backlash Puts Serbian Leader in a Flap
  8. Global Voices: Serbian Bloggers Censored for Criticizing Flood Relief Efforts
  9. Support of Commissioner for Information of public importance, Rodoljub Šabić
  10. Support of Serbian Ombudsman
  11. BBC: Website hit in serbia plagiarism row
  12. Euractiv.rs: Evropska komisija o razmeni poruka OEBS-Srbija

Now we are preparing a public panel discussion, organized by the BlogOpen - BlogClosed conference, with bloggers and experts, where we will discuss recent trends and conclude the meeting with a clear Declaration of Internet Freedom, which will be sent to the media, the wide public and the Government.


Some of the screen shots of hacked sites and news sites in Serbia. The complete list is much longer:



Picture No.1 - Teleprompter.rs

Upper image:
Headline: "Tomislav Nikolic is shame that Serbia hasn't seen in a long time!"
(underlined in red) teleprompter.rs (the source)

Tomislav Nikolic is the President of Serbia, founder and former leader of SNS - political party now lead by the Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

Lower image (after censorship)
EUnet (internet provider)
"Notice → If you see this page it means that the website is temporarily suspended (underlined in red)"



Picture No.2 - B92.net

Both links framed in red are the same, but the article on the left hand side has been removed and replaced with the one on the right hand side.

Headline "About the Ognjanovic case: It has to be like this, there is no other way."

Explanation - Ognjanovic family lost their daughter who was terminally ill and couldn't get the proper treatment in Serbia. That's when the community teamed up and gathered the money necessary for her treatment abroad. Nevertheless, she unfortunately died. Shortly after the tragic event, regime tabloid Kurir began a series of attacks on Ognjanovic family challenging them to prove where the money raised for the treatment had gone.



Picture No. 3 - YouTube

A number of satirical videos of Aleksandar Vucic (then the Deputy Prime Minister) rescuing people in Feketic during a snowstorm were removed from YouTube.

Titles of the videos on the left hand side:
Aleksandar Vucic is helping evacuate people - Feketic 1.2.2014.
Vucic rescuing a child - Feketic - 01.02.2014.
Superman in Feketic.



Picture No 4. - Twitter correspondence between a user and Mario Maletic, staff member of President of Serbia

@Bo_JAH
A question for @mariomaletic as the leader of SNS's online team. How are you canceling these videos about Vucic? When I report some videos, I wait for a long time.

@mariomaletic
@mcbojah mind is the master, but the crowd of people comes in handy too :)



Picture No. 5. - blog.blic.rs

A blogpost entitled "I, AV, am resigning" (AV stands for initials of Aleksandar Vucic) was removed, as well as entire blog section of the Blic news site.

Link - blog.blic.rs/1219/AV-ostavka (AV-resignation)
Text on the white background → Blog not found.



Picture No. 6 - 24sata.rs

Headline in the link (URL): Bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users against online censorship



Picture No. 7 - Krstarica.com discussion portal

Headline in the link: "Freedom of the Press in Serbia: All media removed the news about the daughter of Jorgovanka Tabakovic"

(Jorgovanka Tabakovic is the Governor of the National Bank of Serbia, former representative of SNS (Serbian Progressive Party))



Picture No. 8 - drugastrana.net

A blogpost entitled "Dear State, we wouldn't take any more of your time", was removed (hacked) shortly after it was published. The blogpost listed the PM's and the Government's failures during the devastating floods in May.

Published 5:06 am Sun, Jun 8, 2014

About the Author

BlogOpen-BlogClosed is an anonymous group of Serbian anti-censorship activists.

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