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    • Shrinking Civic Space Needs to Be Resisted at the Local Level

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    • Date: 10 October 2019

      It is crucial to continually monitor the state of civic space and freedom through including local civil society organizations in the dialogue with the international community, it was concluded at two local debates organized by Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) on October 10th 2019 in Belgrade.

      Debates gathered representatives of civil society organizations, independent media and unions from different part of Serbia, who were joined by their peers from Belgrade and the European Union. It was a great chance for local activists, journalists and union members to discuss situations from their everyday life and work that prove the ongoing process of shrinking civic space. On the other hand, civil society and media from Belgrade and the EU could gain new perspectives from the local level, ask questions and gather input for higher-level advocacy.

      BCSP Director Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, representative at the EU-Serbia Joint Consultative Committee moderated the discussions.

      Obstructed Civil Society Rights

      The first debate focused on the issue of shrinking civic space.

      Aleksandar Jovanovic Cuta, activist of the Defend the Rivers of Stara Planina movement presented the history of East Serbia’s communities’ resistance to destruction of natural resources for profit, that spans around three decades, as well as the newest developments and responses of competent state authorities.

      “We didn’t have a choice but to become activists,” Jovanovic said.

      Shrinking civic space on the local level was demonstrated by the example of the organization Novi Optimizam and the now closed alternative cultural centre Zeleno zvono. Branislav Grubacki shared how his organization suffered different kinds of pressure and survived through them since the nineties, but in the end had to move the organization from Zrenjanin to Belgrade.

      Issues that academia, judiciary and women’s organizations face were also presented. Wider perspective to the issue of shrinking civic space was given by Maja Stojanovic from the Civic Initiatives, who presented findings of the newest CIVICUS report on Serbia. The report stated that civil society rights in Serbia have dropped from “narrowed” to “obstructed”.

      “Since March, we recorded 97 cases of violation of freedom of association, assembly and information. From establishment of new GONGOs, corruption, to suffocating free speech, these cases show how basic rights and free speech are endangered in Serbia,” Stojanovic concluded.

       State of democracy in Serbia

      The second local debate was dedicated to discussing state of democracy in Serbia through problems and threats faced by local independent media and union representatives.

      Gordana Bjeletic, editor-in-chief of Juzne vesti, said that there is a decreasing number of threats of physical violence, but more and more indirect threats to journalists and their families are arising.

      “ ‘Watch how you cross the street’, or ‘We know where you live’ are the threats we receive more and more. But these threats are not seen as direct enough for police and the prosecutor’s office to respond,” Bjeletic highlighted.

      Staff of Juzne vesti noticed a pattern - the more powerful the subject of their latest investigative story, the more threats they receive, Bjeletic concluded.

      Similar things happen to investigative journalists in Belgrade, who get attacked in leading tabloids right after they publish a new story, KRIK journalist Dragana Peco shared.

      “Threats and attacks like those that happened to Juzne vesti journalists in Nis are happening across Serbia to independent media,” highlighted Ivana Stevanovic from Slavko Curuvija Foundation, which is centred on supporting journalists.

      She told a story about a journalist from a smaller town, whose mother couldn’t get necessary medication because of her daughter’s investigative work, as an example of pressures local journalists face.

      State of democracy was also discussed from the perspective of unions. Union representatives from Zastava Arms Kragujevac and two unions from Stara Pazova shared stories of intimidation, financial inspections, criminal charges, smear campaigns in tabloids and finally losing jobs.

      In these cases, protecting national security was used as an excuse to limit union organizing in the defence industry and state-owned companies that are deemed of importance for national security, it was highlighted at this session.

       

      Two local debates gathered a total of 45 participants from different parts of Serbia, as well as the EU, who asked questions and took part in the debate.

      Local debates are a part of a joint effort by Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability - CRTANational Coalition for DecentralizationBelgrade Centre for Security Policy and Partners for Democratic Change Serbiato encourage greater citizen participation in decision-making process through the project "Reconnecting Democracy - Citizens in Power" supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The attitudes expressed during the discussion are exclusively the views of the speakers and do not reflect the views of USAID

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