NED Calls on Serbian Government to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists

Stockholm, Washington, Utrecht
20 February 2008

Dear Sirs,

We would like to express our deepest concern about the latest threats on human rights defenders in Serbia, as well as the failure to arrest and bring to justice attackers on journalists, artists, and others who express different opinions on issues facing Serbia today.

After the adoption of Declaration of Independence in the Kosovo Central Assembly, several articles published in high-circulation newspapers attacked Natasa Kandic, the executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre, because she was present at the session of the Kosovo Central Assembly. Articles such as Natasa, the Woman Who No Longer Exists, published in the daily Vecernje novosti, and Kandic at the Shiptar CelebrationTraitor, and Allegedly a Guest, all found in the Kurir tabloid, echo those published before the assassination of Serbian journalist Slavko Curuvija at the beginning of NATO bombing in 1999. The mentioned articles, also published on the Internet, resulted in reader comments full of hate speech and open demands for attacks on Ms. Kandic.

Similarly, riots in Belgrade and other cities in Serbia were followed by attacks on journalists. According to various media sources, TV B92, TV Studio B, TV RTL and Public Broadcasting Service of Serbia were attacked. No arrests were made in relation to those attacks.

As mentioned in the Swedish Helsinki Committee’s letter addressed to you on December 14, 2007, the increasingly frequent hate speech by the Serbian government officials and members of the National Assembly and against human rights defenders has not been followed by proper reaction of relevant officials. Moreover, following the declaration of independence of Kosovo, some public officials even justified violence on streets of Serbia. In the TV show Poligraf aired by TV B92 on February 18, 2008), Mr. Slobodan Samardzic, the Minister for Kosovo, said that he does not support violence but justified attacks on checkpoints at the Kosovo border as ‘’legitimate and in line with the policy of Serbia.”

Such articles and statements in Serbia again contribute to the atmosphere of persecution. Failure to react to abuses, threats and attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and political parties create a hostile atmosphere in which those speaking differently can be attacked without consequences.

Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and unobstructed work of human rights defenders and organisations are some of the basic preconditions for any democratic society. The failure to protect these rights and freedoms in a proper way is in clear breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to which Serbia is a state party.

Declaration of independence of Kosovo and unresolved transitional justice issues cannot justify neglect of these basic human rights and failure to protect human rights defenders and journalists. Hate speech cannot be justified as freedom of speech. We respectfully request that you exercise all your authority and use all mechanisms available to adequately protect human rights defenders, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly in the future. This should include punishing those who propagate hate crime and hate speech while offering unequivocal support to those who work to protect human rights.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Hårdh, Secretary General, Swedish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights

Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy

Nico Roozen, Executive Director, Impunity Watch