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February 19, 2020 - Updated on February 20, 2020

Serbia must account for alleged surveillance of journalists’ emails

Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin / DR
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Serbian authorities to investigate the possibility that the government spied on and intercepted emails between an opposition politician and the independent weekly Nedeljnik. The investigation’s findings must be made public, RSF said.

The possibility came to light on 16 February when the Serbian news agency TANJUG published a statement issued by defence minister Aleksandar Vulin in response to what was said to be a very critical opinion piece by opposition politician Dragan Sutanovac, a former defence minister.

 

In his response, which was picked up by many media outlets, Vulin referred to the opinion piece as having been published in Nedeljnik . 

However, in reality, Sutanovac’s opinion piece had not been published in Nedeljnik or in any other media outlet. Sutanovac had emailed his opinion piece to Nedeljnik editor-in-chief Veljko Lalic, but Nedeljnik decided not to publish it.

 

We are concerned that emails between opposition politicians and independent media outlets are being spied on and intercepted by the government,” RSF editor-in-chief Pauline Adès-Mével said. “We call on the authorities to shed all possible light on this matter.

 

Nedeljnik’s management issued the following statement: “Sutanovac sent his opinion piece on Monday. Lalic, the editor-in-chief, replied to him on Tuesday afternoon that he would not publish it, either in the print edition or on the website. The text of the article therefore remained in the emails of its author and the two journalists.”

 

Sutanovac thereafter told the weekly that he planned to offer his opinion piece to other media outlets.

 

Vulin apologized to Nedeljnik and said he would personally asked the relevant bodies to look into the matter. His staff later said he had confused Nedeljnik with Kurir, a tabloid newspaper that recently published an interview with Sutanovac.

 

This explanation did not satisfy Nedeljnik, which said: “It is hard to believe that a person working constantly with the media, for example, someone in the defence ministry’s public relations department, would confuse the daily Kurir with the weekly Nedeljnik.”

 

There are other big differences. Nedeljnik received a written article while Kurir conducted and interview. And Vulin referred to Sutanovac’s comments about cooperation between Serbia and Russia, which appeared in the unpublished opinion piece but were not mentioned in the interview with Kurir.

 

This affair, the subject of an outcry in Serbia, recalls one in March 2016, when the newspaper Informer published some of the findings of an investigation into then Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s assets that news website Krik had carried out but had not published

 

Such episodes highlight the Serbian media’s lack of independence and their collusion with certain politicians. Serbia has been falling for years in RSF's World Press Freedom Index and is ranked 90th out of 180 countries in the 2019 Index.