Imagine a country where the self-styled democrats threaten press freedom and where “anti-democratic" forces try to defend it. Such an Orwellian state of affairs exists in Serbia, where a draconian new media law from the Democratic Party-led government has been attacked not only by the
political opposition, but by national and international human rights groups.
Under the law, media outlets and journalists can be fined for offences including publication of what is deemed to be false or libellous information. Editors face fines of up to €25,000 - fearsome enough were this to be imposed in the UK, but a colossal sum in Serbia, where salaries are about a fifth of the size. The law suspends citizens' right to set up publications and introduces a registration system for media outlets.
The government claims the law will introduce "order into the chaotic media", but opponents say it has been rushed through in order to prevent the press from criticising Serbia's ruling elite.
“The adopted changes abolish all domestic and European standards of the freedom of the media," says Vladimir Vodinelic, a Belgrade professor of law. The head of the OSCE Serbia mission, Hans Ola Urstad, warns that they may lead to "self-censorship and the closure" of news outlets.
The prime movers behind the law are the small but influential party GI7 Plus, which threatened to leave the governing coalition if the law was not passed. G17 was one of the "pro-democracy" organisations supported by the US's National Endowment for Democracy in its push to topple Slobodan Milosevic's regime in the 1990s. That yesterday's "democratic" opposition is now acting like an authoritarian group is an irony not lost on Serbs.
“In the 1990s I wrote many articles attacking Milosevic and the government," says Dragan Milosavljevic, a journalist. “It is much harder to criticise the democratic government today."
When a restrictive media law was introduced in Yugoslavia in 1998, as the country faced the prospect of Nato airstrikes, there was widespread condemnation from western governments. Will the same condemnation be offered again? We shouldn't hold our breath.