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The shuttering of a small Serbian daily by the name of Vranjske Novine was announced on Monday, after months of financial and tax department inspections that the newspaper’s staff and Editor-in-chief Vukašin Obradović claimed was an effective form of pressure from Serbia’s government to quell the paper’s frequent criticism of the government.
The final reason given for the newspaper’s shuttering was of a financial nature, as the company that publishes the newspaper will have to file for bankruptcy, after months of financial probes, the results of which have not yet been made public.
Obradović, who was also until recently the President of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia and a known media freedom activist in the country, announced on Tuesday that he was going on a hunger strike to drive the attention of journalists and the public to “the pointlessness of the fight for media freedom that he has led over the past thirty years” in the country.
Before locking himself in the offices of Vranjske Novine in the city of Vranje in southern Serbia, Obradović sent an email statement in which he said, “I don’t wish to be pathetic, but this is the act of a desperate man who sees no other way to end his journalistic career and, at the same time, retain at least the bare minimum of self-respect and dignity necessary to feel like a man, like a human being.”
Obradović also called on his colleagues to “come out,” while emphasizing that this was “his fight” and a personal decision on his part.
Journalists, activists, and friends gathered for a protest in front of Serbia’s Government building in downtown Belgrade on Tuesday evening to support Vranjske Novine and protest its shuttering.
According to a post published Tuesday evening on the Vranjske website, protesters carried posters that supported Vranjske Novine, as well as others that called for media freedom in the country. “Wake up, beloved Serbia, you’ve slept in the media darkness too long,” “Serbia, its people and objective media are hostages of traitors,” and “Serbia is ruled by media darkness” were just some of the handwritten posters held by the protesters.
Several media professionals and activists spoke at the at the peaceful gathering in Belgrade, among them representatives of the Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation, respected columnist and member of Serbia’s Press Council Tamara Skrozza, and investigative journalist Slobodan Georgiev.
Program Director of the Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation Ilir Gaši said that the Editor-in-chief of Vranjske Novine was protesting in the name of all journalists who have endured “terrible pressure in various ways over the past months and years,” adding that those gathered at the protest were “here to show solidarity with one of the bravest journalists and bravest newsrooms.”
Others reminded the public that the case of Vranjske Novine was in no way an isolated incident and that the state of local media in Serbia is worsening by the day, due to pressure that, they claim, will end free media entirely in Serbia in the near future.
Among those in attendance at the protest were also state Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection Rodoljub Šabić, Democratic Party (Demokratska stranka) leader and former Defense Minister Dragan Šutanovac, Serbian Left (Levica Srbije) party leader Borko Stefanović, MP Djordje Vukadinović, and several other journalists, professional association representatives, and politicians.
The gathering had just barely dispersed when local media reported around 10.30 p.m. local time that Vranjske owner and Editor-in-chief Vukašin Obradović had been transported by emergency medical services to a nearby hospital.
Obradović had not been feeling well earlier that day and emergency medical services were called in the early afternoon, but Obradović refused to break his hunger strike or receive any further care. His health declined toward the evening and, after friends who had gathered in the newspaper’s offices with him insisted, an ambulance was called again. Obradović finally agreed to further testing and hospitalization.
The closure of Vranjske Novine came 23 years after the newspaper’s establishment. Obradović began his career as a journalist in several youth publications in the former Yugoslavia and began working for national daily Politika Ekspres in 1989. Due to editorial differences, Obradović quit that job in 1994 and founded Vranjske, a weekly edition that was also the first independent medium in his native southern Serbia. He has received several journalistic awards and was President of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia for several years, until his health began declining and he focused solely on Vranjske.
Feature image source credit: Media Center Belgrade