Anti-government demonstrations in Serbia have entered their third month – against the ruling Progressive Party (SNS); a conservative, populist, and pro-EU party. Fresh rallies are rolling out across the country and in parts of Kosovo, and social media is playing an increasingly important and necessary role.
Led by Aleksandar Vučić- the President of Serbia,and his Progressive Party is currently facing its biggest crisis since coming to power in 2012. The initial protests were triggered when opposition leader Borko Stefanovic of the Serbian Left party was severely beaten by masked men. The iron rods used by Stefanovic’s attackers were widely described as having “painted” his shirt red. As a result of the assault, social media was flooded with #StopKrvavimKosuljama (#StopTheBloodyShirts). Further outrage followed when several weeks later journalist Milan Jovanovic’s home was torched in an attack widely believed to have been carried out by elements of the Progressive Party – on January 25th Dragoljub Simonovic, a Progressive Party member and head of the Grocka municipality, was arrested on suspicion of ordering the attack on Jovanovic. Three more people were also arrested on suspicion of having executed the crime.
However, the protests go beyond political violence. There is increasing dissatisfaction with the rule of the President and declining political and civil liberties. Many media professionals, particularly from independent outlets, have reported increasing cases of verbal threats, surveillance, harassment, attacks against property and intimidation- to name a few.
Citizens are unable to express their dissatisfaction through established institutional channels – the Progressive Party holds a tight grip on television and print media, the latter of which continues to dominate Serbian media consumption. Thus protesters have taken to social media – where unfettered by the government, use of the internet by Serbians as their primary news source has tripled in just six years
Initially only concentrated in Belgrade, the protests have slowly begun to organise and expand nationwide.
Serbian actor Branislav Trifunovic, a leading figure of the protest movement has been actively engaging and mobilising people via twitter to take part in the protests. He says: “Social networks have remained the only possible way for the people to be told, truthfully, about what is happening. Broadcasters are, in one way or another, owned by the ruling party. Therefore, social networks are seen as dangerous to the regime.”
Evidence shows internet access and social media has been vital to information exchange during protest movements in the last decade. For instance, during the 2013-14 protests in Turkey and Ukraine, Facebook and Twitter were used to facilitate organization, transportation, advise protesters, encourage support and catch the attention of international news coverage- and now we are seeing similar uses in Serbia.
During the demonstrations, protesters tweet and live stream under the hashtag #1of5million- a hashtag coined late last year after Vucic said he would not bow to a single demand even “if there were 5 million of you.” Other popular protest slogans include “Wake Up”, “Rise”, “It Has Started” and “I’m Not Stupid”.
“We try to inform people (via social media) about the abuses of Vučić and his associates, announce further protests, and often in desperate ways, try to keep the good spirit of the people,” says Trifunovic.
“That is why we are often targeted by tabloids owned by the Serbian Progressive Party. Currently, social media is the only means of (distributing) information. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary.”
The core demands of the opposition movement include; free and fair elections, media freedom, reporting of the protests by the Serbian public broadcaster (RTS), a space for opposition voices on TV with national coverage and an end to political violence. Protesters are leveraging social media in order to try and break state control over what remains the most widely consumed media source: TV.
The response from Vučić has been a careful one and he rejects claims he has become autocratic. Vučić has challenged the opposition by calling for early elections in the spring. However, opposition groups have expressed a reluctance to take part in any snap election under what they consider to be unfair conditions.
Serbia’s opposition parties remain badly divided, though many of their leaders and members have joined the protests regardless. Students, academics, and prominent writers, actors and singers have also joined.