September 11, 2020

This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organizations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

In a nutshell: First-person reports from journalists, cartoons and an emergency fund for local publications sought to address press freedom challenges that have worsened in Serbia during COVID-19.

Many of Serbia’s independent local media outlets were already struggling before a pandemic and a government clampdown made things more difficult. Physical intimidation, a disintegrating advertising model and threats by local power holders have made life more difficult for journalists in the country than ever before.

Cenzolovka and the nonprofit organization that founded it, The Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation, decided to step in after realizing how dire the situation had become. They used articles and cartoons to highlight the arrest of Serbian journalists while a new public grants program for local media was set up sought to keep independent outlets from shutting down during this crucial time.

In this report, Tara Kelly looks at how Cenzolovka sought to support journalists during this difficult period and what the future may hold for Serbian media.

What is Cenzolovka?

Cenzolovka is a Serbian news website dedicated to journalism, media and freedom of speech. It was founded in 2014 by The Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation, a not-for-profit created in honor of Serbian journalist and newspaper owner Slavko Ćuruvija, who was murdered in 1999 by the members of Serbia’s State Security Agency. The foundation works to promote and support the development of free, independent and accountable media and the advancement of investigative journalism in Serbia.

In Serbian, “Cenzolovka” means “the censorship hunter.” Cenzolovka reports on freedom of speech issues, censorship in media, as well as the assaults and threats on journalists in Serbia. The site carries original reporting but also serves as a news aggregator. Run by an editorial team of three journalists, it also relies on a number of freelancers throughout Serbia.

Cenzolovka publishes the majority of its articles in Serbian — which can be easily understood by Croatians and Bosnians — but translates select articles into English to reach a wider audience. All articles are free to read and are aimed at the wider public and journalists.

The website receives 300,000 monthly pageviews, with most readers coming from Serbia, as well as neighboring countries in the Western Balkan region. Cenzolovka also publishes a weekly media brief newsletter in Serbian and a biweekly one in English.

The Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation, and by extension Cenzolovka, is supported by various domestic and foreign organizations, including The National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society Foundation Serbia, the Embassy of Canada in Belgrade, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the European Union.

How did Cenzolovka handle the COVID-19 crisis?

Very early on during the coronavirus crisis, Cenzolovka heard that Serbian local media were being prevented from publishing any information about COVID-19. This worried the team.

They commissioned a series of eight first-person articles about the challenges of informing the public during the pandemic. One article looked at how data from independent media was concealed in Pancevo, a city east of Belgrade, while another reported the protest of newsrooms in Niš following journalists being denied access to basic information about the coronavirus in the city.

These stories served as a warning for local people and were popular on social media, particularly Facebook, where they received upwards of 1,000 likes, shares and comments. The stories were subsequently picked up by other local media and some national newspapers and meant Cenzolovka played an important role in highlighting the undemocratic treatment of media organizations across Serbia.

Cenzolovka also used cartoons to explain the government’s treatment of journalists during COVID-19. The team worked with two renowned comic book authors — Marko Somborac and Igor Lečić aka Milan Dog — to satirize the government, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and the national tabloid press. They also covered attacks on journalists during the pandemic, including the arrest of journalist Ana Lalic for reporting on the chaos in a hospital in Novi Sad, the second-largest city in Serbia. The cartoonists’ popularity helped people understand complex messages in a simple and direct way.

Satirical comics from Igor Lečić aka Milan Dog (Courtesy: Cenzolovka)

Cenzolovka also sought to provide practical advice to journalists covering the coronavirus pandemic. This included:

  • Reports about burnout and mental health issues suffered by journalists when reporting on the pandemic. As part of this, journalist Ana Lalic was invited to talk to young local journalists at the School of Digital Journalism, an initiative founded by The Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation.
  • Guides about how to report on protests following public violence in Belgrade after a second quarantine was announced in July. As part of this, Cenzolovka published tips from an experienced journalist who had covered protests in Serbia and abroad.
  • Support and advice for journalists who were caught up in the protests. This included Igor Stanojevic, who was arrested by police but released without charge. Cenzolovka was able to quickly inform Serbia’s Permanent Working Group for the Safety of Journalists as well as international organizations, who wrote about Stanojevic’s arrest and argued for his release.

In June, The Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation established a Solidarity Fund for local media outlets by reallocating funds from projects supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation and National Endowment for Democracy. The fund sought to provide local media outlets with a proven track record of adherence to professional standards with emergency funds to allow them to continue to produce relevant information in the public interest.

The foundation received 76 applications, which was many more than expected and proved the dire financial health of the media in Serbia. Only six news organizations could receive funds — Pressek from KragujevacJUG Press from LeskovacSOInfo from SomborRadio 100 plus from Novi PazarRadio City from Nis and GM Info from Gornji Milanovac — and each has received between $3,773 to $4,792.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Cenzolovka?

At this early stage, it’s difficult to know the effects of the Solidarity Fund or how it might change the future operations of Cenzolovka or The Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation. However, it is clear that local and independent media are increasingly scarce in Serbia and that cities across the country, including Belgrade, face a future without any independently owned media.

The team at the foundation and Cenzolovka strongly believe that the support they provide is more important than ever to helping create an environment that nurtures professional journalism and enables fair market game to critical media.

As well as the topics that have been covered so far, Cenzolovka plans to focus more on the financial impact of the pandemic on the media industry and journalists. This includes the effects of COVID-19 on the advertising industry and the potential of other possible revenue models to fill the gap.

Similarly, it plans to keep track of the number of journalists made redundant or fired as a result of the coronavirus. For instance, Cenzolovka recently reported on the layoffs of 200 people from Radio-Television Vojvodina, a public service that covers Serbia’s northern autonomous province of Vojvodina, following cuts to funding.

What have they learned?

Denis Kolundžija, journalist, Cenzolovka (Courtesy: Cenzolovka)

“COVID-19 has had a huge impact on local media outlets and their sustainability in Serbia. It was hard for us in history and it will be harder in future.”

– Denis Kolundžija, journalist, Cenzolovka

This case study was produced with support from Evens Foundation. It was originally published by the European Journalism Centre on Medium and is published here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Poynter Institute is also the fiscal sponsor of the Verification Handbook.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated six news organizations received funds of $5,000. However, the correct amount is between $3,773 to $4,792.

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