Political tensions have been running high since a controversial election campaign in December 2023.
Hundreds of people have taken to the streets of Belgrade in protest after four former state security officials were acquitted of the 1999 murder of journalist and editor Slavko Ćuruvija.
Ćuruvija was shot dead at the entrance to his Belgrade apartment in 1999. His assassination coincided with NATO’s bombing of Serbia over its crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists.
A vocal critic of the Serbian government and branded an “enemy of the state” by the government of President Slobodan Milošević, his murder became a symbol of the Balkan country’s long-fought struggle for media freedom.
Protesters gathered outside Belgrade’s Appeals Court on Monday after it acquitted four former state security officials of charges of participation in his murder last Friday.
The ruling overturned the court’s previous verdict in 2021 that convicted the four men and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms.
The court in Belgrade said that the accusations against the four officials “have not been proven beyond a doubt”.
The protests – attended by journalists and representatives of media associations – started with 25 minutes of silence to mark the years that have passed since Ćuruvija’s killing.
Demonstrators held up mirrors, symbolically calling on the judges to look at their own reflections.
The government led by Serbia’s current President Aleksandar Vucic, a populist who was information minister at the time of Ćuruvija’s death, maintains tight control over mainstream media outlets.
The acquittal has sparked fierce condemnation by journalists’ associations, who fear it sends a dark signal about the future of media freedom and democracy in Serbia.
In 1999, the state-run media controlled by Milošević’s regime accused Ćuruvija of “inviting’” the NATO Slliance to bomb Serbia.
NATO’s intervention in Serbia was in response to Milošević’s bloody crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008.
Serbian government officials have repeatedly denied any pressure on non-government media.
“I am shocked by this scandalous ruling, it sends a frightening message to all journalists and all people who are fighting for freedom of the speech,” said Jelena Ćuruvija, the victim’s daughter who runs a foundation that promotes media freedom.
“This verdict is a proof that the dark forces of the 1990s still rule this country,” she said. “This is a land of darkness.”
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