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Youth Initiative for Human Rights Defends Freedom of Speech

The Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) from Belgrade, Serbia believes that defending the values of a democratic society implies a media space in which there is no room for convicted war criminals.

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As an organisation, which is based on the respect for human life as the only foundation and core value of every open and successful society, the initiative considers that the participation of convicted war criminals in the public space sends a clear message that their return is welcome and accepted under a false thesis on freedom of speech.

Without disputing the importance of freedom of speech, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights asks: What about the rights of victims and why are their voices not heard? With this issue, we are focusing on the most important topic according to which the Serbian society must be determined, which is: Does a convicted war criminal, after serving a prison sentence, continue to be a war criminal?

For the Youth Initiative for Human Rights activists, this dilemma does not exist. They consider that their most important mission is the defence of democratic values, among which is the media space, which should be protected from those who have in the past violated and restrained the human rights of others. Therefore, within the framework of its activities, the initiative continues to alert the public to the need to keep the media space clean and to not allow people legally convicted of war crimes to influence public opinion.

The pervasive presence of history revision is an attempt to push the court-established facts to the background. Our society has been fighting with the consequences of disregarding the past for more than 20 years, and the initiative maintains that the roots of most of the problems lie in the fact that a clear boundary in relation to those who committed war crimes was never clearly set. Without this, the Serbian society cannot move forward and build relations with its neighbours based on reconciliation and dialogue.

So far, the most important and certainly the most significant event aimed at signalling the trend of returning war criminals to the public media space is the protest of activists at the panel discussion in Beška, Vojvodina, Serbia in January 2017, organised by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). One of the announced speakers was Veselin Šljivancanin, a former colonel of the Yugoslav People's Army, who was validly sentenced by the Hague Tribunal in 2010 to ten years in prison for crimes committed in Vukovar in 1991.

On that occasion, the initiative’s activists decided to raise their voices, draw public attention and clearly oppose the participation of this proven war criminal at a public gathering. After the activists unwrapped a protest banner at this gathering that read: War criminals to remain silent in order to talk about the victims, the activists were strongly verbally and physically attacked.

"The attack on our activists is not just an attack on the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, it is an attack on all people who do not agree with the idea that a war criminal should be hosted in state institutions and allowed the space to spread his ideology and values and to deny the crimes," said Anita Mitić, Director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, at a press conference held two days after the attack in Beška.

Numerous civil society organisations (CSOs), political parties and public figures supported the initiative after this attack. A letter of support, signed by many organisations such as the Humanitarian Law Centre; Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia; Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina; Women in Black; Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies; and Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights YUCOM, stated: "The signatories of this letter strongly condemn this brutal attack on the activists of the youth initiative, the rhetoric of the ruling party, which, instead of the perpetrators, blames the victims for violence, as well as the policy that persistently encourages the hunting of representatives of those non-governmental organisations advocating the establishment of the rule of law, the democratisation of Serbia and confronting the past."

On the other hand, the incident at the panel in Beška started an avalanche of attacks and insults in a number of tabloid media, creating an atmosphere in which they spun facts, revealed inaccurate information and systematically attacked the initiative. The daily newspaper, Informer, with its editor-in-chief Dragan J. Vučićević, was the leader of the media attacks. For days this newspaper wrote about the initiative, calling its activists "foreign mercenaries and fascists".

Due to a series of insults, untruths and defamation, the initiative filed nine lawsuits against the Informer and its editor-in-chief, which began a new stage in this fight. In anticipation of the recent start of several court proceedings initiated in connection with the case of Beška, the final court verdict will finally put an end to this case.

Not giving up the fight for the ideals of a democratic society, cooperation and reconciliation in the region remain the most important values of the initiative. The fight for a Serbia without war criminals in the media and public discourse remains a goal, which will be pursued, in the coming years. The initiative will continue to point to the negative phenomena in society and raise awareness of the topics that are left to oblivion.

This article is a part of the EU funded TACSO Project Storytelling Capacity Building Activity in which YIHR participated from March to May 2017. The TACSO Regional Office in Sarajevo organised the Storytelling Capacity Building Activity for CSOs interested in additionally improving their communication and storytelling skills. The activity included one-on-one coaching and mentoring through online channels such as Skype, Facebook and e-mail, during which time a number of topics were discussed and approached through various practical exercises.