The legal framework in Serbia is based on international standards and provides the right for freedom of assembly for all without any discrimination. The right to Assembly is explicitly stipulated by the Constitution. Article 54 stipulates Freedom of Assembly held outdoors may be restricted by the law only if necessary to protect public health, morals, rights of others or the security of the Republic of Serbia. Furthermore, Assembly held indoors shall not be subjected to permission or registering unlike Assembly held outdoors. The Public Assembly Act provisions explicitly determining that a public assembly refers to a gathering of 20 or more persons on account of expressing and realizing different viewpoints and goals which are allowed in a democratic society. A necessary precondition for the protection of the right to freedom of assembly specified by the Act is that the assembly must be deemed peaceful. The right to assembly is guaranteed to all persons, as prescribed by Article 2 of the Act.
However, when it comes to restriction spontaneous, simultaneous and counter-assemblies, legislation partially satisfies standards. There are no legal limitations in terms of multiple assemblies on the same location at the same time. The only explicit limitation is the nature of the assembly which should be peaceful. The Act does not recognize the category of counter assembly. The Public Assembly Act stipulates a dual obligation of the competent bodies, negative and positive. The negative obligation is contained in the request that competent organs do not, by its actions, jeopardize or limit the right of citizens to public assembly, while the positive obligation implies the obligation to take all steps, primarily with regard to public safety work, so that the assembly passes without incidents. On the other hand, not having a clear legal definition of these concepts may lead to serious problems in the practical application of the Act, which was previously the case, and it was not improved by passing the new Act in 2016.
Similarly, partially enabling environment has been notified regarding prior authorization of the right by the authorities. The Public Assembly Act recognizes the system of submitting notification but not the authorization of the public gathering. The organizer, unless it is a spontaneous gathering, shall inform the Ministry of Interior on public assembly. The Act also stipulates that public gathering can be reported and organized as the motion of participants of public assembly in a specific location, provided that it is necessary to emphasize it in the application submitted to the police. Article 6 stipulates certain limitations in terms of the assembly location and states that assemblies cannot be held in front of health institutions, schools, preschool institutions as well as objects of strategic importance to the defense and security of the Republic of Serbia.
0 – 20 Fully disabling environment20 – 40 Disabling environment
40 – 60 Partially enabling environment60 – 80 Enabling environment
80 – 100 Fully enabling environment
Finally, restrictions of the right based on law and prescribed by regulatory authority can be appealed by organizers, which is in line with standard. The Act envisages the possibility of complaint in the procedure as well as entering into a dispute, which is stipulated by Article 16 of the Public Assembly Act. The complaint is submitted to the Ministry of the Interior within 24 hours after receiving the decision, and the Ministry has to act within 24 hours of receiving the complaint. A dispute may be lodged against the final decision of the Ministry.
In practice, there are certain cases of encroachment of the freedom of assembly for all which indicate partially enabling environment, although the Ministry of Interior did not provide official information. According to the MM survey, 15 organizations responded that they practiced freedom of assembly. 2 of them responded that administrative requirements were not burdensome for the organizers (e.g. prior authorization to hold the event and for one of them they were. One of them responded that access to the desired venue was not limited. No CSO responded that due to restrictions, participants could not gather at the desired time.
However, CI reports “Three freedoms” record a trend of increasing of public gatherings during 2019. CSOs, informal groups, political parties, both liberal and liberal prominences, appeared as organizers. However, liberal rallies generally occurred in response to liberal group public gatherings. During 2019, the Pride Parade was held in Belgrade and for the first time in Novi Sad with great measures and police protection.
During 2019 additional restrictions in the local legislative have been recorded. Using their legal authorities in the area of governance of the public spaces, certain local-self-governments, occupying the public space needed for organizing public gatherings asked for the local tax payments or to signing commercial contract with local utility company for cleanness (to clean the space after the gathering). This means that if an association wants to set up a stage or a promotional stand during public gathering, it will not get a permit unless it has paid all local taxes imposed by the local government on any basis. Additionally, utility taxes for using public space for this purpose are the same for both profit and non-profit entities and CSOs are not able to pay it in some cases. All mentioned above could be de-motivated for exercising freedom of assembly and indicates hidden legal obstacles bellow the primary legislation.
A group of right-wingers gathered, on 5th May, in front of “Roma” bakery in Borca, Belgrade, demanding its closure because a former bakery employee was photographed, two years ago, gesturing the Albanian national symbol – the two-headed eagle. Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said police kept the peace during a gathering of citizens outside a bakery in Borca. Human rights activists and most opposition parties in Serbia condemned the attack on the bakery in Belgrade, while right-wing MP Srdjan Nogo not only attended the attack but also defended its legitimacy. Human rights activists, neighbours and the opposition organized a rally to support the bakery owner, which once again provoked right-wingers to protest. They walked around Borca singing nationalist songs and spreading hate speech against the Albanian minority, two days after the gathering. Police did not prohibit this nationalistic rally, indicating that such behaviour was permissible.
When it comes to explanations of restrictions of the freedom of assembly, practice also partially satisfies standards. According to CI bi-weekly reports “Three freedoms”, during 2019, there has been an increase in the number of gatherings of illiberal groups, which should be prohibited in relation to the requirements of the Law on Public Meetings.
During the three days of the panel, the Zone of New Optimism in Sabac, a group of young men tried to disrupt it. On the first day before the start of the event, the assembled young men shouted and insulted the participants of the panel, but there were no major incidents. The start of the panel was half an hour late. The same case was repeated for the next two days. Although Sabac television, co-organizer of the five-day event, sent a letter to the Sabac Police Department asking why they were not responding and how is it possible that an unreported rally could interfere with the event for the third day, they have not received the answer yet.
Unfortunately, disabling environment has been identified for exercising simultaneous, spontaneous and counter-assemblies. According to the MM survey, only 5 CSOs reported they have participated in spontaneous assemblies and 3 of them in counter assemblies. All respondents stated that they haven’t witnessed the lack of police protection during simultaneous and counter-assemblies as well as they weren’t involved in assemblies that were banned because of the possibility of counter-protests.
At the Kolarac Endowment building in Belgrade, 20 people wearing shirts with nationalist symbols interrupted a performance named “Srebrenica. When we, the killed rise”, which was organized by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. This is the same group of young men who was at the counter protest in front of the Presidency earlier that day and the police knew about all this but did nothing about it. During the event, the right wing activist began yelling that the genocide did not take place in Srebrenica and that Ratko Mladic, one of the masterminds of the 1995 genocide, was a hero and then they began singing nationalist songs and to threaten to throw a smoke bomb.
Selective implementation of the law is evident, as the police did not reacting in this case such as in many other cases, while for example, activists of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, who interrupted speech of a convicted war criminal a year ago, were kicked out and sentenced.
From May 29 to June 1, the “Mirëdita, dobar dan!” festival was held, presenting the cultural and social scene of Prishtina to the Belgrade audience. The trend of attacks on festival participants and supporters is increasing every year, and this year it has been noticed that the security services were practicing “over policing”. There was an incident when a lit torch was thrown in the space where the event was organized. Right-wingers gathered several times during the festival, making riots. This year, for the first time, hooligans also protested and they clashed with police, but police managed to prevent them from entering the premises of the festival. The aforementioned cases show a trend of unequal treatment of the police, where in many cases when it comes to holding events or public gatherings with sensitive topics. In many cases, the police, although present, do not respond at all, although the security of people gathered by counter-rally participants is clearly compromised. In other cases, another indicative problem arises regarding “overpolicing”.
Civic Initiatives hosted a media conference on “Rakita – The Breakdown of the Rule of Law” of the Defend the Stara Planina Rivers movement in the Human Rights House. At the very beginning of the conference, a group of thugs in t-shirts with the sign “Civil Guard” and posters on which were the lies about the members of the Defend the Stara Planina Rivers (ORSP) movement. This provocation was intended to discredit the work of the ORSP movement and to put the story of SHP aside. This GONGO was supported by the Informer team (pro-regime tabloid known for articles in which they attack and target CSOs) who appeared outside the Human Rights House, although they were told that you did not attend the conference because of their practice of violating the journalistic code and previous disruption of the similar event. After the event, Informer published a text where they falsely stated that the director of Civic Initiatives had physically assaulted their journalist. A police patrol did not respond to the call.
Practice indicates partially enabling environment when it comes to cases of freedom of assembly practiced by CSOs without prior authorization although in the MM survey, all CSOs responded that spontaneous assembly was not dispersed by police due to lack of authorization/ notification. Dobrica Veselinovic, one of the prominent members of the “Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own” initiative, received a 20-day prison sentence following a verdict by a misdemeanor court for organizing spontaneous protests after the demolition of the facilities in Savamala, even though he had previously paid a fine. This case is a continuation of attempts at institutional intimidation and pressure on activists, as evidenced by the numerous legal proceedings initiated against civil protest organizers aimed at effectively restricting freedom of assembly. There are more than 30 misdemeanor and criminal proceedings against this initiative and their activists. Such cases have been sporadically recorded and when it comes to other informal groups that have organized public gatherings such as the Local Front, an informal movement against the construction of mini-hydropower plants.
However, disabling environment has been detected regarding using excessive force. Although in the MM survey, everyone responded that authorities did not used excessive use of force on participant as well that no one from participants was detained.
Thousands of protesters in Serbia gathered for the 15th week in a row to protest against President Aleksandar Vucic. Up until the last gathering, all the protests were peaceful. The demonstrations escalated on March 18, when protesters stormed the Serbian Radio and Television (RTS) led by opposition leader Bosko Obradovic. They asked the editor-in-chief to allow them to address the public live. The editorial team denied the request, and police started pushing and dragging out the protesters. Meanwhile, the RTS director addressed the public, saying the protest had lost its legitimacy by entering the building. Police said all protesters who entered the building will be prosecuted.
Opposition leaders announced another gathering at noon ahead of the Presidency during the presidential press conference on the events of the previous night. One of the protesters was given a 30-day prison sentence for entering the RTS building, while the other was fined 20,000 dinars for assaulting a police officer. Leaders of the Alliance for Serbia and the organizers of the 1 in 5 Million protests said at a media conference on Monday that the young people arrested during the protests in Belgrade must be released. Students of the Languages High School in Belgrade staged a protest over the arrest of their schoolmate accused of participating in protests and incidents at the Serbian state TV (RTS).
There was an incident on the last “1 in 5 Million” protest in front of the Serbian Presidency building. A delegation of protesters tried to deliver a list of demands to the President but was stopped by security guards who pushed them back across the fence and then prevented others from crossing over. One of the participants of the “1 in 5 million” protest, SrdjanMarkovic, ended up in the emergency room, where he said it was determined that his ribs and head were injured. He claimed that he did not break the law because the presidency is a public building, not a residence and added that the security detail did not have the right to use force outside the building. While president said members of the Armed Forces only “protected the Presidency building” and used “minimum force”, experts say there was overuse of force and questioned why communication between the Army and Police (with whom protesters previously agreed on leaving demands in front of the Presidency Building) did not work that evening.
On the occasion of the announced guest appearance of President Vucic on the national service, students from the association “1 in 5 million” announced that they would wait for him in front of the RTS building to ask him certain questions, and several hundred citizens gathered in front of the building to support them. On the other hand, supporters of the Serbian Progressive Party organized a counter-protest at the same place, which was followed by a series of different incidents. In addition to throwing insults at citizens and certain opposition leaders, several attacks on students, citizens, and cameramen were reported, and one of the most serious incidents occurred when a group of men without any official badges prevented free movement of citizens.
There were no reported cases of violence when it comes to media access to the assembly, which is in line with the standard.