Impacts of the Digital Services Act on Critical Voices in Serbia

Impacts of the Digital Services Act on Critical Voices in Serbia

Civil society organizations (CSOs) based in the Western Balkans have raised concerns about the impacts of the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) on the region. For successful implementation, the DSA requires the operational independence of state-level institutions.

By Emily Wright

Civil society organizations (CSOs) based in the Western Balkans have raised concerns about the impacts of the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) on the region. For successful implementation, the DSA requires the operational independence of state-level institutions. The reality of this is questionable in numerous EU candidate states. As one of these candidates, Serbia must adopt the EU acquis. Consequently, Serbia will have to pass its version of the DSA. Within Serbia, the lack of media pluralism and the inflammatory relationship between journalists and activists highlight the potential dangers of implementing this law in a country without independent bodies.

The DSA structure and country level application

According to the European Commission, the goal of the DSA is to foster a safer online environment by providing stronger protection for users’ fundamental rights. Although the law is quite expansive, it is important to highlight its impact on social media platforms through changes in platform liability, the nation-level Digital Services Coordinators (DSC), and trusted flaggers.

As in the E-Commerce Directive (the foundational legal framework for online services in the EU), providers are still not liable for illegal content until they are aware of it. However, the new reporting mechanisms introduced in the legislation give users and public authorities a direct mechanism to alert providers of such content, of which, providers are required to respond to in a ‘timely manner’. This will induce pressure for quick responses.

Within each country, an independent institution will be chosen to be in charge of implementation. If service providers are established in their respective states, that country’s DSC has investigative and enforcement powers. Additionally, and especially important in the case of Serbia, the DSC certifies trusted flaggers.

Notices of illegal content or content that goes against a platform’s Terms of Service from trusted flaggers are to be given priority by the platform and are required to be processed without undue delay. Similar to notices from users, notices from flaggers will be sufficient notice for platforms to be liable for illegal content.

DSC independence is crucial due to its oversight functions, its role as a complaints body, designating trusted flaggers, and more. A non-independent DSC has a strong probability of suppressing freedom of expression.

State of media freedom

In Serbia, media pluralism is characteristically weak, and independent media is systematically disadvantaged by the government. Pro-government groups overwhelmingly control print, television, and radio outlets. Direct ownership of private media by the government or party officials is banned by the government; however, an indirect state ownership model is employed by an overwhelming number of outlets. Critical and opposition media do exist; however, they have a fraction of the airspace granted to pro-government outlets. 

In July 2022, the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) awarded the four national frequencies to only pro-government channels. Now, if citizens want to access non-government-controlled media, they have to actively search them out and often pay extra to view programming. Consequently, pro-government television and tabloids are much more easily available, and much of the public is not exposed to independent channels. Currently, the easiest way for citizens to access dissenting voices is through social media.

The role of media regulators

The issues throughout Serbia’s political system, characterized as competitive authoritarianism, have resulted in a lack of independence in Serbia’s media regulatory bodies. Similar to EU member states, Serbia’s DSC is likely to be a media regulator. Whichever of Serbia’s two media regulators is chosen to be the DSC, the other will likely be a competent authority and assist in implementation. In Serbia, REM, or the Regulatory Body for Electronic Communications and Postal Services (RATEL), are favored. Although both, on paper, are legally and financially independent institutions, in practice, there are innumerable concerns.

While neither is preferable, REM in particular lacks even a pretense of independence. Numerous investigations repeatedly reveal REM’s consistent failure to enforce media regulations, allowing pro-government channels to violate rules. REM applies legislation selectively and has a clear bias towards the ruling party and government-run outlets. If REM is chosen to implement the DSA in Serbia, it can be assumed that the requests of the ruling party will be a consistent priority. When compared to REM, RATEL is known for operating more transparently and would be preferred by digital rights activists.

State of investigative journalism

In line with the deteriorating political climate in recent years, the relationship between the Serbian government and critical media has become increasingly hostile. Smear campaigns against activists are common in the media and in rhetoric from government officials and supporters. It has become common for MPs from the National Assembly to attack journalists openly during parliamentary sessions and at other official occasions.

Government influenced tabloids directly attack government critics using names, their associated media outlets, or other specific and personal information. It is often that journalists are dehumanized and tabloids commonly describe critical outlets as “hateful media”, ”mercenary media,” and more. Repeatedly, these tabloids accuse critical journalists of outrageous sentiments, such as justifying wounded Serbian children and relativizing crimes against innocent Serbs. It is common for critical journalists to be accused of collaborating with the CIA, hoping for a civil war in Serbia, acting as foreign agents, or being enemies of the state.

Civil society and journalists express concerns

To understand how DSA implementation might affect critical voices in Serbia, including civil society organizations (CSOs) and investigative journalists, I interviewed nine different organizations. Of these nine, six were CSOs and three were investigative journalist outlets. The sample size of the journalists is considerably smaller than the CSOs due to many outlets being forced to close due to strategic lawsuits against public participation suits (SLAPPs). 

The interviews found that all of the organizations use social media to promote their work, spread their message, and increase their beneficiaries. Moreover, almost all have had extremely negative interactions with the government and its supporters. All three investigative journalist outlets interviewed have received threats directed towards individual reporters or the organization itself. The severity of the incidents vary based on the topic of the story; however, any story that mentions the wars of the 1990s or the president and his family almost always receives some backlash. Journalists are repeatedly faced with death threats, property destruction, harassment, and more.

Additionally, many organizations encounter challenges with their content being excessively moderated by the platforms themselves. Two of the three journalism outlets have had issues with verification status on Meta platforms. Without verification status, they are unable to boost political posts, which greatly impacts the reach of their stories. 

Impacts on journalism

Once the DSA is implemented in Serbia, the Serbian DSC will not directly control social media content. However, platforms are likely to rely on flags from DSCs and trusted flaggers and prioritize swift removal to evade liability, and they will likely use algorithms that may overlook regional and political nuances, leading to rapid removal.

The impact of the DSA in Serbia hinges on the DSC’s role in implementation, oversight, and its authority to select trusted flaggers. Due to the likelihood of non-independence, it is safe to assume that the DSC will align its actions with the goals of the ruling party. The rhetoric and actions of government-run media, social media bots, official and unofficial statements, and party support for CSOs and IJs are representative of the party’s opinion of critical voices in Serbia. Consequently, much of the content posted by critical voices is likely to be flagged by Serbia’s DSC and trusted flaggers. 

Understanding the relationship between IJs, CSOs, and the Serbian government, coupled with the high likelihood of a government-influenced DSC, leads to the conclusion that the implementation of the DSA in Serbia will be detrimental for CSOs and critical journalists. While both groups will be affected, the current government dynamics suggest that investigative journalist outlets may face more immediate and direct repercussions. This described situation is especially destructive in Serbia due to the country’s lack of media freedom. Social media platforms, currently out of the government’s control, provide space for critical voices, especially with the younger generation. Previously seen as a refuge for critical voices, under the DSA, social media could be subjected to government influence.

This research offers a grim outlook on the future of critical voices in Serbia. Nonetheless, Serbian civil society has a strong track record of successfully opposing legislation with severe impacts on human rights. The public’s awareness of the DSA and its consequences is vital for the country to safeguard and enhance the current state of freedom of expression and other rights. Serbia’s extensive and vibrant civil society plays a crucial role in upholding fundamental rights, and its efforts must be actively protected.

Emily Wright is a Fulbright Research Fellow with Partners for Democratic Change Serbia.