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Public official threatens to file lawsuit against Novi Sad-based radio station

(ANEM/IFEX) - 1 April 2011 - The Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) strenuously protests the enormous damage claims and legal threats against an ANEM-member station, the Novi Sad-based Radio 021.

A Radio 021 press release says that the director of the public utility company "Water Management and Sewage" in Novi Sad, Branko Bjelajac, has asked for one million dinars (approx. US$14,000) in damages, threatening to file a lawsuit if he does not receive this amount. In a memo signed by his attorney, Bjelajac is claiming the said amount over comments posted by visitors to the station's website, , in connection with a report that the State Audit Institution is auditing the public utility company.

The memo particularly emphasized a comment to the effect that the citizens of Novi Sad drank the worst water in the region, "enriched" by worms and heavy metals. Bjelajac accuses Radio 021 of "disturbing citizens" by allowing such a comment to be posted. Paradoxically, Bjelajac seems to believe that citizens will be reassured by him being awarded one million dinars in damages.

In this era, exercising the right to freedom of expression transcends the mere duty of the state to refrain from restricting anyone's right to collect, receive and communicate information, involving rather the obligation of the authorities to provide incentives and actively contribute to producing quality information for citizens. As such, ANEM believes it is completely unacceptable that the state, through the representatives of the government or persons appointed by the government in management positions at state institutions or public companies, actually restricts the space for public debate in the media about matters of public interest, by allowing said representatives or persons to threaten the media with ridiculous damage claims.

Issues related to the financial operations of public companies, and particularly those concerning the quality and suitability of drinking water in Serbia, are definitively in the public interest. That said, the presence of nematode worms in the controlled sample of drinking water from the tank of the water plant in Novi Sad was confirmed last summer by the Public Health Institute of Vojvodina. Moreover, the latest report on the fitness of drinking water in Novi Sad, available on the website of the Public Health Institute of Vojvodina, dates back to December 2010. According to that report, 33.41% of controlled samples from the Novi Sad water plant, managed by the "Water Management and Sewage" public utility company were found to be physically and chemically unfit, with the most frequent cause of such unfitness being the increased concentration of manganese.

ANEM wishes to express its full support for the journalists and editors of Radio 021 and calls upon the competent authorities in Novi Sad to review, condemn and sanction the unacceptable actions of persons appointed to management positions in public utility companies. In the interest of further democratization, ANEM believes that conditions need to be created so that citizens can be fully informed about matters of public interest, without journalists fearing legal prosecution, which ultimately leads to self-censorship.

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