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Serbia-China agreements on extradition and media cooperation could have lasting impact

Serbia-China agreements on extradition and media cooperation could have lasting impact


BELGRADE — Although fanfare over Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to Serbia has died down, agreements signed during his recent visit could limit press freedom in the country and expand China's extrajudicial reach, officials said. warned experts and activists interviewed by RFE/RL.

“I think anyone who is seen by Beijing as a critic of the regime should think twice before going to Serbia,” said Laura Harth, campaign director of the rights group Safeguard Defenders. said RFE/RL's Balkans Service in reference to an extradition agreement signed in Belgrade during Xi's May 7-8 state visit.

The contract is one of 28 agreements signed between Beijing and Belgrade during the Chinese leader's trip in areas ranging from infrastructure to energy. But the extradition deal has raised alarms among human rights activists targeting China and Serbia, who say the Balkan country's lack of judicial independence could open the door to abuse by the Chinese authorities.

“Signing an extradition treaty with China is not controversial in itself, but the question is how it will be implemented,” Petar Vidosavljevic of the Belgrade Human Rights Center told Balkans service of RFE/RL.

Similar concerns have been expressed by independent journalists and media advocacy groups in Serbia over cooperation and media broadcasting agreements signed by Serbia's three main pro-government media outlets and President Aleksandar Vucic's press service with China Media Group, the main entity that oversees the Chinese state. -manage radio and television broadcasts.

Although the text of the agreements has not been fully made public and will need to be ratified by the Serbian parliament to come into force, activists warn that the agreement — when combined with the deterioration of the media environment in Serbia — could further diminish the limited space for independent information in the country.

“The fear is that this will lead to an increase in anti-European rhetoric in the Balkans,” Antoinette Nikolova, director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative, told RFE/RL. “The Serbian information environment is already saturated with Russian propaganda and will now become an echo chamber for Chinese narratives as well.”

“And it's not just coming from Chinese sources. It will be inserted into the media ecosystem and repackaged through its local infrastructure,” she added.

Slippery slope towards extradition

Serbia has signed extradition treaties with many countries, including the United States, Germany, Belarus, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But over the past five years, courts in more than a dozen European Union member states have stopped granting China's extradition requests on suspicion that the person being extradited would be facing repression, abuse and extrajudicial reprisals in her country.

According to Safeguard Defenders, China has so far signed more than 60 bilateral extradition treaties with countries around the world and more than 40 of them have been ratified by national parliaments.

Since Xi came to power in late 2012, Safeguard Defenders has recorded nearly 70 attempts by the Chinese government to return 400 people to China through the extradition process. Most of them were in Europe and the extradition requests were considered to be based on shaky legal grounds.

Chinese police officers stand in Belgrade's Republic Square during a joint patrol with Serbian police officers in 2019.

Chinese police officers stand in Belgrade's Republic Square during a joint patrol with Serbian police officers in 2019.

The new extradition deal would also deepen a broader web of security and legal arrangements that Belgrade has signed with Beijing in recent years.

Serbia and China signed an agreement in 2019 allowing joint police patrols between the two countries, allowing Chinese officers to work alongside their Serbian counterparts to deal with the influx of Chinese tourists and workers into the country .

Belgrade was also the site of one of 54 overseas Chinese “police stations” run by Chinese authorities to pressure citizens to return home, including by pressuring their family members in China.

While most cases documented by police stations abroad appear to be suspects in crimes such as telecommunications fraud or corruption, dissidents have also reported that the stations have been used to surveil and threaten them. .

Save the defenders, who documented for the first time stations, said the Chinese station in Belgrade had been used for a forced return case. Citing Chinese government documents, the NGO claims that in 2018, a Chinese national who lived in Belgrade and identified only as Xia was accused of theft in China and “persuaded to return.”

According to the human rights group, he was identified by the Belgrade station and contacted via Chinese messaging platform WeChat, where he was eventually “convinced” to return to China after initially hesitating to leave. Serbia.

Although extradition agreements are common around the world, international law states that they respect the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits a country from returning a person to a country where there is a risk of being subjected to persecution, torture or other human rights violations. .

Vidosavljevic believes the new agreement is worrying given Belgrade's willingness to adhere to extradition requests regardless of whether they meet non-refoulement requirements, citing past examples with Turkey.

Harth of Safeguard Defenders says the deal also sends a worrying message to Chinese citizens abroad. “All of this is leading to a heightened sense of fear among Chinese diaspora communities, who are receiving the message from Beijing that they can be contacted anywhere,” she said.

Cooperation with the media

Since Xi's flagship foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was launched a decade ago, he has focused on financing and building infrastructure projects in the whole world. But expanding the reach of Chinese media has also been a key piece.

At the BRI forum in October 2023, China Media Group – an umbrella company that oversees state media entities such as Xinhua News Agency, Global Television Network (CGTN) and China Radio International – said that it had signed contracts with 682 media organizations in 151 countries and broadcasts in more than 40 languages.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping watches Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speak from the Serbia Palace during a two-day state visit to Belgrade on May 8.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping watches Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speak from the Serbia Palace during a two-day state visit to Belgrade on May 8.

The agreements signed on May 8 in Belgrade establish cooperation agreements with China Media Group and three pro-government Serbian media companies, the Serbian Public Broadcasting Corporation, the Politika daily and the Tanjug news agency.

Tamara Skrozza, a journalist and member of the Press Council, an independent regulatory body that monitors the ethics of journalism in Serbian media, says the agreements with Serbian media entities highlight the lack of transparency surrounding the proposed collaboration.

“We are not sure of its scope, nor of the limits that these media outlets might face due to such agreements, whether they influence their editorial position or whether it is simply a simple exchange of content,” he said. she declared. said RFE/RL Balkans Service.

Skrozza also pointed out that existing pro-Chinese discourses in Serbia are expected to become “even more pronounced after the signing of agreements and memorandums”, when combined with the declining press freedom situation in the country.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders placed Serbia 98th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index for 2024, representing the Balkan country's lowest ranking since the creation of the ranking in 2002.

Tanjug and Politika did not respond to RFE/RL's requests for comment, but Radio Television Serbia said they have been engaged in various types of partnerships with Chinese media companies since 2013. The company's channels have also since offered 2013 a slot dedicated to the broadcast of Chinese documentaries. 2017.

“So far, we have broadcast more than 200 Chinese documentaries covering various aspects such as [China’s] history, customs, cuisine, culture, specific crafts, monuments and daily life,” a spokesperson told RFE/RL’s Balkans service.

The spokesperson added that the new agreement focused on ways to “facilitate the exchange of content and encourage co-productions”, and that the company had similar agreements with broadcasters in Bulgaria, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Hungary.

Skrozza says the exchange of content on cultural topics is not a problem, but the agreement is worrying because it could lead to a censored and distorted view of life and politics in China and the politics of Beijing in the world.

“The problem is not what they will feature in their programming, but what they will not feature,” she said. “If we only show images of Chinese folklore and nature, we are not really informing Serbian citizens about the real situation.”

Written by Reid Standish in Prague with reporting by Dusan Komarcevic, Jovana Krstic and Nevena Bogdanovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Belgrade




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