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Democracy First Responders: Serbia, Dušan Čavić and Dušan Šaponja

COVID-19 threatens not only lives and livelihoods, but also governments and democratic institutions. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is profiling our partners and other leaders who have been the “first responders” in our global fight to protect and strengthen democracy.

In this new series, #DemocracyFirstResponders, we spoke with an anti-corruption activist in Nepal, a journalist in Zimbabwe, a former government official in Georgia and others to discuss their efforts to prevent democratic backsliding in the time of COVID-19.

For the sixth episode of this series, our host Natalie Longwell spoke with Dušan Čavić and Dušan Šaponja, two activist videographers from Serbia who are helping citizens understand the measures needed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

You can listen to this conversation and others by subscribing to the Global Podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Longwell: Thank you both so much for joining me. How did you initially learn of COVID-19 and what made you think that this was a challenge that could arrive on Serbia’s doorstep?

Čavić: We’ve got to say that we don’t go for [challenges such] as corona and so on. [It is] something which has caught [attention], and we are [a] little production house and we are making some videos which are on YouTube. We have 86k subs and so on, but we don’t go as crazy for hot things. But two of our friends asked us [in the] middle of March 2020, “Are you going to do something about corona?” And actually, we have a friend we know from our childhood. She’s a microbiologist, and she works at the Institute for Oncology in Milan, Italy, and we heard [about the] terrible situation out there.

In that time in Belgrade, Serbia, our government [and some doctors] were making jokes about the most funny virus ever — COVID-19. And one doctor said you should all send your wives to Milan, Italy, for shopping. And our president [Aleksandar Vučić] was standing behind him [at] a press conference and laughing.

And [during] that time, we called our friend and asked her [if] she [wanted] to tell us what’s happening there and what [she thinks] we should do. We did it on Skype. In that time, there were no Skype and Zoom interviews and so on. That was just the beginning for us in Serbia. And then that video became [the highest trending video] on YouTube in Serbia. Many news houses called us to ask to put it on their program. It has like 600k views. And I think it’s because she was credible, and she was telling [us about] her own experience.

Longwell: Wow. So, as you were talking to your friend, you really highlighted in your videos how bad the virus had gotten in both Italy and China. And what was your goal at that time? Did you see media in Serbia really doing anything to educate Serbian citizens about how bad this virus could be? Or was it all very similar to that press conference you mentioned with the Serbian president, where it was treated as a joke, basically?

Šaponja: It changed during weeks. It changed really fast. My boss told me after our video was published, [the government took] some measures to protect the population. They started to see how [the] situation is serious, but the problem was [only a] few weeks before or a few days [before], they were joking. And then you have to explain to people, “Ah hah! We were joking then, and now we are talking [about] serious things.” So, [the] effect of this first press conference had [a] bad impact because they didn’t recognize how [the] situation was serious. Nowadays, they are telling us that they were joking because they wanted to protect people from panic. Like, not to go to the shops to buy stuff. Blah, blah, blah. So they were trying to relax the situation.

Longwell: How has media coverage impacted the way that COVID is understood and the way that you're living with it now in Serbia? Do people trust media coverage of the coronavirus? Or is there a sense of mistrust? Do people feel like they were misled at first?

Čavić: [The government] disabled people’s freedom of speech that way, because they don’t allow any more journalists to ask questions, [because] we have a lot of people who work abroad in different countries of Europe. And when all of this COVID started, they got back by cars, and [the] government likes to say those people were working somewhere else. They brought corona here. And, [on] the other hand, they want to say the responsibility is not [the government’s], but it’s out there to the people. But we … have many cases these days [and] medical hospitals or places for older people are getting many cases of Corona. And that’s the problem, like we are pretty ...

I can say our government says we are in the golden era, but we are not. And our health system is not so good. But it works very good these days. But there still [are] not all protective measurements all over our country. And what’s interesting, all over our country, medical houses and hospitals. What do I think, as Dušan said, at 3 p.m. every day we have doctors and beginning in first weeks we have also our president who likes to know everything and who also likes to be also a doctor in these days. But nowadays we don’t have him so much on these press conferences. And I think because of him, they’re all the time [bringing] measurements like calling people and checking what’s popular and unpopular. I think people don’t like him as a-

Šaponja: As a doctor.

Čavić: People like to hear [from] doctors. And people [believe] the doctors. But these days, I could say we don’t believe anyone because there’s so [much] bad news about many COVID situations in many houses all over the country.

Longwell: As you’ve said many times as we’ve gone through these questions, Serbia has seen increasing repression in media and free speech. But I was wondering about your personal experience. When you were putting together these videos that were going against what people thought they knew about COVID at the time, were you afraid personally about reprisals that you would face by making the videos that you did?

Čavić: We were not afraid. But we work in one place, and the guy whose father lives [one floor down from us], he was afraid. And this guy asked us, “Do they know from where you put the video up? Maybe there will be some problems.” But we are not afraid, but one journalist in Serbia was jailed because of they said false news or rumors. But actually, she just put some news about COVID in a big hospital in one of the three biggest towns in Serbia. She put it out and they said, the government said it’s not true and they jailed her because of that. But then after one night they let her [go], because people stood up because of that. But we are living in that kind of country.

Šaponja: And also, in our videos, we had these testimonials from Italy and from China. So we didn’t air anything from Serbia. [We] didn’t say anything about measures of our government. We just were raising awareness of COVID and of the situation in [those] countries. So, I think this video … also they watched, the people from our government, for sure some of them watched it. And I think they also started to be aware about the coronavirus through our video, because they also didn’t get any education about the virus.

Longwell: What is your view, you brought this up earlier, about the constant updates that Serbians get about the virus and also the precautions the hospitals are taking. I wanted to ask you about your view on the medical equipment and the aid provided by the Chinese Communist Party. Do you think that it’s adequate? Do you think that it’s helping Serbia? And do you agree with the way that that aid is being characterized by President Vučić?

Šaponja: Personally, the situation when you get some help, you don’t look [at] it like, “Is it okay?” or “It’s not okay?” It’s just, we need masks. We need respirators. We will buy it. But we notice that there is a [slight] difference. How are they saying thanks to this help? There are some billboards on the streets of Belgrade with China’s president, and the billboard is there with his picture [and] “Thank you China.” And there are no billboards [with], “Thank you European Union, thank you USA.” So I think it’s also [that] everything is politics. So, as I said before, this is the year of the election and our government knows what is popular and what the people like to hear, because these are some kind of populist measures of saying thank you. So they’re just building their rating with that. I think that’s the spin doctor’s things.

Čavić: [You have to know that there are a lot of Chinese industries in Serbia]. One [or] two let’s say [of the] biggest factories [are Chinese]. One [is] steel; [before it was a U.S. steel factory], now [it] is some Chinese factory. And in another town also [has a] Chinese [factory], and they’re building new thermal power plants in Serbia. And in [the] last five years, Serbia got the biggest help from [the] European Union. It’s like [the] United States are fifth place, or fourth. I’m not sure. But help from [the] Chinese in [the] last five years is 44 times less than you. So, very low out there.

And what’s also interesting, in the beginning, they were telling us all [that] we got a lot of glass from China and so on, and we got the masks from China, but our government said in pharmacies, they said pharmacies can’t sell that one mask. Let’s say 1.2 U.S. dollars in our dinars. So, was it to help? And, who is earning money on those masks? They’re not for free.

Longwell: How [has] COVID-19 affected the average Serbian? And, what [has] the government response been like since the virus arrived in Serbia? Could you tell me a little bit about just everyday life right now, and how you think that the response to this virus is going to evolve?

Čavić: If you’re 65+ in Serbia, you can’t go out at all. You can do it once a week, from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. in the morning, for shopping. They open the supermarkets just for 65+. They can’t go out at all. And in some ways, that’s not [a] popular measure, but it’s, [on] the other hand, [protecting] that part of the population. And also we have police hour from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Nobody can go out. You can take a dog for a walk in the evening. If you’re mentally ill, you can go out whenever you want. So, and, as I can see, there are not so many COVID cases among the population, and people take it seriously. But medical institutions, [they’re broken].

Longwell: What other actions do you hope to see from either the Serbian government or Serbian media or civil society to help make sure that COVID doesn’t spread within Serbia, and are you guys planning any additional videos?

Šaponja: From the government, I expect [them] to raise the awareness in the people’s minds and to tell them wear the masks, don’t go together in the elevator, keep yourself outside but with a distance to other people, that kind of stuff.

We should have that more in the media — how to behave in the days that area coming, how to protect [yourself] and how to try to keep our everyday life with that new kind of living. Also, with schools, with faculties, with the shops, we have to [adapt to] this kind of situation as a society until the vaccine is found out.

And also, we need videos about people who are helping homeless people on the streets of Belgrade, because there are homeless people during this virus lockdown, and they are really hungry. And the people are helping them, bringing the food, trying to help them to survive this period.

Čavić: About the videos, we are filming all the time. We just did a video because green markets [farmers’ markets], we have green markets all over [the] country and they’re closed. And supermarkets are working, and green markets are outside. And nobody gets why they are closed, because people from villages bring their food to sell them in green markets. And it’s outside. So, we just filmed one guy who lives on ... He has some products and he brings them [to the] green market and he can’t work anymore. He can work, but he doesn’t have anywhere to get his products.