BELGRADE, Serbia – A cartoon depicts Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as a stripper peeling off silk stockings while sitting in a pink arm chair. The front page of a Serbian weekly shows the powerful premier wearing a golden crown. Vucic's name echoes from a satirical TV show aired on a video screen.
Serbia's ruling populists have created an exhibition highlighting media critical of their leader and his government in an attempt to fend off mounting allegations that the authorities have been pressuring news sources and imposing censorship in the Balkan country, which is seeking European Union membership.
The exhibition dubbed "Uncensored Lies" opened this week in a gallery in the main pedestrian zone of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, with more than 2,500 items on display from local press and social networks, including cartoons, front pages, tweets and articles.
Hundreds of visitors already have seen the colorful presentation, which has sparked disbelief and criticism among the journalists whose work is being presented. They argue that authorities are actually labeling the journalists as "enemies of the state."
"By the very title of the exhibition, they are saying that what is not censored is a lie," Draza Petrovic, editor of the newspaper Danas and satirical columnist, whose several aphorisms and columns now hang on the gallery wall, told the Associated Press.
"The government views critical media and journalists as enemies ... they staged the exhibition to single out the alleged state enemies plotting against them," he insisted. "But, if you see the satirists as state enemies ... it is a diagnosis, it is sort of paranoia."
Since he took over as prime minister in 2014, Vucic — a former extreme nationalist who has embraced pro-EU policies — increasingly has faced allegations that his government is imposing control over the country's media through political and economic pressure. Some prominent journalists in Serbia have complained of pressure, while popular talk shows, critical of the government, have been taken off the air.
Most recently, hundreds of people have taken to the streets in the northern city of Novi Sad to protest against changes at a regional public broadcaster that followed April general elections and renewed accusations of government pressure on the media.
In its 2015 report on Serbia's pro-EU reform, the European Commission said that "conditions for the full exercise of freedom of expression are not in place." The report expressed concern over "threats and violence against journalists," noting that "the overall environment is not conducive to the full exercise of freedom of expression."
"There have been a number of cases in which journalists and editors have claimed that their firing or relocation resulted from expressing an opinion," the report noted. "Such circumstances encourage self-censorship."
Vucic has denied the accusations, insisting his policies now differ from the late 1990s when he clamped down on domestic and foreign press while serving as information minister in the government of then-strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party declared in the exhibition handout that "the freedom of expression in Serbia is at a significantly higher level than in many countries of West Europe."
Censorship allegations are part of an "organized, meticulously planned campaign" of discrediting Vucic, the party said, telling the visitors that "we will let you be the judge."
Pensioner Milan Radosavljevic said he was convinced it was so, after viewing a patchwork of various newspapers articles, some accusing the government of corruption or Vucic himself of imposing hardline rule in the country.
"This is excellent, they haven't even shown all the attacks on our government," he said. "There are so many attacks and I don't know why."
Danas Editor-In-Chief Petrovic, however, pointed out that the media featured at the ruling party's exhibition are mainly those with low circulation, such as Danas, which sells up to 15,000 copies and has about 50,000 online readers daily in the country of some 7 million people. These are not mainstream media, Petrovic insisted.
"The key to the Serbian (media) story lies in the fact that the biggest media, particularly the electronic media, are under control of the ruling party," he said.
Some of the visitors on Tuesday said they came out of curiosity, but weren't impressed by what they saw.
"I don't need any exhibition, I have enough experience myself to see that there is self-censorship in Serbia," said Liljana, a pensioner from Belgrade who gave only her first name out of reluctance to speak publicly about the matter.
Another elderly Belgrader, Zoran Bajic, said "this is all marketing."
"We have so many problems, Serbia should not be dealing with this when people are struggling to survive," he said. "It is out of place."