Well-targeted advocacy, hand-in-hand with a bit of hype, recently caused Serbian media to give extensive coverage to the idea of opening safe injecting rooms in the country. Part of the ‘Room for Change’ campaign in Serbia – read our local partner’s report!
At the Room For Change campaign event in Belgrade, a matinee, followed by a trance party, marked the launch of our local campaigning efforts. A local cult place, KPTM, was the venue for a packed trance party, where well-known Belgrade DJs took turns to get the audience dancing – among them, the cream of like-minded activists from the Serbian NGO sector.
The head of the Inpatient Department at the Special Hospital for Addictive Disorders and the manager of the Global Fund HIV project at the Ministry of Health also showed up. Despite the high number of participants, and significant support from organisations advocating for cannabis legislation, as well as social media advertisements on websites and Facebook pages of the participating organisations, the campaign initially made no impact on the main media and Serbian TV channels. Only a few websites covering Belgrade nightlife published photos from the event, generally without giving any detailed information about the initiative.
One sign of the ongoing Room for Change campaign was that in Belgrade, over the following days, there were plenty of t-shirts in evidence, bearing the distinctive logos of the Support Don’t Punish and Room For Change campaigns. Equally, thanks to the volunteers from the Re Generation NGO, every attendee was made aware of the campaign’s goals.
Two month later, a Facebook advertisement went viral, making the Room for Change campaign one of the most widely covered topics in the Serbian mainstream media, on a par with the migrant crisis. Of course, the media wouldn’t be the media, if they didn’t make use of the situation to enhance their circulation and click-statistics on their websites. Grandiose headlines appeared in various newspapers, such as “NGO in Belgrade opens room for free drug use”, but you can’t complain about free publicity.
The campaigns message went viral after portal 021! published an article denying responsibility for the article’s sensational title, claiming that, “The title is the job of the editors, not journalists”. In this article, they explained the reasons for launching the campaign, highlighting the benefits, for both users and the wider community, of opening drug consumption rooms. In addition, the Director of the Special Hospital for Addictive Disorders, who gave expert testimony supporting these programs, citing best practice, published two statements. There was also one from Cecilija Hajzler, of NGO Restart, an organisation which works with drug users on the ground. This one is more interesting, emanating as it does from the side of the civil society, the segment that should support accountability in the public sector. A quote from her statement probably requires no further comment: “Opening such rooms sends out a false message, that being a drug addict is something that is not too dangerous, because now someone will make sure they have clean needles and a place where they can inject safely; and if they accidentally go too far, they can count on medical help. So, the message is – we will help you not to die, and everything’s fine. The real dangers associated with drug use, such as infections, diseases and overdose, exist for a reason – because the drugs are dangerous“.
An article with a diametrically-opposed viewpoint and conclusion was published by the “Alo” tabloid. In an article entitled “Launch of an initiative for a room for free drug use in Belgrade! Experts against!“ they cherry-picked just one sentence for publication (about safe destruction of injecting equipment) from a detailed press release. As their ‘experts’, they enlisted the President of the ultra-right-wing DSS political party (a psychiatrist by vocation), and a sociologist from another party – neither of them with any real expertise on drug policy. The gist of their message was to stigmatise the campaign as a “call for the free spread of disease”, shrieking that, “Addiction should be prevented, not encouraged”. The journalist’s very limited understanding of the press release can be seen from the fact that they didn’t even even mention that this was a campaign to stimulate discussion – stating instead that the opening of such a room “for free drug use” was a ‘done deal’.
Most of the other printed media, with few exceptions, simply re-hashed the two mentioned above, without making any effort to contact the Re Generation NGO for more information. The arguments for opening drug consumption rooms were mentioned in passing, but the articles gave the impression that Re Generation would soon be opening the facility. Comments on the articles showed that this wasn’t just our personal impression: In addition to pro/con comments, there were questions such as, “Who’s going to pay for this?”, “Where are you going to store the drugs?”, “Who is going to safeguard the drugs“, and so on.
On the positive side of the tabloid ‘dumbing down’ coverage, there’s the fact that Serbians mostly only read tabloids, mainly because of a lack of quality papers, and the high price of those that do exist – and apart from the tabloids, the Room for Change campaign also reached the broadcast media, on the two most popular national television channels, B92 and Pink.
B92, in its TV show “Bulevar”, gave our colleague, Irena Molnar, an opportunity to describe the aims behind the campaign, and to explain that it wasn’t yet a matter of opening the safe injection rooms, but simply of stimulating public debate. She was also able to provide examples of countries where safe injection rooms have been in operation for decades.
The second programme to discuss the topic was aired on TV Pink‘s morning programme, one of the most popular TV shows in Serbia. Besides Irena Molnar, Dr. Mira Kovačević, Director of the Special Hospital for Addictive Disorers, was also invited for a fifteen-minute discussion on the need for opening drug consumption rooms. Despite several provocative questions by the presenter – or perhaps because of them – the debate got the message across to viewers, with the director of Serbia’s leading institution for drug addiction treatment publicly endorsing the idea, and citing supportive statistics and positive examples from Europe and the rest of the world.
The bottom line? When you count up all the articles in the newspapers and on news sites, and take into account appearances on the most watched TV stations, we can only say that the the campaign was a complete success. The general public has been informed about the idea of drug consumption rooms, while debate has been provoked within the professional community.
Bojan Aresnijević, Re Generation