Serbia (AP)

Protesters encircle Serbian state TV building to press government to ease its grip on media | AP News

Protesters encircle Serbian state TV building to press government to ease its grip on media | AP News

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Huge crowds of anti-government protesters on Saturday encircled the Serbian state television building in downtown Belgrade to press their demand for autocratic President Aleksandar Vucic to ease his tight grip on the mainstream media and allow alternative voices.

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters, some chanting slogans urging Vucic’s resignation, streamed into the rain-drenched streets a day after the president’s followers staged an equally big rally in the capital. Most of his supporters were bused into the capital from all over Serbia and some neighboring states.

Outside the RTS TV headquarters, the crowds blew whistles and booed loudly. They say that according to the laws, state TV should be unbiased as a public broadcaster, but that it has been openly pro-government.

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After the rally officially ended, groups of people gathered in front of the Parliament building and the state TV, claiming they want to enter the buildings by force. Organizers of the protest blocked them from entering, saying they were infiltrated by the authorities to try to portray the protesters as violent.

Held for the fourth time since the early May shootings, the opposition-led protests appear to be shaping up into the biggest revolt against Vucic’s autocratic rule during his over 10 years in power.

The rallies initially erupted in response to two back-to-back mass shootings earlier this month that left 18 people dead and 20 wounded, many of them children from an elementary school.

Other protest demands include the resignations of top officials and the revoking of licenses for pro-government media that air violent content and host crime figures and war criminals.

Vucic has accused the opposition of abusing the shooting tragedy for political ends.

Earlier on Saturday, he stepped down from the helm of his populist party amid plans to form a wider political movement. Vucic named his close ally, Milos Vucevic, current the defense minister, as his successor.

Holding umbrellas amid heavy rain Saturday, the protesters walked slowly around the RTS television building in central Belgrade, completely covering the streets in the entire area.

Many held flowers in memory of the slain children and wore badges reading “vulture” or “hyena,” mocking the expressions that officials used to describe the protesters.

Vucic has said the new, national movement will be formed in June to include other parties, experts and prominent individuals and promote unity. Analysts say it is a bid to regroup amid mounting public pressure. Critics say the movement could lead to single-party rule, more or less as the case in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which Vucic supports.

During the rally Friday, Vucic offered dialogue as he seeks ways to ease mounting public pressure.

Opposition parties have pledged to press on with the demonstrations until their demands are fulfilled. They include the ouster of the interior minister and the intelligence chief; the revocation of nationwide broadcast licenses for two pro-government TV stations; and the dismissal of a media-monitoring body.

”If they don’t fulfill (the demands) we are not leaving from here,” said Milica Tomic, a Belgrade resident. “We will be here, if it need be, every day, every week, whenever.”


Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.