By Boban AND IVAN Markovic
At first glimpse, Priboj, a failing industrial town in a mountainous corner of Serbia, leaves the impression of political apathy, lethargy, and a sense of lifelessness. By visiting “Priboj,” the town’s communal Facebook page, however, one enters a realm of intelligent ideas, fresh news, cultural events, curious discussions, and public debates.
THE DECLINE OF PRIBOJ
In 1991, Priboj, a small multi-ethnic town in southwestern Serbia had 35,951 inhabitants who were mainly employed in several industrial enterprises (Census 2002, 92). Over the next two decades, most of these enterprises closed down. FAP, the local motor vehicle factory and a symbol of the town’s progress, clung to life by laying off most of its workforce and reducing production to just a few trucks per year.
The decline of FAP meant the decline of Priboj. Soon, people started leaving, and the population of Priboj declined to 27,133 inhabitants by 2011, only 14,920 of which were living in the urban area of the municipality (Census 2011, 150). With an aging population, high emigration, and a local government unable to make any significant changes, citizens became lethargic and uninterested in the local political scene, which was already characterized by a lack of transparency, nepotism, and corruption.
In January 2009, a Priboj-born twenty-four-year-old student of physics at the University of Belgrade created a page called “Priboj” on Facebook. He created the page with the initial aim of promoting the town, but as the page grew it became a useful source of unbiased and fact-supported information for locals. Due to the creator’s preoccupation with his studies and his infrequent visits to his hometown, management of the page and editorial responsibilities have been entrusted to several locals of various backgrounds: a thirty-two-year-old entrepreneur with a background in electronics; a psychology student (twenty-five); a member of the local rock band (twenty-five); a local radio station anchor (forty-one); a psychologist in the local school (forty-two); and a photographer (thirty-seven). The admin team has evolved over time, but its members are always chosen based on their community activism, prior experience in managing Internet forums, and integrity (Admin team 2014).
Because Facebook pages are easy to edit, even via smartphones, editors could be prompt and cover local happenings in a timely manner. The admin team focuses on sharing information, voicing residents’ concerns, and promoting the town, cultural events, worthy causes, and deeds of active members of the community. The pillars of the page’s editorial policy are objectivity and neutrality, reporting sine ira et studio (“without either bitterness or partiality”). From its creation, the page has remained ad-free and neutral with regard to politics and religion. Although the admin team allows comments and discussions, it restricts any content aiming to promote political or commercial interests, as well as inappropriate and offensive language. The following post by the admin team illustrates this: “Any future topic which can provoke anyone based on nationality or religion will be deleted. …The purpose of this page is the well-being of Priboj (as much of it as this way of activism can bring) and the promotion of a positive Priboj…” (Priboj Facebook page).
In a relatively short period, discussions and concerns of residents moved to the virtual space. Priboj, a dying city characterized by emigration, unemployment, and a weak political culture was resurrected on the social network. In the first six months, the page was “liked” by over six thousand people—three and a half years later, it had over eleven thousand “likes” (Priboj Facebook page).
RIGHT TO INFORM AND BE INFORMED
With the growing number of visitors, administrators are now using the page to address the work of the local government, solicit information from the community, and discuss local sports. When the local parliament approved the construction of small hydropower plants on the Lim River against the strong opposition of the majority of the locals, “Priboj” published the list of names of the local MPs who voted “yes,” and to spur debate on the issue suggested broadcasted round-table discussions. The published information gave residents the opportunity to hold their representatives accountable.
When a Serbian contractor deceived and abandoned local workers in Sweden, “Priboj” provided valuable information to the workers’ relatives:
Mayor Lazar Rvovic informed us that the Municipality is ready and willing to help our citizens who are left in Sweden, but that cannot be done based on writings on Facebook. Thus, via our page, he invites the parents and families of the people who departed to Sweden to come tomorrow at eight o’clock to the Municipality building, and together find out the best way on how to return [the workers] to Priboj. -Admin team of Priboj
“Priboj” also calls on locals to voice their concerns and share any information they believe others should know. The page is thus able to quickly warn residents and provide information about dangers, such as: “Old part of Priboj has no water! The pipe broke again … Police are regulating the traffic; underpass is flooded” (Priboj Facebook page). In short, the page provides a new forum for information sharing, exchange of opinions, and discussion. It gives opportunities to the inhabitants of Priboj to express themselves and be noticed by others, regardless of their social and economic status, education, religion or ethnicity.
As the “Priboj” page has grown, it has become not just a platform for information sharing and public discussion, but also a powerful mobilization tool. During a national online challenge organized by Coca-Cola Hellenic, “Priboj” invited residents to vote for Priboj to get an open public gym. When the page asked local business owners to provide free WiFi so citizens could vote, many of them did so. Priboj beat out forty other Serbian cities to win the competition. Due to bureaucratic problems and alleged negligence of local officials, however, the gym installation was halted. Soon, the citizens called for accountability of the local government via “Priboj.”
The page has proven to be an effective tool for engaging in civil society. The practice of calling or allowing others to call for action via the page for publicly beneficial causes has become common and has since included calls to support strikes of local workers, blood drives, public discussions, and cultural events.
A CALL FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
In October 2011, “Priboj” started an initiative called “I don’t want Priboj like this” (Priboj Facebook page). The initiative took the form of a Facebook album. Citizens were called upon to fill it with pictures of neglected infrastructure and parks, stray dogs, law violations, and similar problems of public interest. Soon, the album was replete with pictures from all over the town, highlighting problems that needed solutions. The caption of one of the photos reads:
This is one of the ways to influence institutions in charge! Hence, we invite inhabitants of Priboj to submit their photos witnessing recklessness and negligence of individuals and institutions, all in an attempt to push for action and make our town look better.
A playground in Priboj’s old town was ruined during the winter due to harsh conditions and vandalism. For more than three months, broken installations, left-behind toys, and dirt accumulated on the playground without a reaction from city officials. As soon as pictures of the devastated playground went viral on the “Priboj” page, however, the local government acted and cleaned it up. The reaction speed in other cases was similarly rapid, such as when the fire brigade acted just minutes after page visitors wrote a post about a wildfire. In another example, a teacher posted a picture of the poor conditions of her class room. The school acted quickly and provided funding for reconstruction. As citizens noticed that problems were being solved, they became more active in posting new pictures and holding institutions accountable to solve them.
GOVERNMENT ENTERS THE ONLINE WORLD
Following his election in July 2012, the new President of the City Parliament created a professional profile on Facebook calling for citizens to ask questions, address problems, and give suggestions. He also rebuilt the official town website, and initiated a “48 hours system,” which promised an official response to citizens’ issues within forty-eight hours. Although there have been a few complaints about the system, most of the public response has been positive. The residents of Priboj view his official Facebook page, website, and prompt responses as improvements in communication with the community. Previously a professor of telecommunications and electronics, the President sees the “Priboj” page as a positive contribution to public discussion and democratic development. In an email to the author on February 18, 2004, he wrote:
Citizens want to be heard when they point to the problem. The page can only succeed if public officials, institutions and the local government see the problems indicated by people, and respond to them. The page can only be successful if it is apolitical […] and provides truthful news. The “Priboj” page is good, as it serves for active involvement of citizens in solving problems in our local government.
A visitor to Priboj might still get a sense of lethargy and political apathy, and maybe meet a few older citizens with grim faces. But one click on “Priboj” is enough to uncover a world of public discussion, cultural events, fresh news and bright initiatives.
Priboj Facebook page. Accessed February 19, 2014. https://www.facebook.com/priboj.
Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia. “Census of the Population, Households and Dwellings in 2002; Population.” Belgrade 2004.
Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia. “2011 Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in the Republic of Serbia; Age and Sex Data by Settlements.” Belgrade 2012. http://goo.gl/Ms71Pi.