#Throwback: Talk It Over Ep 8 RJ Annapoorna in conversation with Sonja Stojanovic Gajic

Talk it Over, is a weekly show curated and hosted by RJ Annapoorna Ravichander, Public Affairs Foundation. This series brings together a pool of experts who share their opinions and ideas on varied topics.

Sonja is the Founder & owner of public Engagement. She is an experienced leader with a demonstrated history of management of non-profits especially think tanks and Civil Society Network. She is currently a member of the Executive Board of Belgrade Centre for security policy and owner and director of public engagement consultancy for research and facilitation of security and peace.

In an interview to RJ Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander Sonja shared the following:

She began by introducing herself by stating that she is a society activist for more than 20 years and she grew up in a country that was not democratic. Based on both her personal experience and the socio political situation in the Balkans Sonja decided to engage in research which influences security situation to work for a better democracy and peace and not work against it. As a result, she was leading a think tank called Belgrade Centre for the last 13 years and focus on security policy that specialises in monitoring accountability of police Military Intelligence services and General Security governance in Serbia, and in the Balkans. Based on her experiences she established Public Engagement a consultancy because she believed that she needs to engage in the constituencies where she can work with people and not just feed data to make a change. She added by stating that she is not only a strong and passionate believer in conducting good research but also keen on participatory research by facilitating dialogues and communities.

To a question on how has COVID-19 impacted the region of Balkans, she responded saying that the pandemic has created a huge havoc and initially most of the government’s in the region responded with the different kinds of restrictions. In Serbia the restrictions were severe with regards to freedom of movement during the lockdown cutting some of the rights that they didn’t have officially during the state of emergency.

She added that fortunately they did not have many cases of people affected by COVID-19 but the government continued to have strict measures and restrictions. The measures differed base on the situations in different regions and some had liberated measures.

The public were grateful to doctors for doing their work in the migrant camps. On the flip side the security was used to discipline people there was no clear communication from the political leadership. Adding to what she meant by disciplining she stated that the security along with the judiciary were pressurising people by severely fining them for minor misdemeanours or for breaking rules laid down for the lockdown and used this as an excuse against those that were criticising. For example, in Serbia, there was a situation where a journalist reported on a bad situation in a hospital and was taken into custody for the same.  Her equipment was taken away under the pretext that she was publishing fake news, despite her information being correct. She was released and the case was dropped only when Civil societies and International Civil Societies made a hue and cry regarding this.  

On the other hand a number of other countries for example in Eastern Europe and Central Asia put in place a new legislation under the excuse of COVID-19 to fight fake news. This of course was actually not used to fight conspiracy theories and untruths shared through social media, but actually used to censor those that were criticising the government for inappropriate responses to the pandemic. She added that this is relevant globally to an extent.

She also said that the country has seen a deterioration of democracy during COVID-19 and it is very important that one should not allow many of the emergency or crisis management tools that were introduced to respond to COVID-19 that restrict human rights and to become the new normal. She also added that this does not mean that one should not wear masks in public or one should not maintain social distance. She added that these are very logical measures that depicts solidarity to each other.  

She responded that the takeaways/lessons learnt from the pandemic, mainly included:

  • How to work remotely and the possibilities of continuing to engage in workshops If you know your audience you can have meaningful dialogues
  • Unlike face-to-face interactions, remote interactions need to be focussed and brief
  • The meaningful and focussed interactions helped in making quick comparison on common issues (between countries) and this was useful while making recommendations to the policy makers
  • Engaging with communities, focusing on informal practices, networks and looking behind the scenes was important apart from measuring things
  • Last but not the least my last learning people actually appreciate meaningful engagement with their peers, especially in such situations you don’t want to feel lonely

Listen in

Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander

Executive Director

Public Affairs Foundation

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