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Profile 04 Jan 18

Serbia’s Information Commissioner Seeks to Cement Legacy

As he enters the last year of his term, Serbia’s combative information commissioner, Rodoljub Sabic, says he wishes to leave a proper legal structure in place behind him when he goes.

Filip Rudic
BIRN
Belgrade
Commissioner Sabic in his office in downtown Belgrade. Photo: BIRN

“While I’m still the Commissioner, I will strive to make sure that Serbia gets a decent personal data protection law,” Rodoljub Sabic told BIRN in an interview.

Serbia’s Commissioner for Information of Public Importance presented his draft of a law, aiming to improve standards in this field, last June.

It regulates the processing of personal data, video supervision, and provides for other matters that the current law from 2008 could be improved on.

Disappointingly, however, Sabic says he since learned in a conversation with the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, that she knew nothing about his proposition; apparently, the draft had got lost.

“I said that this sounded incredible to me, but that we would deliver the draft again, and we did,” the Commissioner recalled.

This episode of the “lost” law illustrates the complicated relations between the Commissioner and Serbia’s ruling politicians, whose officials regularly accuse Sabic of using his post to dabble in politics.

On the other hand, the Commissioner is highly respected by journalists and investigative reporters for his help in obtaining documents that cast light on official corruption or abuses of power.

For his efforts in aiding journalists, Sabic was named one of “Balkans Heroes“ of 2017 by Balkan Insight.

As his second term ends in December 2018, and he is not eligible for re-election, many wonder whether his departure will limit the media’s ability to obtain information.

Short stint in politics:

Sabic says that, looking back on the beginning of his work as Commissioner, he “draws a smile – from this perspective”.

Born in Bosnia in 1955, the Belgrade-based lawyer joined the Social Democratic Party in the late 1990s, to fight the regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

After Milosevic was toppled on October 5, 2000, Sabic entered parliament in the elections held the same year.

He served as an MP and, from 2002, as Minister for Public Administration under Zoran Djindjic.

“I was interested in state administration reform. The then Justice Minister, Vladan Batic, was a lawyer who did not deal with that. Djindjic insisted that a new ministry be established,” Sabic recalls.

However, Prime Minister Djindjic was then assassinated in front of his office in Belgrade on March 12, 2003, by a member of the “Zemun” criminal clan.

Sabic stayed in the government a little longer, but found things taking a turn for the worse, with “partitocracy running rampant”.

“This was not how I imagined this ’revolution’ of ours, so I decided to resign and return to my law office,“ Sabic said.

However, in 2004, Serbia adopted a Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance.

Feeling the challenge in pioneering a new cause, Sabic ran for the post of Commissioner.

From rocky start to respected institution:

Reminiscing about the time, Sabic says that only the NGO sector opposed his candidacy, as he used to be a politician.

“Later, the NGO sector would become the Commissioner’s main ally, and we did a lot of useful and good things together,“ he recalled.

However, after parliament elected him to the post on December 22, 2004, he says that the Serbian state then “forgot about him“.

For months, he “did not receive a dime from the state, not even a piece of paper, pencil, a square metre of workspace, a chair or telephone”.

At the start, he even had to finance the work of the newly established institution with his own money, while closing down his law firm to avoid conflict of interest.

“I paid for the official stamp from my own pocket. I used to say that if I decide to resign, I’m taking the seal home with me,” Sabic says, laughing.

However, the NGO sector and the Commissioner then got together to bridge a gap, forming the Coalition for Free Access to Information to promote the new law by talking to citizens across Serbia.

In June 2005, after threatening to resign if the state did not enable him to work properly, Sabic got a working space and some financial means from the administration.

New regime pushes back more harshly:

While the Commissioner’s relations with the previous Democratic Party-led government were problematic, things worsened after the Serbian Progressive Party, led by Serbia’s current President Aleksandar Vucic, took power in 2012.

After rising for years, the percentage of successful interventions by the Commissioner started dropping after 2015.

“I fear this trend will continue,” Sabic said, explaining that the government routinely refused to enforce the Commissioner’s decisions, while his office can only issue fines of 200,000 dinars [less than 1,700 euros] to institutions that withold information.

As of November, the Commissioner’s office is swamped in 4,144 unsolved complaints, most relating to access to information.

The Progressive Party, however, has regularly attacked Sabic when he inquires about potentially corrupt deals, or asks the government to reveal its secret contracts with private investors.

Ruling officials targeted him when reports started to circulate that he might run for the post of mayor of Belgrade in 2018, which Sabic denied.

With his term ending within a year, he says that returning to law is still an option. However, he does not rule out any others. “We will see if any other options open,” he concludes, enigmatically.

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