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15 Nov 17

Serbian Authorities ‘Obstructing’ Free Media, Journalists Say

 

Serbia’s independent investigative journalists share their experiences of the routine intimidation people in the media face in their work.

Maja Zivanovic BIRN Belgrade

“You are always paying attention to who is behind you, who is sitting next to you at the café, what car you are going on work in and then back home … every day,” says Draga Peco, a journalist at Serbia’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, KRIK.

Peco’s Belgrade apartment was broken into in July, when her belongings were turned over, while no valuables reported missing. No suspects have been arrested.

“In some ways, I was not surprised when it happened, as investigative journalists are aware of how dangerous this job is,” Peco said, adding that since the incident, she has been on the alert every day

After Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic recently criticised the country’s media for its alleged lack of balance, investigative journalists say the fault is not theirs but the government’s.

They say it ignores the routine harassment of journalists, does not respond to interview requests, spurns FOIA requests as well and often attacks and pressurizes the media.

During her visit to Brussels, the Prime Minister on October 10 told MEPs, who noted worries about the state of media freedom in Serbia, that she did not think there was no investigative journalism in the country.

“But there is no objective journalism because there are very few objective journalists,” Brnabic said, Beta news agency reported.  Four days later, Brnabic told a press conference she did not see any lack of media freedom in Serbia.

Lack of safety comes as no surprise:

A day after Peco’s home was broken into, the Serbian Interior Minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, said police were investigating the case and pointed out that “several groups of robbers” operated in the area where journalist lives.

Peco said she no longer felt safe, as the intruders into her home remained unknown and un-apprehended. Because of that, she suspects someone had intended to intimidate her.

The Association of Journalists of Serbia, UNS, said on August 10 that it had registered 38 cases in which journalists and media workers had reported attacks and pressures since the year began.

According to the European Federation of Journalists, EFJ, on October 13, some 17 such cases remain unresolved.

To make matters worse, the pro-government press actively targeted Peco’s colleagues from KRIK, and other investigative organisations, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting of Serbia, CINS, and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, calling them “foreign mercenaries”.

The Movement of Socialists, a party in the government, accused KRIK editor Stevan Dojcinovic of being a “drug addict who needs to be tested for drugs”, and claimed foreigners had paid him to attack the party leader, Serbia’s Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin.

The libellous attack came after KRIK published a report alleging that Vulin bought an apartment in Belgrade under suspicious circumstances with money he had borrowed from his wife’s aunt in Canada.

PM‘s failure to understand what ‘objectivity’ means:

The editor of CINS, Dino Jahic, agreed with Brnabic in one thing alone – that Serbia lacks an objective media.

“Obedience and the absence of any criticism of the current government, and earlier of the past government, are limitless in the case of a huge number of media [outlets],” Jahic told BIRN.

Jahic called Brnabic’s statement in Brussels “malicious and insulting to all journalists in Serbia who have not yet become microphone-holders for the ruling party”.

He and his CINS colleagues this year received numerous international and domestic prizes, including the European Press Prize, the Anthony Lewis Prize, the EU Award for Investigative Journalism and more.

Jahic’s investigative colleague, KRIK editor Dojcinovic, said Brnabic clearly did not understand what “objective journalism” meant.

“She repeated their common stance [of the authorities], not knowing that objective journalism is when journalist ask all sides [for their opinions],” Dojcinovic told BIRN.

KRIK forms part of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, OCCRP, which has won several prestigious Serbian and international awards, such as the Data Journalism Award.

Jelena Veljkovic, from BIRN, who received an award this year from Serbia’s Independent Association of Journalists, NUNS, agreed that the government’s own treatment of journalists hindered them from doing their job properly.

“However, we can’t stop doing our job just because someone refuses to communicate with us,” she added.

Officials ignore duty to respond to FOAs:

The office of Serbia’s Commissioner for Information of Public Importance said it had received 287 complaints from journalists since January, many about Freedom of Information Requests.

The Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, Rodoljub Sabic, recalling the various awards Serbian journalists received this year, said the Prime Minister’s complaints were not objective.

He noted that journalists searching for facts and documents often have to turn for help to the Commissioner.

“In a large number of these cases, the Commissioner ordered the authorities to give them [journalists] information that is in the public interest and should be available,” Sabic told BIRN.

He added that, in many cases, the authorities refused to honour their obligations, so the Commissioner then asked the government to forcibly execute the Commissioner’s decision, which also often is not done.

“It is the government's obligation under the law, but the government has not done it, so it is very irresponsible from the government to criticize journalists,” Sabic underlined.

He added that more than 60 times in the past year he had filed requests to the government to enforce the Commissioner’s decision but that the government had refused his requests.

Brnabic’s statement has meanwhile been criticised by journalists’ associations in Serbia, as well by the European Federation of Journalists, EFJ.

The EFJ said it intended to send an international mission to shed more light on the state of the media in Serbia.

On October 14, the head of the EFJ, Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, told RFE that Serbia was the worst violator of media freedoms in the Balkans and added that he would urge the EU in November to act more decisively on the matter.

FOA requests are a known way of getting documents and information from officials in Serbia, but all too often institutions ignore them, or do not send complete information.

Journalists can then file a complaint to the Commissioner’s Office, which then mediates between the journalist and the institution and has legal mechanisms to punish the institution, if need be.

“We received 357 complaints from journalists and the media in 2016, while in 2015 we had 268 complaints, which shows that in 2016 the number of these complaints rose by around 33 per cent,” the Commissioner’s Office told BIRN.

Jahic from CINS told BIRN that he and his colleagues send officials and ministries hundreds of FOAs, but that some institutions routinely ignore their legal obligation to respond.

“The problem is with public companies, such as [gas company] Srbijagas or [telecommunication company] Telekom, which obviously think they are above the law,” he said.

“Some ministries, such as the Ministry of Environmental Protection or the Ministry of the Interior, also often do not respond to requests,” he added.

According to research by Insajder, published in May, the “leaders” in terms of non-transparency in Serbia are the state-owned public enterprises, and above all Telekom, Srbijagas, the railways and Air Serbia, which appear to prefer paying penalties to revealing information.

Jahic noted the example of the Agency for Insurance and Financing of Exports, which he said had refused to give CINS the documentation it has sought since December 2015.

Jelena Veljkovic from BIRN Serbia, said that since September 1 alone, she had sent four FOAs, and then had to file a complaint to the Commissioner’s Office in each case.

“I’ve sought information from the First Basic Prosecution … which refused to provide us with documents. In the case of the Directorate of Common Affairs, we launched proceedings before an administrative court,” Veljkovic recalled.

Dojcinovic said KRIK journalists had noticed a trend towards greater closure on the part of institutions; lately they had experienced problems in getting documents that are undoubtedly public documents, which they had previously received.


“Most of our FOAs are being rejected, either because they [institutions] are trying to hide something, or because our FOAs are referring to trickier topics,” Dojcinovic explained.

Journalists his wall of silence:

FOAs are not the only problem issue for Serbian journalists. Many of them also said state officials ignore their requests for interviews, forcing investigative journalists to “chase” politicians at their every-day events and to ask questions there.

In one of these situations, after journalists from Istinomer website and KRIK tried to put questions to Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali, who had been avoiding journalists, they said he pushed one of them as she tried to grill him during a visit to the municipality of Rakovica in March.

The office of the Mayor denied the claims, although journalists later published a video of the incident.

KRIK editor Dojcinovic said journalists are well aware in advance that their requests for interviews usually will be ignored.

“It [the interview] happens in rare cases. Not only ministers [ignore us] but all those connected in any way to the public services,” he said.

“You can’t talk with the head of some local police station in some town about local topics, as he or she has to get permission from the top [the Interior Ministry],” Dojcinovc explained, adding that this had not been the case in the past.

“This is a new thing; I could have called and talk to them earlier,” he noted.

According to Jelena Veljkovic, one of the worst examples is the Interior Ministry.

“After we send a request for an interview, we call them and hear how our request is being ‘sent to whom it should be sent’ – and we never hear anything from them,” she noted.

BIRN sent questions about the treatment of journalists in Serbia to the Prime Minister on September 19, but received no answer.

Jahic, from CINS, agreed that ignoring requests for interviews complicates journalists’ work, which he perceives as “deliberate obstruction”.

“The Interior Ministry has not agreed to talk to us for more than two years, while [National Bank head] Jorgovanka Tabakovic has refused to comment on our story that her doctorate was plagiarised,” he realled.

After CINS journalists in December said many parts of Tabakovic’s doctorate were a result of plagiarism, they obtained some information with the help of the Information Commissioner, but Tabakovic herself refused to comment.

CINS was not the only organisation she refused to comment to. The daily Danas also reported the same month that the National Bank head had ignored their questions.

Jahic added that some officials are scared to talk, and do not want to annoy the authorities.

“So, it’s the ministers that are destroying the objectivity of journalism because they don’t want to give [us] their side of the story,” Dojcinovic concluded.