Intensifying attacks and calls for violence against CSOs and journalists by the Serbian government
The latest developments regarding the case of the “List” and the Administration for Anti-Money Laundering include responses from international institutions relevant to this topic. On 11th November 2020, a statement was issued by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs alleging that Serbia had abused its anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing mechanism to intimidate and restrict the work of civil society and human rights defenders and stifle criticism of the authorities. The statement also stresses that measures adopted by individual states to fight against money laundering and terrorist financing must be in accordance with international law, especially human rights law, including the rights to freedom of expression and association of civil society.
“We fear that such use of the Serbian Law on the Prevention of Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism interferes with and limits the freedoms of expression and association of people belonging to these groups, and their right to take part in the conduct of public affairs,” the experts said.“The unjustified use of this law risks intimidating civil society actors and human rights defenders, restricting their work and muffling any criticism of the Government,” they added.
In the response to the letter, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) indicates that states must have grounds for suspicion when a subject being investigated is involved in money laundering or terrorist financing. The FATF response indicates that the actions of the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML) could be considered contrary to the standards set out in FATF Recommendation 29, which refers to the competences of financial intelligence units. The recommendation states that the powers given to financial intelligence bodies in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing do not include seeking non-selective requests for information from commercial banks for the purposes of conducting strategic analyses.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) and media featured on the “List” published a statement demanding the APML issue a response to the FATF’s findings as soon as possible and take concrete steps to repair the damage caused to organisations and individuals who were wrongfully targeted.
Dangerous public campaign against CSOs and independent journalists
On 9th March 2021, a smear campaign was launched, simultaneously appearing in all the major government-funded tabloids in Serbia, making tenuous connections between the investigative portal KRIK, a member of the Organised Crime and Corruption Research Network (OCCRP), and an organised criminal group headed by recently-arrested crime boss Veljko Belivuk, who is currently under investigation for several murders. The campaign made unsubstantiated and false claims that Belivuk fed information to KRIK for publication. Not only is this a very dangerous untruth that discredits the work of investigative journalists, but it also directly endangers their physical safety by placing them in the middle of a heavily-publicised and sensationalised crackdown on organised crime activities. (a subtitled video of a segment targeting KRIK as broadcast on regime television channel TV Pink can be accessed here). The Investigative portal said:
“You can imagine how these obnoxious lies are directly affecting our safety as we are not sure what to expect – from physical attacks to even arrests.”
KRIK je po ko zna koji put meta prorežimskih medija koji na svaki način pokušavaju da diskredituju naš rad.— KRIK (@KRIKrs) March 9, 2021
I ovaj put nam vaša podrška neizmerno znači.
Hvala Vam što ste uz nas, a mi vam obećavamo da ćemo nastaviti da istražujemo kriminal i borimo se protiv laži!#PodrziKRIK
This attack, which can be seen as an attempt to divert the public’s attention away from the documented connection of governing structures in Serbia with these criminal groups, which KRIK has exposed for years through its investigative work, comes at a time when the atmosphere in society has been further shaken by unethical reporting on organised crime. Immediately preceding the smear campaign against KRIK, disturbing graphic photos of violence relating to the Belivuk case were shown by the President during a prime time broadcast, simultaneously on thirteen television stations. Insinuating a connection between KRIK and an accused murderer on such tenuous grounds represents a transparent targeting of the portal’s journalists. It should be noted that such baseless tabloid attacks are able to reach an substantially larger audience compared to the rebuttals by those attacked, which further contributes to the vulnerability of those targeted by such smear campaigns.
The International Press Institute (IPI) and several other press freedom groups condemned the smear campaign against KRIK.
“The publication of such baseless claims linking a reputable non-profit investigative outlet to a prominent member of organised crime puts KRIK’s journalists and other staff at risk. Moreover, we fear that these allegations may be used as a pretext to initiate police investigation of the independent outlet and use state entities to further intimidate the outlet. KRIK is one of the few outlets to publish stories on Belivuk’s gang and its ties with the Serbian government and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.”
On 11th March 2021, the attacks and smears escalated further. During a regular session of the National Assembly, the chief of the ruling party SNS’s parliamentary group “Aleksandar Vučić - For Our Children” and president of the Administrative Committee, MP Aleksandar Martinović,threatened that anyone who criticised the government would be “beaten in a sack”, thus openly calling for violence. While addressing the assembly, Martinović made reference to an “attempt to stage a coup d’état in Serbia and assassinate the president of the Republic, Aleksandar Vučić”, and accused “those who consider themselves the so-called pro-European and pro-democratic opposition” of doing so, naming specifically the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability and the Open Parliament Initiative. He also described critics of the government as a “sack of people stacked against Aleksandar Vučić”, adding that they (the ruling party parliamentary group) “are going to hit that sack, as hard as possible”, until “they tear it apart” (a subtitled video of his speech can be accessed here). This dangerous rhetoric was echoed by Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Vladimir Orlić, who, in the days that followed, continued spreading these narratives about CRTA and KRIK in the Assembly, as well as online.
Једино наивно овде су покушаји екипе из првог реда у насилном јуришу на Председништво, креатора кампање мржње и хајке на све које сматрају политичким непријатељима - да себе представе као жртве. А које никад нико ни пипнуо није. Слободно показују ко су. Ако, тако је мање наивних. https://t.co/glETAo5j5r— Др Владимир Орлић (@Vladimir_Orlic) March 11, 2021
On 17 March 2021, the attacks continued. Once again targeting KRIK and CRTA in front of the Assembly, Martinović discussed the personal finances of individuals employed by CRTA, in order to portray them as a group of rich foreign agents with expensive cars and apartments, whose offices are located in the most expensive areas of Belgrade. In addition, he mentioned the founder and director of CRTA, Vukosava Crnjanski, and revealed the exact location of her place of residence and the model of car she drives, stating publicly "We know where you live". Even more worryingly, he went on to disclose the exact amount of the individual installments CRTA has received from USAID. This information is only known to CRTA, its donors, its bank and the Ministry of Finance and the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (a subtitled video of his speech on March 17 can be accessed here). It is important to highlight that both CRTA and KRIK were featured on the list of 57 organisations, media and individuals whose financial transactions were being investigated by the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering on suspicious legal grounds in July2020 (see previous update). As CSOs at the time warned, the government seems to have used the data collected in this probe as a means with which to attack CSOs and media critical of them.
The following incidents were documented against journalists:
- The editor-in-chief of the weekly “NIN”, Vesna Mališić, was attacked via Twitter, where the tweets advocated for femicide as a solution to dealing with the journalist. The threats were written from an anonymous profile. The NIN reported that they suspected the tweets were composed by a former employee who had made threats against journalists on several previous occasions.
- Similarly, the Working Group for the Safety of Journalists filed a criminal complaint with the Special Prosecutor's Office for High-Tech Crime regarding death threats addressed on Twitter to Editor-in-Chief of CINS, Milica Šarić. In response, the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) demanded that the relevant authorities take action to prevent future attacks on media workers and journalists.
- The Secretary of the Diocese of Backa banned the N1 television crew entry to the port of the church in Srbobran, where a memorial service was held on the occasion of the 79th anniversary of the Raid in Backa. The Secretary justified his actions by referring to the biased manner in which N1 television reported on the events related to the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, research by the Bureau of Social Research (BIRODI) contrarily reported that the N1 television station reported neutrally on the Serbian Orthodox Church. Zeljko Bodrozic , the President of NUNS said that the ban was an act of inadmissible discrimination and claimed that the atmosphere in the public space is poisoned with alleged propaganda which is reaching an increasing number of citizens.
- The trial of those accused of setting fire to the house of a journalist of the Zig.info portal, was postponed for technical reasons that the court “could not decide on the request for disqualification of the judge". Similar cases during this period were reported as well.
- N1 journalist Jelena Zorić, who reported on the trial of Predrag Koluvija, suspected of illegal marijuana cultivation on an agricultural farm in Jovanjica, allegedly received threats from one of Koluvija's lawyers. A company, Adri News doo, which is engaged in the production of television content for TV N1, sent a disciplinary report on this occasion to the disciplinary prosecutor of the Belgrade Bar Association. The threats continued on 2nd January 2021, when Jelena Zoric found a piece of paper on the door of her apartment with threatening messages.
- On 25th December 2020, the High Judicial Council and the Protector of Citizens accused the KRIK portal of applying pressure on the independence of the judiciary. The portal published a database of judges on the “Judge Who Judges” project, in which the property cards of individual judges was published, and the details of the cases in which they judged. The High Judicial Council condemned the publication of this database, which they believe was made tendentiously and puts judges in a negative context. The Protector of Citizens emphasised that the project makes judges targets. KRIK stated that the project aimed to bring “transparency” and restore lost trust in the judiciary, adding that judges whose profiles were featured were approached for comment before publication.
- Threats were sent to the editorial staff of the Zoomer portal after the publication of an article entitled "We asked young people how they live in Kosovo." The editorial staff were threatened via a direct message on Instagram. In response, the NUNS filed a criminal complaint with the Special Prosecutor's Office for High-Tech Crime.
- A journalist of the Nova.rs portal faced threats after the publication of an article in which he referred to the case of rape at the Orthodox Theological Faculty. An organised internet campaign was launched, in which dozens of people participated by writing insults and death threats to the journalist. The same journalist had previously been a victim of physical attacks during the protests in July 2020. Reporters Without Borders demanded a more decisive reaction from the Minister of Culture and Information in order to create conditions for safe and unhindered journalistic work.
- On 21st December 2021, the journalists at Juzne Vesti were subject to “serious death threats, rape threats and insults” over a report published the day before. One message read: “My sincere wishes to all journalists in Juzne Vesti is for migrants to savagely rape their children until they drop dead”. The incident was reported to the police and the Special Prosecution Office for High Tech Crime is investigating. Gordana Bjeletic, editor in chief of Juzne Vesti, said:
“We expect that the person who wrote in such a manner about underage children of people employed at Juzne Vesti will be found as soon as possible. We will continue reporting in accordance with professional standards, and not in accordance with the mood of extremists, individuals or groups, who are always ready to create targets of journalists and their families.”
“A person who uttered such horrible and irrational threats must be held accountable before the court...These journalists faced threats, pressures and insults from the moment the media was established. They deserve respect and support, but also full protection. We hope this incident will be the last.” - Zeljko Bodrozic, President of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (IJAS).
- On 30th January 2021, Vojislav Šešelj, founder and president of the far-right Serbian Radical Party and a convicted war criminal, verbally attacked Nataša Miljanović-Zubac, who works for Radio Television of Republika Srpska, during a live TV interview. According to the Coalition of Women in Journalism (CFWIJ), Šešelj made “misogynistic remarks and allegedly revealed private details of her life on national television”. The journalist said that this incident affected her health and her personal life and urged relevant institutions to act against such attacks.
- The National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia re-elected Olivera Zekic as a member of the Council of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM), and at a later session of that body she was elected President of the Council. In response, Slobodan Cvejić, a member of the REM resigned, claiming that the manner in which Zekić was elected violated the democratic procedures of the Council. In his address to the public, he stated that there are no longer elementary preconditions for working in that body and that he does not want to participate in undemocratic processes.
“For us, clean air and a healthy environment are guaranteed by article 74 of the constitution, and we came here to exercise our right,” - Bojan Simišić from Eko Straža.
U Beogradu, na trgu Slavija, u toku je skup Za besopasan vazduh.— BBC NEWS na srpskom (@bbcnasrpskom) January 10, 2021
Građane je okupilo nezadovoljstvo zbog zagađenosti vazduha, a od nadležnih, između ostalog, traže bolje informisanje javnosti o ovoj temi, kao i primenu mera za poboljšanje kvaliteta vazduha pic.twitter.com/LAwI7rMkX6
Ljudi bilo je fantastično! Dobra energija, dobri ljudi. Hvala policiji na pomoći i podršci za protest. Hvala svim medijima koji su ovo ispratili. Pokazaćemo da smo jači od bilo kojih podela u koje pokušavaju da nas uguraju. Mi svi hoćemo samo jedno-Čist vazduh. pic.twitter.com/FFNMgeF56G— Eko Straža (@EkoStraza) January 10, 2021