28. jul 2020.

Serbian Authorities Seek Bank Data of Rights Groups, Investigative Media

A department of Serbia’s finance ministry tasked with tackling money laundering and terrorism financing has asked banks to hand over data about the transactions of dozens of individuals and NGOs known for their work on human rights, transparency and exposing corruption.

Journalists and civil society representatives in Serbia have accused the government of trying to silence its critics after it emerged that the finance ministry’s Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering has sought access to bank data dating from January 1, 2019, for 20 individuals and 37 NGOs, including a number of investigative media outlets and high-profile human rights organisations.

The order was first published by TV Newsmax Adria Serbia. It cites the need “to determine whether the listed organisations and individuals have anything to do with terrorist financing or money laundering.”

The list includes Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia, CINS, Crime and Corruption Reporting Network KRIK, the Novi Sad Journalism School, both of Serbia’s major journalism associations and a host of rights groups including Civic Initiatives, YUCOM, the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, the Helsinki Committee for Human Right and the Humanitarian Law Centre.

The individuals include a number of BIRN employees, CINS director Branko Cecen, TV Newsmax Adria Serbia head and former BIRN editor Slobodan Georgiev and journalists Biljana Stepanovic and Vukasin Obradovic. Opposition politician Vuk Jeremic is also named.

Cecen told TV Newsmax Adria Serbia that the government, led by the Progressive Party of President Aleksandar Vucic, was “reckoning with its critics”. Zeljko Radovanovic, the head of the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering, said it was simply conducting “regular activities”.

‘Criminalising people’

Civic Initiatives, which was founded by anti-war activists in 1996 to promote democratic values and human rights, called on the government to “immediately stop the abuse of the mechanism for preventing money laundering and terrorist financing in order to intimidate organisations, media and individuals acting as controllers of the government”.

The law, it says, only allows authorities to seek bank data if it suspects an individual or organisation is involved in money laundering or financing of terrorism.

“The confrontation with organisations and critical media in this way is an abuse of the legal mechanism and state resources,” it said.

Milos Nikolic, head of Libertarian club – Libek, which is also on the list, expressed surprise, describing the non-governmental sector in Serbia as one of the most transparent in the country.

“Many of these organisations receive grants through competitions,” he told BIRN. “They cannot spend funds outside the described activities; there are contracts that regulate this relationship, often with very precise budget specifications of costs.”

“I really don’t see how an organisation like Libek or related organisations from the list that operate according to the law, keep proper financial books and have many years of achievements in the field of educational and research work behind them could raise suspicions about money laundering and terrorist financing.”

Georgiev, the head of TV Newsmax Adria Serbia, said the move was “a way of criminalising people”.

“People need to understand that this is what the Administration [for the Prevention of Money Laundering] does when investigating criminals, so now we are all placed in the same basket as criminals,” he told regional broadcaster N1 TV.

“That way you criminalise people when I try to detect crime with my work,” he said. “That Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering has the same donor as BIRN – the European Commission. So I ask the public question: ‘Will the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering examine itself’? It’s horrible.”

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