01. jun 2021.

Smear Campaigns, Oligarch Media, and Street Gangs: Serbia’s Embattled Investigative Media Are a Warning to the World

In March, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, a leading investigative news nonprofit in Serbia, was forced to put its stories on hold for two full weeks to deal with a coordinated smear campaign mounted by pro-government tabloids in Belgrade. In an increasingly common and brazen tactic, outlets that support Serbia’s authoritarian president, Aleksandar Vučić, falsely accused the GIJN member, known by the acronym KRIK, of having ties to a notorious gangster — even though KRIK is one of the few newsrooms to expose that same gangster’s crimes.

Independent editors interviewed by GIJN say this smear tactic is part of a multi-pronged harassment and repression strategy against the few independent media outlets left in Serbia, a country of seven million in southeastern Europe. These organizations — and especially the country’s few investigative nonprofits — now face an extraordinary array of threats and harassment. The groups have been bullied by thugs, targeted with frivolous lawsuits, routinely surveilled, excluded from public media funding, avoided by intimidated sources and advertisers, slandered as “foreign agents” by dominant pro-government media, and denied public information required by law. Meanwhile, the country’s press freedom ranking has plummeted from 66 out of 180 countries in 2017 to 93 in 2021, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“In these conditions, can we still at least make our society just a little bit better? I say we have a chance.” –Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia’s Branko Čečen

What is happening in Serbia is part of a broader, global backlash against independent media, experts warn. The oppressive tactics employed by Serbian officials are increasingly used by autocrats and oligarchs around the world.

“After gains for journalism in the 20 years after communism, the momentum is going the other way, as more autocratic leaders find ways to manage or discredit the independent news media,” says media development analyst Ellen Hume.

Modern authoritarian leaders “have realized that brutality is out” as an intimidation tactic against independent journalists, adds KRIK editor Stevan Dojčinović. Instead, these leaders use proxies — from commercial media owners to street gangs and social media trolls — to try to discredit, starve, and exhaust watchdog reporters.

Attacks on Serbia’s independent media are taken directly from the autocrat’s playbook. A new report on media freedom in the country by Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) finds that privately-owned pro-government tabloids and TV stations — empowered by disproportionate public funding and favoritism from the government — are now pitted directly against independent media.

The MFRR study adds: “Of particular concern are cases of politicians or public officials openly threatening journalists, targeting and defining them as ‘enemies of the state’ or ‘traitors.’ These acts can be seen to condone and encourage threats, coordinated online harassment, or even physical violence.”

The homes of three of KRIK’s 15 staff members have been broken into and ransacked in the past three years. In all three cases, almost nothing was stolen and police made no progress in identifying the culprits. KRIK’s Dojčinović alleges that agents from Serbia’s security services routinely feed pro-government tabloids and TV stations material about the private lives of investigative reporters gleaned from surveillance.

“With attacks from every quarter, all the time, it’s becoming too much — stress is becoming trauma for investigative journalists here,” says Dojčinović. “Big impact is impossible — the government has positioned things so they don’t really need to react when we publish about their corruption. So we’re writing stories for the future when there might be real impact.”

Press Laws Undermined by Autocrats

Yet all of this has happened despite Serbia having, at least on paper, some of the world’s best press freedom laws, including a well-crafted freedom of information law and statutory bodies meant to protect reporters. It also comes despite nearly 30 years — and tens of millions of dollars — of investment in building independent media in the Balkans by Western governments and foundations, according to Hume, a founding partner of International Media Development Advisors.

In 2011, Hume warned of a major media regression in Central and Eastern Europe in a report for the Center for International Media Assistance. In it, she documented the takeover of news outlets by oligarchs in countries like Romania and Latvia in pursuit of political influence, and the rise of draconian media laws in Hungary. Hume also cautioned that good press freedom laws enacted by countries looking to join the European Union (EU) should not be taken for granted — and that these laws could easily fail “without constant vigilance and activism.”

“If you look at the biggest corruption affairs in Serbia in the last year, they were all discovered by investigative journalists.” — Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s Marija Ristić

Ten years later, Hume says that “remarkably,” investigative journalists in the region continue to produce quality scoops — but that authoritarian leaders have eroded their impact in recent years by spreading cynicism in their societies.

“In order for journalism to work, you need four things: a flow of reliable information, a means to publish, an audience to care, and a [sound] legal regime,” she explains. “I think ‘an audience to care’ is where the attacks are coming. What authoritarians have practiced for generations is attacking the messenger; their credibility. Corruption is harder and harder to get traction on because the cynicism is so great.”

Dojčinović says sound laws are overwhelmed by autocratic influence.

“If you look at it just on paper, Serbia can easily be among the places with the best laws and institutions designed to help journalists — but the reality is completely the opposite,” he says. “Press freedom is getting worse and worse. Some of these laws even brought more damage, and are enforced in completely misleading and bizarre ways.”

Outsourcing Media Repression

While “old-school authoritarian governments” like Russia’s mobilize police and state security services to attack freedoms directly, Dojčinović says Serbia seeks the same goals with the opposite strategy: freezing state agencies, and instead unleashing private companies and groups controlled by allies of the autocratic leader. For instance, Dojčinović says Belgrade police were ordered to stay off the street on a night when pro-government “hooligans” forcibly evicted residents from homes the government wanted to raze to build a lucrative new development. “It’s authoritarian with a perfect disguise — it’s not like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or [Turkish President Recep] Erdogan, where autocracy is obvious and brutal,” he explains. “New age authoritarians build parallel private structures.”

“Media literacy in the Balkans is deeply important, for the public to care, and make distinctions.” –Media development expert Ellen Hume

Reminiscent of former US President Donald Trump’s practice of turning accusations of wrongdoing back against the press, Dojčinović says Serbian government officials and their loyalist media often claim KRIK is guilty of the same transgressions found in its reporting about state officials. “They use this tactic of completely reversing our findings against them: we prove they’re corrupt, then they get their media friends to say we’re corrupt; we prove they’re tied to criminals, then they just say we are the ones connected to those same criminals,” he notes. “I’d say this tactic works with about 25% of the population, who believe it.”

He says internet trolls and automated disinformation bots are also included in the myriad proxies used to smear independent media.

“If you can persuade people that everyone’s lying, that the truth is too hard to determine, you might as well go with your favorite gut feeling, your prejudices,” Hume explains. “Then you lose your capacity for justice and democracy. This is why media literacy in the Balkans is deeply important, for the public to care, and make distinctions.”

In one telling example of official inaction highlighted in the MFRR report, three police officers refused to act while thugs harassed KRIK journalist Bojana Pavlović last year, and seized the phone she had just used to photograph the president’s son.

Solidarity Among Serbia’s Watchdog Newsrooms

Serbia’s leading investigative nonprofits include KRIK, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), and the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS). All three groups are GIJN member organizations that have won major international awards and are recognized as producing some of the region’s best journalism. In 2017, CINS won the prestigious European Press Prize for a series that exposed the justice system’s prosecution of corruption cases in Serbia as utterly toothless and farcical.

“It’s an amazing phenomenon. We have terrible media in Serbia, but we have four spectacularly good investigative journalism organizations,” says Branko Čečen, director of CINS, who includes in this list the independent TV program Insider. “But right now, I am very worried, because — parallel to the escalation of very aggressive rhetoric from top officials — the complete dissolution of the rule of law is going on before our eyes. There are murder cases where the cops and the coroner bring irrefutable evidence to court, and then, because there is some connection between the criminal and the government, the coroner comes back and says ‘I was mistaken,’ and the cop comes back and says ‘I polluted the crime scene with my DNA.’ Even murder is allowed.”

“It is unbelievable how large a percentage of people here are completely convinced by the worst possible conspiracy theories.” — Branko Čečen

Čečen adds: “I think KRIK is [leading] all of us in these efforts to push back.”

This comment is typical of the solidarity among Serbia’s independent media platforms, which frequently highlight the successes achieved, and attacks suffered, by their colleagues.

“Lately, the minister of finance decided, ironically, to fight money laundering and terrorism, and compiled lists of people to be investigated, and I and my organization are on that list. I mean, we are fighting money laundering, and they’re investigating us!” says Čečen. “You try and get, for instance, a grant from a US organization when you’re on a list [to be investigated] like that. It’s not fun.”

Serbia’s few investigative nonprofits, and a handful of even smaller local newsrooms like VOICE, have not only soldiered on, but continue to dominate the country’s accountability landscape.

“If you look at the biggest corruption affairs in Serbia in the last year, they were all discovered by investigative journalists,” says Marija Ristić, regional director of BIRN. “The EU Parliament put pressure on the Serbian government to address these incidents of corruption, and every case they named was revealed by us, KRIK, or CINS.”

Hume says this domestic solidarity needs to be expanded to ever-deepening international collaboration.

“One of the strengths for investigative journalists is their international connectivity, and I think one of the ways the Balkan journalists may survive, I hope, is by having support and publication abroad,” she says. “It’s important that stories have multiple authors, multiple owners, and multiple geographic bases. That way, if you stifle or kill one journalist, the story still pops up somewhere else — and maybe there’s no point in harming that journalist.”

According to Čečen, the government’s tepid but ongoing interest in being admitted to the EU represents a last, rickety line of defense for journalists against the prospect of a Russia-style environment of arrests and physical attacks.

“That is all that is stopping them from something very sinister happening to one of us,” he says. “But the EU is constantly losing influence.”

Čečen says the CINS investigative series that won the 2017 prize — in which reporters sought and analyzed documents from hundreds of individual prosecutors’ offices, courthouses, and police stations — could not be produced today, because freedom of information requests are now routinely denied. “And we only got them then because of inertia from brighter times,” he says.

Apathy and Conspiracy Theories

“Less than 10% of Serbia’s citizens have higher education — and that’s including all the fake diplomas you can buy here for 750 bucks,” Čečen notes, of the proportion of the population going on to tertiary education. “The least educated are under very strong influence of their adored leader [President Vučić]. Another huge segment of our population has just retreated.”

Echoing Hume’s concern, Čečen says the government has exploited and deepened nationalism, conspiracy theories, and the memory of war to minimize public concern about corruption, and marginalize accountability as a civic value.

“This is a very, very nationalistic society, and this, together with the conspiracy stuff, created a stumbling block for us,” he explains. “Pro-government media constantly publish so-called news designed to frighten and horrify citizens. ‘We are going to war with Croatia,’ ‘We are going to war with Albania.’ Because when people are afraid for their lives — and war is a recent memory here — they’re not going to be that interested in whether this minister stole 20 million euros, or why this road cost 20 times what it should have.”

“It is unbelievable how large a percentage of people here are completely convinced by the worst possible conspiracy theories, including a significant number of QAnon followers — in Serbia!” he adds, referring to the conspiracy theory related to Donald Trump and promoted by some right-wing extremists. “It’s so bad that the government has to pay people to get vaccinated.”

Abusing Press Laws

In addition, investigative journalists are increasingly targeted by libel cases in Serbia. So far, the press has won an overwhelming majority of these cases, notes Dojčinović, a fact he attributes to most judges in the country remaining professional and fair. However, he says the growing volume of legal attacks saps the energy of independent media. For instance, Dojčinović says one government minister issued four separate lawsuits against KRIK for the same story.

“In the same week, I had to give the same statement on the same story four times,” he says. “We have about five or six libel suits every year now.”

Last year, BIRN revealed that a former Yugoslav soldier, convicted in Serbia of war crimes in Kosovo, failed to report for his prison term and escaped from the country. In October, BIRN reported that the Serbian Interior Ministry had refused its freedom of information request for details on when the man had absconded, and where he had left Serbia, stating that the information would “violate the right of privacy” of the convicted war criminal.

“And we were asking here about a convicted person, not someone on trial,” notes BIRN’s Marija Ristić. “The freedom of information law is a crucial law for us investigative journalists; it’s how we get data and leads for stories. When it was adopted it was quite open, and in 2004 there was a commissioner set up to ensure that access. Now they just deny requests, and reporters spend years in court fighting, and there are no real sanctions. We pass some good laws, but we don’t then create independent institutions to support them, so those laws just are there on paper.”

Another law is intended to award public funds to media that publish public interest stories “but the government is just rewarding their own loyal media with this project funding,” Ristić says.

“What authoritarians have practiced for generations is attacking the messenger; their credibility. Corruption is harder and harder to get traction on because the cynicism is so great.” — Ellen Hume 

Čečen adds: “They’re abusing this system — instead of rewarding the best, they’re feeding the money to the worst media that never work in the public interest.”

Likewise, another law designed to regulate media ownership is routinely circumvented or trampled upon, Ristić says. “We don’t have a free media market in Serbia,” she explains. “Media ownership is not transparent, and advertising is controlled by oligarchs and state companies. In Serbia, people buy a newspaper to get influence — it’s usually oligarchs connected with the government.”

In April, four investigative stories by BIRN were shortlisted for Serbia’s prestigious Dejan Anastasijevic Investigative Journalism Award competition.

On being congratulated by GIJN for their haul of nominations — including stories on cabinet-level nepotism, and Serbia’s role as a safe haven for foreign fugitives – Ristić gave this telling response: “It’s good, but it’s also bad because it shows that there are not so many other independent outlets. I wish there would be more competition in this region.”

Repression-by-Proxy

Ristić says independent journalists in countries like Hungary and Albania were already seeing similar signs of repression-by-proxy.

“It’s like they are copy-pasting these tactics,” she says.

KRIK’s Dojčinović warns that proxies are also being used for violent repression.

“We have countries like Slovakia, where a journalist was killed by people connected with the government,” says Dojčinović. “We saw another murder in Malta — another EU nation — of a journalist by business people connected to their government. Governments in places like Hungary, Slovakia, and Serbia learn that the most important thing is not to leave your fingerprints; not to use your institutions to do damage to your opponents.”

Ristić and Dojčinović have the same basic analysis for why the EU is now witnessing a decline in press freedom among some of its new and candidate members.

“Unfortunately, security became the priority, and not democracy,” Ristić says.

Čečen sums it up this way: “The authoritarians of Eastern Europe are learning from each other, and learning first of all from Putin, and Vučić is basically following his rulebook: ‘First, control the media.’”

Tools for Survival

“Pressure from governments would be welcome, but I wouldn’t hold my breath,” says Čečen. “When EU or US [diplomats] ask me ‘What can we do for you?’ I always ask them: When you come and see Vučić, why don’t you also publicly meet us in front of cameras — the fighters for democracy? Public recognition and attention are helpful.”

Hume says Serbia and other authoritarian societies urgently need new tools to evaluate facts, and trusted messengers to convince them to care.

“We are more popular than some because we are on the ground — we really talk with our audience on Twitter. We are not corporate, and people do like that.” — Stevan Dojčinović, KRIK editor

Čečen agrees. While he is not optimistic about changing the media trust habits of older Serbians, he says media literacy programs are already proving successful at high schools and could grow an audience that values evidence.

“We have several media literacy projects in Serbia — I train the trainers for some — and these are really good projects,” he says. “We are trying to get our program accepted for high schools throughout the country. One is called Learn to Discern, which is going on in at least 15 countries.”

He notes that when subjects from one media literacy program were tested six months later, more than 30% were seeking new sources for news, and using critical thinking tools taught to them.

“Suddenly, they were all thinking: ‘Maybe this is a lie — I need to think about this claim,’ and that’s a really good result,” Čečen says. “Research shows a rapidly increasing number of citizens seeking news online. Now we have to make them go for hard news, and not news about reality TV and football.”

Dojčinović says that — in addition to solidarity with other independent media — one strategy to survive in this environment is to be more responsive.

“We are more popular than some because we are on the ground — we really talk with our audience on Twitter,” he says. “I am the editor-in-chief, and I am responding every day to readers. We are not corporate, and people do like that.”

Among 16 “urgent recommendations” in its media freedom report, MFRR called on Serbia’s government to “condemn publicly and unequivocally all attacks and violence against journalists,” and “ensure that the established mechanisms for journalists’ protection are effective both at the formal level and in practice.”

One sobering takeaway from GIJN’s interviews with Serbia’s investigative nonprofits is that there are no clear solutions for accountability or impact, or even journalist safety, in the near term. But the biggest takeaway, by far, is that these news outlets are still reporting. They’re still producing quality investigations. They’re still asking questions they know won’t be honestly answered. They’re still digging up facts about public malfeasance which the public may or may not care about.

In doing so, they become a beacon for journalists everywhere.

“In these conditions, can we still at least make our society just a little bit better?” Čečen asks. “I say we have a chance. We are all people who can’t just stand aside and watch, and that’s the best weapon investigative journalists have.”

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