There is also something else; we do this because that’s who we are. The best we can do is to investigate and prove that something is illegal or immoral. That is our motivation. Money is not our motivation because there is no money in this line of business
“We have taught politicians and business people that we cannot be influenced, that we cannot be bought and that we will always work solely in line with the rules of our profession, not the rules of the game that corrupt Serbia plays. Of course, that comes with a price, but also has good sides. We are free; both as people and as journalists. This is a huge benefit regardless of the price we have to pay for it,” says Branko Čečen, Director of the Centre for Investigative Reporting (CINS) in his interview for Diplomacy & Commerce.
Let’s start with the recent case of a whistleblower being arrested. How does this whole situation look to you? Did the authorities adhere to the Law on Whistleblowers in this case?
— It is less relevant whether this particular whistleblower had a status of one. If he did not have the status of a whistleblower, then the law is inadequate and must be changed, because he did exactly what a whistleblower has to do. He did not sell the documents for money or other personal gains but made them public. He did not want to address a repressive apparatus in which one of the main protagonists of corruption is the father of one of the most powerful people in the country, the Interior Minister. He did not want to hand over the matter to the prosecution, who persistently refuses to do their job and finally settle cases such as Savamala, for instance. After all, the law says that an activity on concealing a crime cannot be considered a secret. So, the indictment for publicly revealing a trade secret seems very problematic to me. After all, if what he disclosed was inaccurate, according to the Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanović, then Aleksandar Obradović did not disclose any secrets, but was mistaken and should be released and praised for having good intentions. And if it is true, then he has uncovered a crime and cannot be charged with what the prosecution says is the subject of the investigation.
These kinds of situations are likely to affect potential insiders planning to contact your investigative centre with information. What do you think? Are people scared?
— Aleksandar Obradović is an example of civic courage in the fight against corruption, and we should celebrate him for that, while the state should protect him and use his discoveries to root out corruption, and punish those guilty of corruption, provided they are proven guilty. The fact that only he was arrested, and no investigation was launched against the perpetrators of what he had discovered, is a scandal in itself and a message to all brave citizens to keep their mouth shut otherwise they will end up in prison, regardless of law and justice. It seems that the repressive apparatus has “turned the game around” and has become an apparatus for protecting corruption and crime. Interestingly, although experience tells us that the fear of the regime’s repression is indeed very strong, an increasing number of citizens have been contacting us with information about corruption and crime and taking the courageous risk of letting us know what they know. I think that Aleksandar Obradović’s example has a lot to do with that. Many people in our country are willing to resist what they see as injustice even at the cost of their comfort and well-being; they just need someone they trust would do something. Of course, those people should be prosecutors and the police, but this is precisely the watchdog role that the media in society have. If the system’s institutions are not doing their job and protecting citizens from the power of the state apparatus, big business, crime or something else, we need to investigate, prove and publicize such an anomaly. Citizens do not trust prosecutors and that is bad, but it is even worse when everyone who is informed has excellent reasons for not trusting them. They trust us and that is nice and flattering to us. However, we should only be a mechanism of control that is triggered in the event of a minor omission of the rule of law.
The conditions in which your stories are created are not very good. There are obstacles on all sides, from non-compliance with the Law on Access to Information to jeopardizing personal security. What kind of pressures are you exposed to and where do they come from?
— I would not like to frighten anyone, but we have repeatedly discovered hackers in the digital system who collect information about us and the topics of our investigations. Everything is encrypted, of course, and our sources and documentation are secure, but they break into our mail, collect our addresses, etc. What do they need that for? They’re bugging us and hopefully, it is the BIA or the police that are doing it, since it would be frightening if someone else was doing it. While it sounds unbelievable that resources of this kind are used on investigative journalists, this constitutes paranoia and tan unprecedented anti-democratic act. Our women journalists were openly followed by people from the crime world, as a form of intimidation. Tabloids and TV Pink have been accusing us of completely false things and attacking us on a personal level every time we publish a significant story. They cannot dispute the evidence from these stories, so they blame us personally and relativize our findings. But the real heroes are our colleagues who don’t live in Belgrade. They suffer a lot more and if you are a good journalist or a local journalist you are a hero, however abnormal that might sound. There is also something else; we do this because that’s who we are. We cannot just stand and watch the society dissolve, citizens’ money being wasted and human lives destroyed, such as the life of our colleague Milan Jovanović or whistleblower Aleksandar Obradović. The best we can do is to investigate and prove something to be illegal or immoral. That is our motivation. Money is not our motivation because there is no money in this line of business.
Can the current circumstances change somehow?
— Of course, they can. But no European Union or twenty different civil society organizations will do it. No-one can do it except the citizens of this country. When a critical mass is reached and they realize that they will not be better off if they do not become exactly that – the citizens – rather than silent witnesses to the destruction of their society, things will start to change. No-one has ever given any freedom or a right to anyone. That must always be taken with some kind of pressure. And there are always casualties in the process – someone loses a job, someone ends up in prison, someone argues with their family. That is why this needs to become a practice, a tradition, that once we have won a right to, let’s say, unhindered access to information of public importance, we, as citizens, have to keep vigilant about this access, because the powers-to-be can abolish it in minutes, without batting an eyelid. They can destroy what we have been painstakingly building for ten years. So, to prevent people from being imprisoned or losing their jobs, and after we fight for our rights and win them, we immediately have to take it to the streets if these rights are even tiny bit jeopardized, rather than be complacent, have barbecues every weekend, drink beer, throw frisbee and watch football. And then we get surprised when we find out that the mainstream media have been lying to us all the time and that our hospitals don’t have enough soap for staff and patients to wash their hands, let alone working scanners or enough doctors. If people were to read, just for half an hour, once a week, what is being written on our investigative journalism websites or independent media websites, things would be much different. And if we took to learning a little bit…We are an uneducated nation with an extremely low percentage of highly educated people, with many of them left or are about to leave the country. What can we expect in the economy, science, finance, medicine or any segment of life, much less the media and civic consciousness, if only 10% of people in Serbia have a university degree? And some of those degrees have been bought… We can’t do it quickly and we can’t do it effortlessly, but other nations have built societies where they live in dignity. So why shouldn’t we?!
Is there room for investigative journalism in the mainstream media? The impression is that
the Internet is the only available space for you.
— Everything is pretty clear. Over 70% of our citizens cite Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) as their primary source of information, along with TV Pink. We do not have access to TV stations with national frequency because they are controlled by the government, via the advertising market and institutional pressures. The same goes for the influential press. We are not in the mainstream media because the authorities don’t want us there, no matter what strategies are being adopted and whatever the government promises to the Western diplomats, because they know that many people close to them would end up indicted based on what the investigative journalists have proven so far. If that happened, an average citizen’s perception of this government would radically change within six months, and not for the better. But until then, we need to appeal to citizens with better and more tailored online media production and on all the other communication channels available to us, until those who understand the extent of corruption and the impact it has on their lives generate enough pressure so this society can be significantly democratized. Then we need to change laws and practices so that this media control, the systematic and blatant misrepresentation of citizens, and media attacks against those people who think differently are all made illegal and costly, never to appear again. I firmly believe that that is possible and that it will happen. And then I can retire.
Do you enjoy the support from foreigners, since the Serbian authorities clearly do not support you?
— Interesting question! We have support through international assistance from various Western governments, for which we have to compete. So, if our projects are good, we will have money to pay our journalists. That’s the kind of support we get. I have been to the parliaments and ministries of the Western countries – from the US and Germany to, of course, Brussels – many times, and have had even more conversations with foreign political officials here, in Serbia. They all support and encourage us in our work because they are confident that what we are doing is in the best interest of building democracy and the rule of law in Serbia. However, it is also their job to work in the interests of their countries and that is their priority. I also think that many foreign entities are now insisting on media freedom in order for our government to concede in other issues such as the negotiations on Kosovo’s status. These are the moments we need to use their help to improve the media situation, regardless of the current situation and the ultimate goals of the international community. Whatever happens with Kosovo, media freedom can only be good for this country. In that sense, I think we need to learn how to interpret the interests of the great powers and find what is good in that for our society, but also to learn how the administrations and parliaments of the EU, its members, the USA and other powers function, because you can’t expect from them something they cannot give you, like democracy in Serbia. Still, you can use them to help you with your work on improving the well-being of your country.