Rodoljub Šabić: Civil Rights Must Be Respected In Practice

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The latest criticism that Commissioner Rodoljub Šabić has received from the Prime Minister elect and his coalition partner is just a continuation of the disparagement he has been exposed to ever since the office of the Information Commissioner was established. The only thing that is different is a progressive growth of civil rights violations that come under his scope of work.

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Do yout think that the media, which have overstepped all ethical boundaries in reporting about the recently committed crimes, are the first or the last link in the chain of nonfunctional state institutions?

— Sometimes they are the first, sometimes the last. The way they report often constitutes not only a breach of professional and ethical standards in journalism and trampling on the dignity of victims, their families and the public but also a breach of law. The media often ‘analyse’ a criminal act in a way that suggests that they have had a direct access to official investigation documents which, in turn, causes suspicion that the Law on Personal Data Protection and other laws (like the Law on Public Information and Media, Criminal Code and Code on Criminal Procedure) have been breached with the blessing from the people working for the state institutions. All of this speaks volumes about the need for the line ministry, the prosecution and the police to react, in addition to the Commissioner. Supervisory procedures conducted by the Commissioner in certain cases have confirmed that the state bodies have been ‘leaking’ information. However, in some cases, the media claiming that the information came from „relliable official sources“ is just a plain falsefood. Regardless of the situation – be it blindly trusting bad sources, or intentional spinning the news, or consciously „creating“ falsefoods for the purpose of boosting circulation – these practices should be denounced and dealt with. This includes not only journalist associations but also state bodies and institutions which reputation and authority are being smeared in this way. Further from that, it is very indicative and worrying that the said institutions often don’t even react to such things, let alone deny any wrongdoing on their part.

Considering your scope of work, which state institutions have failed the most in respecting civil rights? Are we talking about the rascals from the state administration or the usual systemic politically correct responses that we get from the government about respecting the rule of the law?

— Statistically speaking, ministries are institutions that have the biggest problems with respecting civil rights. In 2015, the Commissioner’s office received 1,841 complaints against the state bodies which is a half of all the filed complaints. Almost fifty percent of these complaints – 846 – relate to the bodies that make the core of the state administration which is the ministries. However, we should not focus on statistics or quantity alone. I have been warning for quite some time now that the root of the problem regarding violation of civil rights has moved to the segment of large financial or material resources. In that context, it is very worrisome to see just how untransparent is the work done by state-owned and public enterprises which is the reason why I have submitted a special report to the Parliament. There are many individual and group characteristics of the responsible officials which are causing problems when it comes to the public exercising their rights. They range from not fully comprehending the importance of human and public rights, a warped image of their own role, arrogance, and, in many cases, intentional activities on hiding their personal incompetence, lack of accomplished results, irrationality and even worse abuse of power, crime and corruption from the public.

Should we feel despicable for reading such contents and are we to blame for being humiliated?

— There is a well-known political quote by Karl Marx who says that „every country has the government it deserves“. This could be expanded to include the media and the public stage. The situation in our media is incredibly worrisome, sad and desperate. What is even more alarming is the lack of committment on the society and the state’s part to do something about it. And let’s not even talk about the fact that the way our media work, and especially the tabloids, cannot be contributed to an unwanted or temporary incident but rather a concept or a method that is used in governing the public stage. This is not a coincidence but a result of the government’s unwilligness to stop the wave of tabloidisation. People also doubt the government’s readiness to put a stop to this because it seems that the government uses the media to accomplish its goals when fighting their political opponents. The current situation needs to be changed. Instead of focusing on worthless, stupid and demeaning topics, we should focus on culture, art or education. However, this requires a far bigger and stronger engagement of all relevant societal structures. As long as their interest in dealing with this issue is weak and sporadic or even completely absent, we are to blame for the humiliation that we have been suffering.

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Considering all of the aforementioned, do you think that the implementation of the chapters 23 and 24 will make us more civil or at least make this country a more civilised one?

— I believe that the actual implementation, and not some formal opening or closing of the chapters, is at the core of our EU accession negotiations. I believe that we can and have to make Serbia a well-regulated country that abides by the rule of the law. However, I do not agree with those unrealistically optimistic politicians who claim that „between 80% and 90% of the work has already been done“. I think that this task should be approached in a much more objective and responsible manner. To illustrate this point, let me just remind you of the current situation in the personal data protection segment which, along with other, will be an inevitable topic of the Chapter 23. It is really not acceptable for the state to dump most of the work on the personal data protection onto the Commissioner’s office. Our activities are growing exponentially. For instance, in 2009, we had 83 cases and, in 2015, we had 2,430 cases which is a 30-fold-increase. We cannot compensate for the work that other authorities, primarily the ministries, the government and the Parliament, should be doing within the framework of one strategic approach. Formally speaking, Serbia does have the Personal Data Protection Strategy. The government adopted this strategy in the summer of 2010 following my initiative. The Strategy stipulates that „an action plan for the Strategy’s implementation with identified activities, expected results, executors of specific tasks and deadlines should be written within 90 days since the Strategy’s publication“. That was six years ago and the government still hasn’t drafted this action plan which renders the Strategy an empty proclamation. The same thing happened to the adoption of the new Personal Data Protection Law. Following the initiative by the Commissioner’s Office, the need to adopt this law was recognised back in 2012. An interdepartmental government task force was formed but no results have been accomplished as yet. The fact that the Commissioner drafted the format of the new law and made it available to the government two years ago amounted to nothing. In its Action Plan pertaining to the Chapter 23 of the EU accession negotiations the government did say that the new law would have been adopted by late 2015 with the Commissioner’s draft serving as the basis. However, the law was not passed and the draft, presented by the Ministry of Justice, did not resemble the Commissioner’s draft at all.

Do you think that the EU has been turning its head away from this issue and didn’t you expect the EU to react more strongly to the events in Savamala which, according to the internal findings of the Ombudsman, took place because certain obligations towards a foreign investor had to be fulfilled?

— In politics, and especially in international politics, the reaction doesn’t necessarily has to be loud in order to have an impact. On the surface, the EU represenatives were more concerned with other topics like the Belgrade-Priština relations but I can assure you that the Savamala case was not bypassed or underestimated. After all, I think that that is practically impossible. An event involving a group of masked people taking part in a night operation in downtown Belgrade who have committed criminal acts and violated several human rights is something that, simply put, should not have happened at all. However, it did happen and, in this case, the reaction from our authorities should have been fast and strong. In this particular case, the event did happen but there was no reaction whatsoever. To ignore this, particularly in the light of the recently opened negotiations about the Chapter 23 which has human rights and judiciary at its core, should be practically impossible. It is unrealistic to expect progress in these negotiations if the Savamala case doesn’t have an adequate closure. The Socialist Party, which is a close politicial ally of the Serbian Progressive Party, has criticised you pretty harshly recently, while the Prime Minister elect has also been quite critical of the work done by the indepedent bodies.

What do you base your belief about the unaffected integrity of independent institutions on?

— This „criticism“ coming from the Socialist Party is a politically motivated move based on very blatant falsefoods and imputations and I don’t think it is even deserving of a comment. In terms of the statements made by the Prime Minister elect, he did express his dissatisfaction, even animosity towards the Commissioner. Still, I wouldn’t label it as criticism because critique implies serious assertions which the Prime Minister elect did now provide. I would just like to say that similar „critiques“ are nothing new. They have been around since the very establishment of the Commissioner’s office. Different political establishments have labelled me as „a person who jeopardises the country’s security“, „undermines its economic and financial system“ and is to be „blamed for everything“. This criticism is actually the best illustration of a phenomenon that has pervaded our political stage. When they are in opposition, our political parties are very sensitive to transparency and civil / human rights, as well as very supportive of the Commissioner’s activities. Once they come to power, all of this radically changes. While we are on the subject of the Prime Minister elect, I would just like to remind you that, out of all political parties, his party – the Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) – has filed the biggest number of complaints to the Commissioner by far and that the Commissioner has ruled in the party’s favour more than in any other case. As an opposition party, the SPP treated legal rights in a rational, legitimate, responsible and robust manner and was even promoting them. Once they came to power, everything changed. Regardless of all the obstacles, problems and obstructions, the Commissioner’s office has been growing stronger year-on-year. I belileve that other indepedent institutions that were formed after us will take have a similar trajectory.

A recent survey has shown that many citizens are completely politically clueless, and that quite a few of them have been repeated victims of populism and fans of authoritative leaders. When citizens approach the Commissioner’s office are they even aware of their rights and the ways to protect them?

— What you have described doesn’t happen only in Serbia but also in all transition countries to a higher or lesser degree. It is vitally important that we change this picture. Raising the awareness about civil rights and citizens’ readiness to use and fight for these rights is the right measure of quality of the transition. That’s why I think that the biggest success in implementing the Law on Free Access to the Information of Public Importance falsefoods in the fact that it is mostly the citizens who are exercising the rights guaranteed by this law.

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