“It became perfectly normal that politicians have criminals as friends”
D&C met Stevan Dojčinović Editor-in-Chief of KRIK at his office at the Crime and Corruption Research Network (KRIK). At the beginning of the interview, we talked about his recent research into the conversation between a drug lord and the foreign minister’s cabinet chief. Dojčinović, who has been following and investigating crime world for a long time explains in his text the position of criminals and politicians in our country.
“This is all connected to us and the rules of the Mafia are applied in politics,” Dojčinović says, adding: “It’s like in the movie Godfather. The point is that you get as many people involved in your work because when you involve them they are your co-workers and you can influence them. The government functions along this principle as well. The result of this all are citizens who are blackmailed and devoid of freedom. Basically, the line is already too blurred because the question is how many citizens and how many accomplices in this story one has. Many are victims, but they are already drawn in and blackmailed, without a point of return. It’s a one-way trip and a frequent occurrence at the local level. ”
His investigative work, or maybe something else, brought Dojčinović many awards and at the same time, he has been blacklisted by Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
How did you end up being blacklisted by certain countries? Did you find out the reason why you were deported from Abu Dhabi Airport?
— As far as being blacklisted by Russia goes, I have certain information. Their Federal Security Service sent me an official letter since I had insisted on it because the Russian Embassy and our government refused to tell me anything. In the letter, they state that I am considered “a threat to national security and public health” which is why I was blacklisted. Although I haven’t got a clue about how I can be a threat. It does sound incredible, doesn’t it? I put up their letter on my wall as a sort of diploma. The paradox of this story is that I have become the enemy No 1 in Russia although I have not worked there or did any investigative work. I visited Russia twice before but only to hold training sessions. Officially, my ban ends in April this year but I believe they are going to extend it so I don’t think that I will be travelling to Russia any time soon. It is still unclear to me why and how I ended up on this list; maybe, because I cooperate with The Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). They talked a lot about Russia and wrote about Putin’s hidden wealth. Maybe the reason is that we have donors from Western embassies or maybe some of our intelligence services were Russian informants and exaggerated the whole situation a little bit. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. This happened in 2015, but after that, I did not feel the pressure that similar destiny awaits me in other countries. I remembered that when I travelled to the Emirates, the country which is similar to Russia and has become a great friend of our government and participated in rather shady privatizations. Before travelling there, I gave a lot of thought to my safety. The UAE told me that I was blacklisted by another country which makes it an international case. The “other country” could be Russia or Serbia. I practically got a life-long ban from entering the UAE and I will probably never get to see Dubai. The question now is where I can travel and that poses a problem. I have to give it a serious thought before I travel anywhere because not only I am banned from entering certain countries, I also won’t be able to use their airports for layover flights.
Do you sometimes feel like you’ve been blacklisted in Serbia?
— All independent journalists are blacklisted – KRIK, BIRN, Cins, N1, Danas daily, Vreme magazine. Practically speaking, we all considered public enemy and our work is severely limited, unlike certain mainstream media outlets that are close to the authorities and all the doors are opened to them. One of the biggest problems and crucial things is that nobody will talk to us officially. We cannot get ministerial statements, which a tabloid can do within hours. The institutions do not respond to our invitations to interview them. Access to information is also problematic because the law does not protect us. We get fewer and fewer documents every year, so we no longer rely on that. They have completely tied our hands in work and we are forced to rely on unofficial sources. To prevent us from doing so, they started arresting our sources, as was the case with Aleksandar Obradović. The Security and Information Agency (BIA) follows us. They are dealing with us so severely and we are restricted from all sides. People are starting to get scared even when they are doing legal things. Over three years ago, we reported that we were threatened, but the prosecution office did nothing. The last threats I received were a week ago, and now I don’t even think about reporting that because I know nothing will come off it. Practically speaking, you cannot rely on state institutions to protect you, but, on the other hand, they are very efficient in attacking your work and the people you work with. Aleksandar Obradović, who is completely innocent, is the best example of this. He is rare inasmuch that, as our source, he had no ulterior motives. We went through hell and back only because he supplied journalists with certain information. I have to also say that a lot of media outlets censor themselves, rather than others doing that. That became very clear when Vučić came to power. He did not conquer media but media came to him overnight. He didn’t even have to lift a finger so these people cannot be considered victims.
How did the Obradović case affect your work? Do you now hear more from people who have information for you or is the fear now even greater?
— People come to me now more than ever. I can not even remember when was the last time I was contacted so much. Last year was very troublesome. Nobody came forward, nobody wanted to talk to us. People were really scared. Now, they are mustering up the courage. Obradović was destroyed, but he emerged as a hero. That gave an incentive to people for more of them to come forward. The entire case gave people courage. Last time I felt that was during the protests. The question now is how long is it going to last. I think that it will last for several months until the election and then when the current powers-to-be, win the election, people will fall back into depression and apathy. People always give up after the election. I don’t think that being scared of the people in power is the crucial thing here; it’s more like people becoming discouraged when they see the reactions from their fellow countrymen. Wherever you go, you can see that people are not interested in that and it makes you wonder what is going on with them. That’s soul-destroying.
How come they did not destroy your soul completely because everything that you have been saying sounds like Don Quixote tilting at the windmills?
— As for us, we will get the job done. It is quite painful to be on the right side and yet you are working as a prosecutor. You feel like your hands are tied. It is historically important that we publish evidence-based stories that we have recorded. After a while, someone may be able to unravel these things. The important thing is that they are preserved and that they exist. In the future, I believe that people will realize their importance. I would like to use the Savamala affair as an example, and a guard, who is no longer alive, but his testimony was recorded. The police, however, were under a lot of pressure from the media to conduct an investigation and open a case. At least this case was formally instituted, and if it weren’t for journalists, even that would not have happened. I’m just so sad when I see how people in Serbia do not perceive crime and corruption in the right way because they are the two biggest plagues of our society. No-one sees a big picture but rather criminals are glorified in our country. No-one perceives this as a problem. We may have been a little more conscious when Djindjić was killed, but the proverbial “monster” is now back. You have criminals in institutions, in the media, in reality shows, everywhere. I would like to see a country where the ties between politics and mafia have been uncovered, and yet their ministers remained in their positions. Let’s compare ourselves to Europe instead. Cases like this are dealt with even in South America and people have resigned because those are the rules of engagement. We have a complete absence of this. We have published so many good stories that no-one even cares about. The question remains of how strong our stories will be in the future because they are becoming feebler by the day, as is journalism. People are less and less interested in it. The rule is that if you are caught, the story is over. This government has destroyed all the rules that first existed in the media, then in politics. They abolished dialogue, they have no morals, they forge documents. The moment will come when we won’t be able to discern between true and fake because everything is being faked now. They are more than willing to create a parallel reality. The question remains whether we will be able to restore democracy after them.
Many people claim that foreign factors are crucial in establishing and maintaining democracy in our country. What do you think?
— It is clear that the Western Embassies and the European Union see Vučić as an ally. That’s part of the problem because they are too soft on him in their reports in terms of upholding the EU values and human rights. Everyone will tell you this. I think, however, that the foreign embassies are being criticized too much because they have to work with the person who was elected. And, of course, everyone is trying to shift the blame onto someone else.
Serbian or global problem?
You recently received the Knight International Journalism Award from the International Press Center (ICFJ) for reporting that has had a significant impact on society. In your speech, you said that Serbia could serve as an example for understanding how dictators were destroying democracy.
— There is an increasing number of countries in which villains and populists have come to power and want to dismantle the whole system. Some countries had well-built institutions to a bigger and some to a smaller degree. And that is crucial for how fast they fall apart. The question is where will all this end, as the tide of these characters just keeps on coming. Some of the steps Trump wants to make in America have already been done here, with the only difference that the US is a serious country, unlike Serbia. The point is they have institutions that resist. What Trump is doing is very similar to what has been happening here but the difference is that they can do these things in three days if they really wanted to. Trump is fighting, but the institutions are putting up a resistance against him and hampering him because the police, the prosecution and the judiciary are all doing their job. This is a very deep issue.