The Harder the Fight, the Bigger the Value of Fighting It

Most of the investigative articles end up in the historical archive and a study about a dishonourable period

Saša Dragojlo

Being an investigative journalist even under perfect conditions and in the current era is a difficult and challenging job. Doing such work in Serbia and dealing with issues such as human and weapons trafficking and ties between the state authorities, the mafia and crime is nothing short of heroic. Saša Dragojlo is a role model and a source of pride for all honourable journalists and it was an extraordinary honour for us to speak with him. In this interview, he speaks about his profession, his current engagement and whether he is a little afraid of AI despite being known as a fearless journalist. 

We live in a time when journalists (media) create the truth, instead of searching for it and revealing it to the public. What is your view, as an investigative journalist, of modern journalism?

For me, journalism is reporting on reality in the public interest, giving a voice to the powerless, and a control mechanism in reining in the most powerful parts of society. In this sense, journalism is a dying species. The paradox of journalism is that it lives off advertisers and all kinds of financiers, which it should, at the same time, control and “call out”. That, unfortunately, is its structural position in the global capitalism we live in, where most serious journalistic organizations live on crumbs from donors. At the same time, due to the servile attitude towards corporate-political interests, the trust that ordinary people have in the media has declined. With the advent of social networks, people become victims of fake news, their own media illiteracy and the echo chamber of their own ego. These are two sides of the same coin – (p)redeemed quasi-media and layman narcissism of social networks. The system wants to turn journalism into more or less open PR, however, that is exactly the charm of being part of the journalistic calling nowadays. As soon as someone wants so much to remove you or reduce you to a harmless level, it means that you are on the right path and that you still have an extremely important role to play.

As soon as someone wants so much to remove you or reduce you to a harmless level, it means that you are on the right path and that you still have an extremely important role to play

How difficult it is to be an investigative journalist in Serbia? I assume that you have never been as busy as you are today, but I am wondering if it is possible to do it well and safely? 

Few newsrooms in Serbia do their work in a serious and quality manner. And they do it despite the stress of work, internal and external pressures and lack of money and time because let’s not forget – today speed and producing as many “products” as possible in as little time as possible are the only imperatives. Security is a complex topic. I think that local journalists are the most vulnerable because they are left at the mercy of the local bosses and their criminal helpers. Those of us who work in the media, who have contacts abroad and a global reputation among colleagues are doing better for now. The emphasis is on “for now”, because every government has its own violent phase when the power structure is falling apart, and everyone is hunting in the dark and grasping at the straw of salvation. That straw might as well be a weapon.

Threats to journalists and attacks on their property and lives do not happen only in Serbia. There are numerous examples of that even in the EU (Cyprus, Slovakia, Malta, the Netherlands, France…), but why is Serbia different in this regard?

Serbia’s peculiarity lies in the fact that the current regime is fundamentally important for the powerful in Euro-Atlantic circles and vice versa. Because of that stableocratic symbiosis, there have been no murders of journalists in Serbia for a long time. Still, journalist Milan Jovanović and his wife were almost burned alive. Also, investigative journalists were stalked, their apartments have been raided and tabloids have been engaged in constant satanization of journalists. Character and deed assassination is sometimes a much more effective means of elimination. Speaking of this topic, we should also wait to see what the final verdict will be in the case of Slavko Ćuruvija’s murder. The defendants were freed to defend themselves pending the final judgement. That’s very indicative.

Can we talk about the lack of media freedom in Serbia or is this, perhaps, a global phenomenon with local varieties?

The situation is very peculiar in Serbia because the current regime really does not tolerate any criticism. Controlling the narrative is one of their favourite activities. That is why they control the TV stations that have been assigned a national broadcasting frequency because that is what the majority of our long-suffering people watch. Of course, there are tabloids too – the cheapest and least demanding pile of paper with imprinted letters and pictures. Also, the meticulous persistence in monitoring every critical voice and the attempts to silence that voice have entered the realm of pathology.

You have been reporting a lot on migrants and have cooperated with the media and colleagues from the region on that topic. How neglected is this topic in Serbia? Why is so little known and talked about shootings and conflicts in and around Subotica?

Migrants are always marginalized. They are the most endangered category on the planet. They do not have a territory that they can consider their own, they are not in the system, they have no documents that show they belong somewhere and they are left to the chaos of fate ruled by violent smuggling gangs and corrupt policemen with a license to beat them. They are invisible and in order for them to become media news, there has to be a shooting. However, we are not talking about migrants shooting each other, but rather a cruel reckoning between smuggling gangs over work and territory, and in some cases also injured egos. It is not even important to talk about it too much, because it can bring xenophobic cacophony into the ether that will fuel the fire of the current situation. Professional reporting is needed, with respect for ethical codes and with the bigger picture in mind.

Our public is anaesthetized as a result of powerlessness, poverty and a deeply established hierarchy where the stronger one is the oppressor

However, the fact that the state of Serbia allowed a war between well-armed gangs on its own territory is proof of the deep corruption in which we are drowning. Serbia plays the role of EU border guard, while at the same time, also playing a double game – cooperating with smugglers, making money from the misfortune of others and creating an extremely dangerous situation on the border with Hungary.

Even with this kind of media image, Serbian society has many investigative journalists like you, but your voice is not heard far and loud enough. Is the public in Serbia deaf to the obvious problems facing our society or is it uninterested in them?

Two things are going on here. First, I think that many people are aware of the problem, however, our public is anaesthetized as a result of powerlessness, poverty and a deeply established hierarchy where the stronger one is oppressor and where justice is scarce. Our structural position in the global system put us in a semi-colonial state where our rulers are just another link in the chain of exploitation. After years of struggle, they realized that our political and economic situation will not improve no matter who is in power, if the system is not fundamentally changed. In this sense, it is rational for them to collaborate with the “winners”. Another thing is that a lot of information cannot reach the mainstream, because the major media outlets do not report on it. Serbian Broadcasting Corporation (RTS) never reports about the discoveries of the investigative media, while PINK TV brands investigative journalists as “traitors of the state”. Solidarity and values of the community (unless they are rooted in nationalism) were destroyed during the war and transition and everyone is an enemy to everyone in the market of interests. But we should not give up on the awakening of our people. The harder the fight, the bigger the value of fighting it.

Can you give us at least one example from your work, where your findings triggered an investigation or action by the competent authorities against the culprits, or are their activities limited only to actions against the journalists who discover it?

I am proud to report on the accident at the Milan Blagojević Company where two workers died in 2017. I wrote about it for years and made a documentary for Insider called “Humans and (In)Humans”. There has been plenty of published evidence that was used during trial, primarily the confidential report compiled by the Serbian Defence Ministry which shows that the state practically admitted its mistakes. Thanks primarily to the persistence of the Milivojević family, two factory managers were sentenced to 3 years in prison each. This is a rare example of someone being convicted in worker murder cases and I’m happy to have been a part of it. Of course, these results are not enough as most of my investigative articles end up in historical archives and are a study about a dishonourable period. State institutions are trapped and until the people working in those institutions wake up, we can hardly move forward.

What is your stance on using artificial intelligence in journalism? Is new technology a threat to our profession? Are we going to start seeing soon a footnote that says “This article was written by a human being”?

I think the use of AI is generally dangerous, even in our profession. And I am not saying that because of technology, but because of the ideological fabric of the world in which AI is created and perfected, a world in which corporations unscrupulously compete to see whose AI bot will be faster, stronger and better, without being concerned for the future and possible consequences. I think that regulating tech giants is basically a prerequisite for everything not to go to hell. Not just because of AI, but other things too. AI can be useful to journalists, but with the stage set like it is today, it can make them even more dull and irresponsible. Also, it can replace many. An AI bot can eliminate the media’s important intermediary role, as citizens will go directly through the bot to get information. We all know how often that information is inaccurate, misleading and can result in people becoming even more ignorant and have uncritical bias. There is certainly no need to worry about investigative journalists because AI cannot replace the persistence of digging for information on the ground, working with sources and establishing a relationship of trust with them. Also, it cannot spot holes in the documentation the way a quality journalist can. In this sense, AI as a tool YES, as a fetishism that sighs on the pedestal of human civilization – absolutely and resolutely, NO.

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