The International Press Institute (IPI) and its global network today express concern over the decision by a judge in Serbia to find the Crime and Corruption Investigative Network (KRIK) guilty of defamation over a report it published about evidence presented in court involving the country’s new Interior Minister.
IPI believes this ruling unjustifiably penalises the accurate publication of evidence presented in open trial, directly undermines the country’s Law on Public Information and Media and sets a dangerous precedent for court reporting and open justice in Serbia.
The basic verdict by judge Nataša Petričević Milisavljević was published by the Ministry of Justice on November 3. The judge sided with the country’s new Interior Minister and former chief of the Security Information Agency (BIA), Bratislav Gašić, who sued KRIK journalist Milica Vojinovic and its editor-in-chief Stevan Dojčinović.
The lawsuit had been initiated after KRIK published details of wiretapped conversations played as evidence during the trial of an alleged criminal gang leader in which Gasic’s name had been mentioned. The audio had been played in open court and the media outlet had followed the Serbian Code of Journalists by offering Gašić a chance to respond.
After first declining to comment before the article was published and rejecting an offer to talk to KRIK after the publication of the article, Gašić then filed a civil lawsuit in May 2021 and demanded 500,000 dinars (€4,250) over alleged damage to his reputation, which IPI and the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) condemned at the time.
Although four hearings were supposed to be held, only two sessions took place and the verdict was handed down in unusually quick time. Requests by KRIK for evidence from Gašić were rejected by the judge. Neither the justification provided for the decision nor the amount of damages to be paid have yet been made public.
The significance of this ruling and its potential implications on watchdog journalism in Serbia are extremely serious. This verdict penalizes KRIK for doing its job and providing accurate journalistic court reporting on a clear matter of public interest, in which all journalistic ethics were followed. This undermines the principle of open justice, violates the public’s right to information, and sends a chilling effect for other media reporting on allegations made during the presentation of evidence in court.
We join multiple Serbian journalist associations and media groups in expressing concern over the verdict and urging the judiciary to reconsider the case on appeal, taking into full effect international standards on freedom of expression.
More widely, IPI stresses its steadfast support for journalists and editors at Belgrade-based KRIK, which is currently facing a barrage of vexatious lawsuits from powerful politicians and business figures in response to its unflinching investigative reporting on crime and corruption.
KRIK is currently facing 11 separate vexatious civil and criminal lawsuits filed by a mixture of individuals including serving ministers, politicians and wealthy businesspeople – making them one of the media outlets most targeted by SLAPPs in the whole of Europe.
The high damages demanded by the plaintiffs in these cases far outstrip the news outlets annual budget and would bankrupt the platform. This pressure causes significant financial and psychological stress, undermines operational planning and creates a chilling effect.
IPI views the ongoing legal pressure, including the lawsuit filed by Gasic, as part of a coordinated effort to muzzle KRIK and suppress its investigative reporting. This provides a stark illustration for the need for the government to pass legislation, in line with EU recommendations, which would limit strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
Pressure on KRIK has not stopped at legal harassment. The homes of three of its staff were recently broken into, journalists have received death threats on social media, and pro-government media have subjected the media outlet to smear campaigns.
The safety and security of journalists in Serbia is of crucial concern. In recent months Serbian authorities, with the assistance of the Working Group for Security and Protection of Journalists, have made important progress on bringing those behind physical attacks on journalists to justice. More must now be done to tackle engrained cases of impunity and ensure that all journalists can work free from all forms of harassment.
IPI will continue to closely monitor this legal case and stand behind KRIK and its independent journalism.
This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.