WASHINGTON - Five years ago, Serbia’s Anti-Corruption Agency opened a money laundering investigation into Sinisa Mali, who was then mayor of the capital, Belgrade.
The Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) —a Serbian investigative journalism outlet — had reported on Mali’s alleged involvement in the purchase of 24 apartments on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in 2012 and 2013. But the mayor denied ownership, claiming his signature had been forged. A court ultimately ended up clearing Mali based on a lack of evidence.
Now, it’s KRIK’s turn.
The media outlet is among several investigative news organizations and reporters being targeted in a probe launched by the Finance Ministry and its minister — Mali, the ex-mayor.
On July 28, the Anti-Money Laundering Unit — which falls under the Finance Ministry — asked banks to provide transaction details dating back to January 2019 on 20 individuals and 37 non-governmental organizations as part of a sweeping inquiry into potential money laundering or terrorism financing.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic denied the probe is retaliation against critics, telling a press conference, “everyone should be equal before the law.”
But local journalists and rights groups questioned the Finance Ministry’s motive. Some said the probe appears to be an attempt to intimidate reporters and civil society groups who are holding powerful officials to account and another signal of rising hostility facing Serbia’s media.
Stevan Dojcinovic, an award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief at KRIK, said the inquiry is part of the government’s pressure on independent journalism.
"I am not surprised that we were on the list. We, as well as our colleagues, have been targeted for years by various government agencies used to pressure journalists," Dojcinovic told VOA.
Dojcinovic said the move was concerning because investigative journalists play a critical role in ensuring transparency and exposing government corruption, a chronic problem in Serbia.
Multiple investigative outlets in the region work to scrutinize the dealings of those in power and their handling of multi-million-dollar public contracts, among other accountability matters. Their exposes sometimes trigger official investigations, although convictions are rare.
In Mali’s case, for example, KRIK reported that companies he owned bought Bulgarian apartments through two offshore firms, and that Mali failed to report ownership as required.
When the Anti-Corruption Agency looked into the allegations it found Mali received large sums, including from an offshore company under his control. But prosecutors dismissed the case and said they saw no evidence of wrongdoing. KRIK said the prosecutor’s office declined to provide further justification for its decision.
Similarly, an official investigation into Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin’s purchase of a Belgrade home was dismissed in 2017 by the Prosecutor for Organized Crime, for lack of evidence. In that case, KRIK reported that Vulin failed to report bringing about $240,000 into the country. The law requires that foreign transactions of about $11,000 or more must be reported.
In another case, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) revealed in 2015 that the state-owned electric company had mismanaged a public contract bidding process for a $17 million contract to pump floodwater from a mine, leading to project delays and budget overruns.
Grist for reporting
In a June background document, the European Commission said Serbia has not done enough to fight corruption and organized crime, or to protect the media.
The commission in an earlier report said official corruption was prevalent and that, despite some improvement, “There is a need for strong political will to effectively address corruption issues, as well as a robust criminal justice response to high-level corruption.”
The report, part of the country’s Stabilization and Association Agreement as a candidate country for European Union membership, also described lack of progress on freedom of expression as a “serious concern” and reported an increase in political and economic pressure on journalists.
Dragana Zarkovic Obradovic, director of BIRN, which is also on the Anti-Money Laundering Unit target list, said the investigation appeared to be a way for the government to track the source of funding for journalists and NGOs, and how much money is granted.
Some of those on the target list told VOA that officials failed to provide a clear answer when asked about the basis for the investigation.
Serbia’s Ministry of Finance referred VOA to the Anti-Money Laundering Unit, which did not respond to an email requesting comment.
The ministry has denied in news reports that the money laundering probe is meant to criminalize the news media and other organizations. But it has not publicly given a reason for looking into the NGOs and news outlets.
"These are regular activities, not politically motivated," Mali told the privately owned media company Pink TV.
A statement from the Anti-Money Laundering Unit, carried by the state-run Tanjug news agency, said it has also investigated ministers and that non-governmental groups named for scrutiny should not be treated as “sacred cows.”
President Vucic said, "everyone should be equal before the law" and suggested those named for investigation were trying to profit from it.
“Let’s make noise about how endangered we are so we can get more money from donors,” Vucic said of the NGOs during a July 30 press conference. “That’s been the practice for 30 years.”
Erosion of rights
International human rights groups and media watchdogs have been criticized what they see as Vucic’s increasingly autocratic rule.
In its 2020 Freedom in the World Report, the U.S. monitoring group Freedom House said Vucic’s government had “steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations.”
Sofya Orlosky, program manager for Eurasia at Freedom House, told VOA that targeting rights groups and independent journalists on allegations of money laundering and financing terrorism has become a “common practice” for regimes in the region.
“By abusing the anti-money-laundering mechanism to intimidate civil society, the Serbian authorities show clear disregard for their own commitment to eradicating corruption," Orloski said. “Instead of threats, the authorities should engage in an honest dialogue."
The United States and the European Union each raised concerns.
A statement by the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade said the U.S. was ready to assist Serbia on its path toward EU membership.
"However, the impression that official Belgrade wants to suppress civil society or the freedom of the media will damage Serbia's reputation and make it more difficult to make progress toward this goal of great value," the statement said.
International rights groups, including Amnesty International, described the probe as an intimidation act.
In a statement, Amnesty said, “The targeting of journalists and NGOs on absurd allegations of money laundering and financing terror is a blatant act of intimidation and the latest in an ongoing campaign by Serbian authorities to silence critics.”
Meanwhile, journalists working for media organizations named in the money laundering inquiry say the pressure will only sharpen their focus.
“This government action will not make us question our resolve and purpose,” BIRN Director Zarkovic said. “We will continue to reveal government corruption and expose those involved.”
This article originated in VOA’s Serbian service.